Female runner looking determined

What is Mental Toughness?

Unpacking the most overused term in sports

By on June 12, 2019

Coaches and sports commentators frequently espouse the importance of mental toughness in competitive athletes. But what exactly are they talking about?

Having become a sort of default explanation for any victory in challenging situations, mental toughness has been criticized as “one of the most used but least understood terms in applied sport psychology” (Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2002).

In this article, I aim to bring some conceptual clarity to this topic by reviewing the various ways that mental toughness has been defined and measured in the research literature.  I then weigh the empirical evidence on the question of whether mental toughness is useful as a predictive variable for high achievement.

In Search of Rigor

Mental toughness made its sports debut in the mid-1980s with the early work of Jim Loehr, who defined it rather loosely as “the ability to consistently perform towards the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”  

As the mental toughness concept increased in popularity, researchers began questioning its scientific merit and pushing for the development of an operational definition so that mental toughness could be quantified and studied using the tools of science.

The 4 C’s

The first scientifically grounded attempt at defining and measuring mental toughness was provided by Clough, Earle, and Sewell (2002). Piggybacking off of the already well-established concept of “hardiness” (with its 3 components of control, challenge, and commitment), Clough and colleagues added a 4th component of confidence, which they felt was essential to the notion of mental toughness.

The result was their 4 C model of mental toughness:

Control: Sense of personal responsibility for life circumstances and regulation of emotions.

Mentally tough people do not externalize blame or credit.  They are able to identify and focus on the things that are under their control and don’t waste time worrying or complaining about things outside of their control.

Commitment: Strong internal drive to succeed and relentless pursuit of goals.

Mentally tough people have a quality called “sticktoitiveness” – a dogged perseverance in achieving the goals that they have set for themselves despite setbacks and occasional failures.   

Confidence: Deeply ingrained belief in one’s ability and comfort asserting oneself interpersonally

Mentally tough people do not shy away from the spotlight.  They have an “unshakeable” belief that they will ultimately succeed that is unperturbed by challenges, adversity, or even defeat.

Challenge: Willingness to push boundaries, accept risks, and learn from mistakes and failures.

Mentally tough people love to be challenged.  They have an opportunity mindset, meaning that they tend to view pressure situations as exciting opportunities rather than debilitating threats.  

The widespread use of the 4C model is due in large part to the efforts of its developers in extending its scope of application beyond sports and into the domains of education, business, and the military.  The 4C model also enjoys a prominent role in health psychology, where mental toughness is seen as an important moderator between stress and illness.

A Word from the Experts

In the sports setting, several research groups have adopted a more “subjective” approach to defining mental toughness, choosing to rely on the collective wisdom of elite athletes, coaches, and sport psychologists.

In their article titled What is this Thing Called Mental Toughness?, Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton (2002) aggregated input from 10 international-level athletes and came up with:

“Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: Generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on the performer.  Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.”

This definition has been criticized for its emphasis on being “better than opponents” and thus describing a relative rather than an absolute notion of mental toughness.  Nevertheless, it set the stage for nearly two decades of research during which numerous alternative definitions have been put forward, each promising to be the one that unites the field.  

The 2 R’s

One thing that all research groups seem to agree on is that mental toughness comprises a number of interrelated psychological factors that help an individual deal effectively with challenges, stressors, and pressure” (Clough & Strycharczyk, 2012).

Although the different research groups cannot see eye to eye on a definitive collection of factors, there is substantial overlap on at least a couple of factors.  These are:

robust self-confidence: a durable conviction in one’s ability to succeed

resilience: an ability to recover quickly following adversity, defeat, or injury

This 2-factor model can be reconciled with the 4C’s above if control and commitment are considered subfactors of resilience while confidence and challenge are subsumed under robust self-confidence, as in the graphic below:

Thus, if remembering all 4 components of the 4C model exceeds your working memory capacity, you can simplify it down to only two!

Measuring Mental Toughness

How do you know how mentally tough you are?  Good question.

As a natural corollary to the conceptual confusion described above, measurement of the mental toughness construct has not been consistent across studies.  There are seemingly just as many measurement instruments floating around out there as there are definitions. Here are a few of them in chronological order:

  • Psychological Performance Inventory (PPI; Loehr, 1986)
  • Mental Toughness Questionnaire 48 (MTQ48, based on 4C’s model; Clough, Earle, & Sewell, 2002)
  • Mental Toughness Inventory (MTI; Middleton, Marsh, Martin, Richards, & Perry, 2004)
  • Sports Mental Toughness Questionnaire (SMTQ; Sheard, Golby, & Wersch, 2009)
  • Mental Toughness Scale (MTS, geared toward college athletes; Madrigal, Hamill, & Gill, 2013)

Eenie meenie miney mo… Take your pick.  Although each scale often comes with a persuasive discussion of the theoretical rationale for its development, none has achieved gold-standard status and all suffer from equivocal findings with respect to their psychometric properties (validity and reliability).  Accordingly, there is no real basis upon which to recommend one measure over any other.

Mental Toughness and Performance

If you are willing to suspend your (well-placed) skepticism for a moment and disregard the unstable foundation upon which mental toughness research rests, we can explore the evidence for whether it (whatever “it” is) can be considered a useful construct for predicting differences in performance.  We will discuss the quantitative (statistical) and qualitative (descriptive) evidence separately. 

In a 2017 review of 19 quantitative studies from 2007-2016 relating mental toughness to competitive standard, performance, and achievement, Richard Cowden found that the results collectively “support the commonly held belief that mentally tougher athletes tend to be more successful” as “88% of relevant studies found athletes with higher levels of mental toughness tend to achieve more or perform better.” 

Qualitative studies have provided additional support for the role of mental toughness in performance, particularly during critical moments.  For example, choke-prone elite golfers identified low mental toughness as an important feature of their choking episodes  (Hill et al, 2010) and four applied sport psychologists with experience at the elite level agreed that mental toughness not only reduces susceptibility to choking, but also increases the odds of recovering optimal performance after a choke has occurred (Hill et al, 2009)

Although these results suggest that perhaps there is a there there when it comes to mental toughness research, the whole enterprise has come under attack as a biased social construct that reeks of elitism and stereotypical masculinity.  Several studies have indeed found significant differences across gender and competitive status – with more accomplished male athletes tending to rate higher in mental toughness .  Some critics have gone as far as to argue that mental toughness is nothing more than a romanticized ideal that reinforces the pathologically macho culture of competitive sport (see Caddick & Ryall, 2012).  

Summary

“Mentally tough” has become the go-to phrase to describe the successful athlete or performer.  But ask someone what they mean by mental toughness, and you are bound to hear a fuzzy description that might include just about any positive psychological attribute imaginable.  From an empirical perspective, this “everything but the kitchen sink” notion is problematic because it does not allow for standardization and scientific analysis.

In this article, I reviewed several attempts by researchers to bring scientific rigor to the mental toughness concept.  Given that no consensus definition has been reached, the best we can do at this point is look at the overlap between the most widely used definitions.  What emerges is a two-factor conceptualization in which mental toughness is considered a combination of robust self-confidence and resilience.

It is clear, however, that several issues regarding conceptualization, measurement, utility, and diversity need to be addressed before mental toughness research can be said to rest on a firm scientific foundation.

Yet another important unsettled debate involves the proverbial nature-nurture question: Are some people just born with more mental toughness or is it something that can be developed through training?  In my next article, I will address this question by doing what I always do – looking at the evidence, if any exists, for training techniques designed to enhance mental toughness.

With you in the pursuit,

Dr. Dave

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

References and Suggested Reading

What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers, by Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2002

Developing Mental Toughness, by Clough & Strycharczyk, 2012

Mental Toughness and Success in Sport: A Review and Prospect, by R. Cowden, 2017

Mental Toughness: Progress and Prospects, by D. Gucciardi, 2017

A Qualitative Exploration of Choking in Elite Golf, by Hill, Hanton, Matthews, & Fleming, 2010

A Re-examination of Choking in Sport, by Hill, Hanton, and Fleming, 2009

Mental Toughness in Sport: Achievement Level, Gender, Age, Experience, and Sport Type Differences, by Nichols, Polman, Levy, & Backhouse, 2009

The Social Construction of Mental Toughness, by Caddick and Ryall, 2012

Dr. Dave Schroerlucke is a mental performance expert helping individuals and teams develop the attitudes, habits, and mental skills that promote optimal performance, particularly within the context of competitive or high-stakes environments. Dr. Dave shares his expertise via blogging, individual coaching, team workshops, and speaking engagements.