Mental Toughness 5 – How Can It Be Developed?

“I failed over and over, that is why I succeed”

Michael Jordan, who missed 9000 shots including 26 game winning shots, and lost 300 games on the way to becoming a 6 times NBA World Champion.

In this final piece on the subject, having defined mental toughness and why it is important in cricket, we finish the series by determining what the player, the coach and the parent can do to aid the development of mental toughness in young cricketers.

What can the player do?

Let’s start by reminding ourselves of Jones et al.’s definition of mental toughness:

Definition: Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to:

Generally cope better than your opponents with the many demands (e.g., competition, training, lifestyle) that are placed on you as a performer

Specifically, to be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, resilient, and in control under pressure.(Jones et al, 2002)

Key psychological characteristics associated with mentally tough elite athletes – again Jones et al (2002):

• Self-Belief: Having an unshakable belief in your ability to achieve competition goals

• Motivation: Having an insatiable desire and internalized motivation to succeed (you really got to want it)

• Ability to bounce back from performance setbacks with increased determination to succeed.

• Focus: Remain fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions Able to switch focus on and off as required

• Composure/Handling Pressure:

• Able to regain psychological control following unexpected events or distractions

• Thriving on the pressure of competition (embracing pressure, stepping into the moment)

What can the Athlete Do to achieve these characteristics?

Take control of your own development.  Be the boss of you, control the controlables. If you feel you are weak in a certain area take the responsibility yourself to address the issue.  Be honest in your assessment of your abilities and actively seek out help.

Set effective goals. Set yourself SMART goals. Specific Measurable Achievable Relevant and Timed. Break down these goals so that frequent achievement of smaller goals will provide you with positive feedback.  Review your goals regularly, do not be afraid to change them in the face of changing circumstances, Do not linger unduly on unachieved goals or beat yourself up about not achieving them.

Take control of your internal dialogue. Positively intervene in your own internal dialogue to counter negative thoughts. Visualize yourself performing the way you want to perform. Program your mind for success ahead of time. Expect the best from yourself; affirm what it is you are going to do to be successful.

Practice visualization techniques to imagine successful outcomes. Sit alone in a dark, quiet room, close your eyes, and visualize positive outcomes as clearly as you can, for example, scoring a hundred or taking five wickets in your next game. Over time, your ability to vividly visualize will improve, leading to increased self-confidence.

Bounce back from set-backs. Work harder on your mental training when things aren’t going well. This is especially important specially when injuries prevent you from physical training or playing.

Develop Routine Behaviors. Develop a system. A pre-game routine that turns on the desired mental and emotional state.

• Practice – commit to giving everything you have throughout the practice session.

• During Competition – make an explicit commitment to being mentally tough, and a great competitor.

Be Poised and Composed: If you make a mistake don’t sweat it. Learn how to let go of mistakes quickly if things don’t go well.  Don’t beat yourself up.

Learn to adapt. Key part of toughness is about compensating, adjusting, and trusting

• If plan A does not work, go to plan B or C

• Use “Focal Points” to help focus attention on what needs to be done.

• Don’t allow frustration to undermine your confidence/focus

Look on failure as a stepping stone to future achievement:

Play to win do not fear making mistakes

If you focus on the process of competing well, winning will take care of itself

 What Coaches and Parents Can Do

  • Create an environment where mental toughness can grow.  You can’t ‘teach’ mental toughness as such, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t create an environment where mental toughness can be nurtured and grown.  Look at the earlier posts in this series (in particular, the ‘cricket specific mental-toughness framework’) for details of how what that environment would look and feel like.
  • Rather than seek to grow self-confidence in the player, concentrate on supporting the self-confidence that is already there.
  • Give them the opportunity to take responsibility for their own development.  Don’t smother them.
  • Make sure they spend at least one season a long way from home.
  • Don’t send them to private school.  Mental toughness is a product of environment.  Looking at the toughest England cricketers of recent times, Close, Illingworth, Boycott, Gooch, Botham, Collingwood, – pretty much the only thing they have in common is a state education.



Jones, J.G., Hanton, S., Connaughton, D. (2002) ‘What is This Thing Called Mental Toughness?’Journal of Applied Sports Psychology, 14, 205-218

 Loehr, J.E. (1995) ‘The New Toughness Training For Sports’. New York Penguin

Bull, S.J., Shambrook, C.J., James, W., Brooks, J.E. (2005) ‘Towards an Understanding of Mental Toughness in Elite English Cricketers’ Journal of Applied Sports Psychology, 17:209-227

Mental Toughness 1 – What Is It Exactly?

There seems to be almost as many definitions of mental toughness as there have been researchers in the field of sports psychology. It would appear to be one of the most used and abused terms in the entire field of psychiatry.

Looking through the research (of which there is an Everest-sized mountain) we can find the following given definitions…

1.“The ability to cope with pressure, stress, and adversity” (Goldberg, 1998; Gould, Hodge, Peterson, & Petlichkoff, 1987; Williams, 1988);

2.“The ability to overcome or rebound from failures” (Dennis, 1981; Goldberg, 1998; Gould et al., 1987; Taylor, 1989; Tutko & Richards, 1976; Woods, Hocton, & Desmond, 1995);

3.“The ability to persist or a refusal to quit” (Dennis, 1981; Goldberg, 1998; Gould et al., 1987);

4.“An insensitivity or resilience” (Alderman, 1974; Goldberg, 1998; Tutko & Richards, 1976);

5. “The possession of superior mental skills” (Bull et al., 1996; Loehr, 1982, 1995).

6. Loehr (1982), suggested that mentally tough athletes have developed two skills; first, the ability to use energy positively in a crisis, and second, to think in specific ways which gives them the right attitudes to cope with pressure and competition.

To complicate matters further, mental toughness has also been described both as a personality trait (Werner, 1960; Werner & Gottheil, 1966; Kroll, 1967) and a state of mind (Gibson, 1998).

So we can say that pretty much any positive mental ability associated with sport has been characterized by someone as mental toughness at some stage. However reading through these definitions we can see a common theme emerging in mental toughness being associated with an athlete’s ability to cope with stress and anxiety of high pressure competitive situations.

So is mental toughness, something you are born with? Or is a product of your experiences? (The old nature or nurture debate), or is it something that can be learned? Or perhaps something that can be switched on and off at will? Can you learn to be mentally tough?

In an attempt to answer some of these questions Graham Jones of the University of Wales, and Sheldon Hanton, and Declan Connaughton of the University of Wales Institute designed a qualitative study of ten international athletes (none of whom were cricketers I should point out), to determine their attitudes and beliefs in this area.  (Graham Jones et al, 2002)

The study was divided into three phases, a group brainstorming session, in-depth individual interviews and a session where the athletes were asked to rank various attributes in order of importance. The results gave a clear (if somewhat unromantic) definition of mental toughness;

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 a performer.
  • Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.

The subjects were also asked to develop a ranking of what they considered key attributes of mental toughness; here they are in descending order of importance;

1: Having an unshakable self-belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals.

2. Bouncing back from performance setbacks as a result of increased determination to succeed.

3: Having an unshakable self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents.

4=: Having an insatiable desire and internalized motives to succeed.

4=: Remaining fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition- specific distractions

6: Regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events.

7: Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain, while still maintaining technique and effort under distress in training and competition.

8: Accepting that competition anxiety is inevitable and knowing that you can cope with it.

9=: Not being adversely affected by others’ good and bad performances.

9=: Thriving on the pressure of competition.

11: Remaining fully focused in the face of personal life distractions.

12: Switching a sport focus on and off as required.

So we have a definition that emphasizes coping mechanisms that allow you to deal better with distractions and stress, and allows you to be better focused, confident, determined and in control when placed under stress.

The key attributes that allow you to develop mental toughness emphasize resilience, focus, “unshakeable self-belief” and an “insatiable desire to succeed”.

So now we have a handle on what mental toughness is, we can go on to look at it in a cricket specific setting, and see how toughness can be developed in aspiring young cricketers.


i. Gould, D., Hodge, K., Peterson, K., & Petlichkoff, L. (1987). Psychological foundations of coaching: similarities and differences among intercollegiate wrestling coaches. The Sport Psychologist, 1, 293–308.

ii. Dennis, P. W. (1981). Mental toughness and the athlete. Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, 7, 37–40.

iii. Goldberg, A. S. (1998). Sports slump busting: 10 steps to mental toughness and peak performance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

iv. Williams, M. H. (1998). The ergogenics edge: pushing the limits of sports performance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

v. Williams, R. M. (1988). The U.S. open character test: Good strokes help. But the most individualistic of sports is ultimately a mental game. Psychology-Today, 22, 60-62.

vi. Dennis, P. W. (1981). Mental toughness and the athlete. Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, 7, 37–40.

vii. Taylor, J. (1989). Mental toughness (Part 2): A simple reminder may be all you need. Sport Talk, 18, 2–3.

viii. Tutko, T. A., & Richards, J. W. (1976). Psychology of coaching. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

ix. Woods, R., Hocton, M., & Desmond, R. (1995). Coaching tennis successfully. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

xi. Alderman, R. B. (1974). Psychological behavior in sport. Toronto: W.B. Saunders Company.

xii. Bull, S. J., Albinson, J. G., & Shambrook, C. J. (1996). The mental game plan: Getting psyched for sport. Eastbourne, UK: Sports Dynamics.

xiii. Loehr, J. E. (1982). Athletic excellence: Mental toughness training for sports. New York: Plume.

xiv. Loehr, J. E. (1995). The new toughness training for sports. New York: Plume.

xv. Werner, A. C. (1960). Physical education and the development of leadership characteristics of cadets at the U.S. military academy. Microcard Psychology, 132. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Springfield College, MA.

xvi. Werner, A. C., & Gottheil, E. (1966). Personality development and participation in collegiate athletics. Research Quarterly, 37, 126–131.

xvii. Kroll, W. (1967). Sixteen personality factor profiles of collegiate wrestlers. Research Quarterly, 38, 49–57.

xviii Gibson, A. (1998). Mental toughness. New York: Vantage Press.

ixx. Graham Jones (2002): What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14:3, 205-218