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