Mental Toughness: The Key to Athletic Success

Ironman finisher (c/o Norton Healthcare)While genetics has shown to play a role in athletic ability, psychological factors should not be discounted. Grit, optimism, resilience, and perseverance are just a few factors that separate elite athletes from non-elite athletes. In sport, perhaps the most defying characteristic of an elite athlete is their level of mental toughness. Mental toughness refers to an athlete’s ability to persist in the face of challenges, mistakes, and failure. In sport, mental toughness is necessary in order to play at the elite level; factors influencing the extent, include self-determined motivation, environmental and surrounding factors, along with other personal forces such as persistence and optimistic thinking. These factors that drive the scale of mental toughness must be taught in a positive manner by coaches beginning at a young age to help fully develop young athletes.

Mental toughness (MT) has been positively influential to success in athletes and also has promoted adaptive mental health functioning, well-being, and incidents of lower stress levels, depression, and an increase in the quality of sleep (Cowden et al., 2019). When evaluating athletes, most non-elite players only mentally train themselves when they’re in a negative state of mind, however, implementing mental training into day-to-day life can be beneficial. Cowden et al. (2019) focused on the key characteristics of MT as self-determined motivation in addition to a sense of perfectionism. The review implies that athletes who have higher personal standards of perfectionism, sustain more autonomous forms of motivation due to the efforts they face to develop mental toughness.  The self determination theory concerns human motivation and a personality that relates to ones inherent growth tendencies as well as the psychological needs, without the concern of external influences. The theory has been applied to the study of perfectionism and shows that motivation is represented by the continuum of motivational subtypes (Cowden et al., 2019). These subtypes reflect the extent to which internalization occurs of basic psychological needs. The article presents that MT is composed of many internal conflicts that can be developed through naturally occurring interactions with the environment and targeted interventions.

When focusing on the motivational antecedents and associations with performance and psychological health, Mahoney et al. (2014) concluded that autonomy supportive environments had a positive association with psychological needs satisfaction. In other words, autonomous supportive evidence allowed for a more successful environment for athletes to develop a greater sense of mental toughness. In the review, the primary focus revolves around the idea that mental toughness is a multidimensional concept. The capacity of mental toughness consists of several personal characteristics such as self-confidence, optimistic thinking and buoyancy (Mahoney et al., 2014). A positive association between mental toughness and psychological needs satisfaction was shown in the review based on race times of track athletes.

A second review by Mahoney et al. (2014) focuses on the perspectives of adolescents pertaining to mental toughness and its development. The research that was conducted allowed the young students to fill out personal forces and resources that create success in sport. Researchers found nine emerging characteristics from the data including forces such as persistence, drive, high self-expectations and resources such as self-belief and optimistic thinking (Mahoney et al., 2014). The review emphasizes the importance of an individuals’ immediate and surrounding environments due the insight that they contribute to mental toughness. Since the review focuses on adolescents, the authors also included that the time of a critical incident in sport was important to the development of MT. Positive and negative events both contribute to the level of mental toughness one has, but other personal factors including a curious disposition determine how much the failures and setbacks contribute to an athlete’s development. In youth sports it is essential that coaches provide a proper environment for their athletes to grow physically and psychologically.

For coaches, it can be difficult when teaching the concept of mental toughness to players, however, Weinberg et al. (2016) provides a good foundation of how coaches can implement the development of mental toughness. The first subsection that the author points out for a coach, is being mindful of how they think about their athletes; being critical but encouraging and educating themselves and their staff. Another section involves being mindful in what to do, which can be done through creating adversity, fostering autonomy, and seeing athletes as individuals. Adversity can allow athletes to make mistakes in practice and learn from those mistakes for games (Weinberg et al., 2016). Ultimately, the review suggests that coaches attempt to build simple mental skills such as coping strategies, imagery, and relaxation.

After thorough review of the peer-review articles, I think that coaches should be implementing mental training programs into their regular schedules. By developing good habits for their athletes, coaches can set end goals and keep athletes motivated through commitment. Coaches should also implement autonomous environments where their athletes can be stay motivated. Mental toughness can be developed throughout all ages and should be consistently practiced. The importance of mental training can be the difference in an elite-athlete versus a non-elite athlete. By implementing mental training programs in youth sports, athletes will be prepared to persist in the face of adversity.


Cowden RG, Crust L, Jackman PC, Duckett TR. Perfectionism and motivation in sport: The mediating role of mental toughness. S Afr J Sci. 2019;115(1/2), Art. #5271, 7 pages. sajs.2019/5271.

Mahoney, J. W., Gucciardi, D. F., Ntoumanis, N., & Mallet, C. J. (2014). Mental Toughness in Sport: Motivational Antecedents and Associations With Performance and Psychological Health. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology36(3), 281–292.

Mahoney, J. W., Mallett, C. J., Gucciardi, D. F., & Ntoumanis, N. (2014). Adolescent performers’ perspectives on mental toughness and its development: the utility of the bioecological model. Sport Psychologist28(3), 233–244.

Sharp, L.-A., Woodcock, C., Holland, M. J. G., Cumming, J., & Duda, J. L. (2013). A Qualitative Evaluation of the Effectiveness of a Mental Skills Training Program for Youth Athletes. Sport Psychologist27(3), 219–232.

Simonsmeier, B. A., & Buecker, S. (2017). Interrelations of Imagery Use, Imagery Ability, and Performance in Young Athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology29(1), 32–43.

Weinberg, R., Freysinger, V., Mellano, K., & Brookhouse, E. (2016). Building mental toughness: perceptions of sport psychologists. The Sport Psychologist30(3), 231–241.