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Posted 02/14/2021 in Category 1

Developing mental toughness among athletes

Developing mental toughness among athletes

We, as coaches, athletes, and sport psychologists use lots of terms to describe athletes. One term we use is mental toughness. This term is used to capture what we see athletes doing, or appear to be doing in their sport. We might see an athlete being competitive, committed, motivated, coping, concentrating, and persisting. All of these attributes can be seen in athletes if we know what we are looking for within the athlete. For example, what does competitive look like? What does committed look like? What does coping look like? So we might be watching behaviours in a football match or behaviours in a swimming gala or behaviours on a running track and we might determine from these actions what it means to be mentally tough. 

The 4 C's of Mental Toughness

Of course these interpretations are subjective. Do we know what competitive looks like in swimming? Do we know what focus looks like in archery?  The one common denominator with mental toughness is that athletes appear to be doing something over and over again, trying to do that thing better. Doing something better than before reflects learning. In Crust and Clough’s paper, we see a table of components all beginning with the letter C. These are control, challenge, commitment and confidence. Like we mentioned before, these characteristics exist in our minds only but we can see behaviours that map to them. 

  • Control - Training with distractions 
  • Challenge - New challenges in training
  • Commitment - Setting and achieving goals
  • Confidence - Facing and managing challenging events 

So how might we combine the four C’s here to develop mental toughness during training at each training session across the year. Perhaps mental toughness is seeing these components and working with them to develop them incrementally in your sport. It might be that there are plateaus, times of rise and times of fall. We need to begin with the end in mind and realise that we are moving in the right direction even when we don’t feel that we are doing so. With a general plan, updated weekly, we can keep moving ourselves towards success. 

For a coach or athlete, we need a collaborative space to acknowledge how preparing our kit, eating well, resting well, traveling to training, playing our part in training and reviewing our processes is all part of our development. Along the way, we can incorporate all recognise when we are displaying control, challenge, commitment and confidence. We can see commitment in preparing our equipment; we can see challenge in trying a skill with a less practiced foot; we can see control when we listen to our coach’s advice, we can see confidence when we set up a diet of success to keep improving. 

Perhaps what happens is that we see mental toughness as a mansion and we look at what we have around us and all we see is bricks and mortar, planks of timber, plasterboard, roof tiles and electric cables. The clever part is putting these pieces together to build the mansion in your mind. A sport psychologist could help you to create that mansion in your mind and then you could maintain it thereafter. Now is the time to put things in our mind into things we can physically see – like that athlete who listens; like the athlete who keeps practising; like the athlete who seeks new challenges; like the athlete who sets goals to achieve them.


Crust, L. & P. J. Clough (2011) Developing mental toughness: From research to practice, Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 2:1, 21-32, DOI: 10.1080/21520704.2011.563436

Image by David Mark from Pixabay