Thoughts on Mental Toughness

In an article written by Olympic track coach Henk Kraaijenhof writes on his thoughts about mental toughness.

After reading it several times, I couldn’t help but think about the subject for the rest of the day. 

The idea of “mental toughness” is something that as an ex-athlete, sport coach and physical preparation coach, I have heard about all of my life with varying examples from the sports world to the real world.  From my experiences in the sports world, the term is always been synonymous with an acute event and or physical strain; “toughing it out”,  “fighting through it.”  Fighting through a tough point, or make a big catch in a game, or hit a game winning shot, or make a big hit in a big situation, are all phrases and examples that coaches use when demonstrating their point on mental toughness.

In his article, Henk makes a great point about what he feels attributes creating mental toughness:

•    Genetic make-up, (warrior or worrier)

•    Upbringing and education (your family surroundings in the first years of your life)

•    Practice and training: preparing for a wide range of situations and having the self-confidence to handle those situations appropriately

•    Experience: the perception of having handled adequately in previous situations,

In my opinion, there is an aspect of mental toughness that rarely gets talked about amongst coaches.  I believe that mental toughness lies in those that are willing to do what they NEED to do, rather than what they WANT to do.  Having the ability to do what NEEDS to be done, and sticking to the process even when our WANTS don’t want us too.    A single mother that works two jobs just to provide for her children, to me that is mental toughness.  The father that has to commute 2-3 hours each way, every day for work just so that his children can stay in the school district that they want and the house that they want to live in; he has mental toughness. 


A Process is – “a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.”


I truly believe the ability to stick to a process and do what needs to be done so that they do not deviate out side of the process of achieving their goals/dreams.  For some, it is hard to see the forest through the trees.  I believe that the ability of a person to stick to their long commitment regardless of how they feel, takes a lot of mental toughness.  I WANT to stay in bed and sleep, when I NEED to get up, make a healthy breakfast and start my day.  I WANT to hang out with my friends, but I NEED to go train.  I WANT to get practice/training over as soon as possible, but I NEED to do some extra work to get better.  I WANT to stay up late and party, but I NEED to get my sleep.  I WANT to eat pizza and drink soda, but I NEED to make dinner and eat healthy.  I WANT to play video games, but I NEED to turn off the TV and study.

The best example that I have of commitment and sticking to a process comes from when I first started coaching a high school football team 4 years ago at a school in Central New York, they had had previous records had been 1-7 losing seasons for 8 straight years.  Among many things, the athletes in the football program were by football coach’s definitions considered “mentally weak.”   In our first season, that mentally weak team went 3-6.  After a full offseason of training (9 months) and development with the team, the team went 9-0, and the following season the team went 10-1.  So what changed?  How did a football program after 9+ straight losing seasons all of a sudden become the best in their division and in their area?  Don’t get me wrong, there are several factors that went into this turn around, however the overall majority of the athletes on in the program bought into the system we were running, along with our offseason workout program.  It wasn’t hard to be “mentally tough” when we were winning games by difference of 5-6 touchdowns.  Moral of the story, they were prepared for tough situations because they stuck to the process and put their own needs and the teams NEEDS before their selfish WANTS. 

To quote one of the greatest sport scientists the world has ever known, "The most frequent coaching error is when he strives to obtain an increase in the athletes physical fitness level as soon as possible; increasing the training loads volume. However, "nine pregnant women together cannot assure the baby's birth after one month."   Although Dr. Verkshoshanskys quote is meant to explain the problem with too much volume, his example still holds true with the idea of not rushing a process. 

            The sports training process is exactly that…it’s a process!!!  Just as pregnancy is a long process.  Just like schooling and education is a long process.  Just as the maturation process IS A PROCESS.  There are a series of steps and actions that must be done over time to achieve a particular end goal. 

It is not always easy to stick with something that takes a lot of time and effort to finally reach a goal.  Too me, an aspect of mental toughness that I truly believe in and look for in athletes is the ability to stick to a process and do what needs to be done so that they do not deviate out side of the process of achieving their goals.