© Daniel Tengs/Red Bull Content Pool
Mental toughness in athletes: what is it and how to develop grit
Mental toughness is more than a trendy term.
Mental toughness is often the difference between success and failure in a high-pressure situation. For Red Bull athlete, freerunner Hazal Nehir, who made a name for herself jumping across gaps between rooftops, her ability is 80% mental strength. It’s an important skill for anyone who wants consistent performance at a high level. The same habits of mental toughness that help elite athletes can also help any individual accomplish their goals.
The concept of mental toughness originated in 1898, when Normal Triplett observed that cyclists rode faster when competing on a track with a competitor, than when they rode alone. It was proof that the brain affects performance. 60 years later, sports psychology has become widely popular among professional coaches and athletes. It’s now a mainstream notion that has advanced well beyond athletes, referencing the ability to perform under pressure. So what are the elements of mental toughness?
4 Elements of Mental Toughness
You can’t have mental toughness if you don’t have grit. It's when quitting is not an option in your mind. It’s knowing something will be hard, and doing it anyway.
By definition, perseverance is the act of continually pursuing a goal over a long time, regardless of obstacles. When Michael Jordan didn't make his High School Varsity team the first time he tried out, he refused to stop playing basketball. His long term goal was making it to the NBA. His perseverance paid off. Red Bull climber Tommy Caldwell is another case study in perseverance. It took seven years of preparation and 19 days for this legendary climber to scale the Dawn Wall and he did it with only 9 fingers!
As obvious as it may sound, you have to want to win– above all else. Sports psychology has shown that at the most elite level, the outcome of a sporting event may not be just about physical training. It’s often also about passion, or who wants it more. If you want a great example, watch Red Bull’s “This and Nothing Else,” a mini series you can watch on Red Bull TV. It tells the stories of firefighters, fishermen and office workers who train and surf relentlessly, while also holding down regular jobs to support their families.
4. Long Term Goal Orientation
As the saying goes, “it's a marathon, not a sprint.” One of the most essential elements of mental toughness is long-term goal setting and accepting realistic timelines for your accomplishments. Making a real plan that builds short-term goals toward a long-term goal is the only tried-and-true process for success.
How to be Mentally Tough
Mental toughness is rarely innate; it is made up of disciplined habits that anyone can enact in their daily life. So what character traits constitute mental toughness– and how have they been shown to aid performance?
A mentally tough person sees challenges and setbacks as an opportunity to try even harder than before, and these habits help develop that attitude.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy from ancient Greece. It focuses on the idea that life is out of our control, so we must let go of the desire to control everything. In that case, you can unlock the ability to identify what parts you can manage and focus on that.
Act in Control
We are never entirely in control of our lives, as a completely unexpected event can happen at any moment. The key is to act in control of what you can. So if you're going to be a leader of your discipline, you have to act in control. This also means taking responsibility for your own actions and being mindful to only behave in ways that align with your long-term goals.
Don't Dwell on Mistakes
If you pursue a long-term goal with steadfast commitment, especially if you are just starting out, you will make mistakes. What defines a successful person is moving on rather than focusing on failure.
Enjoy Success, But Don't Savor it
Just as it's important to not dwell on your losses, it's equally important to not relish in your victories. Inaction is the biggest hindrance to success. So even after a win, it's essential to keep working just as hard as before.
Whatever goals you want to achieve, you should be mindful that you are doing it for yourself. That means no complaining about how hard it is, or all the obstacles you will face–because you have already accepted this. Once you take ownership of the work necessary to succeed, you will stop making excuses.
Find Internal Motivators
Self-reliance and internal motivation are essential habits to develop mental toughness. If you base your motivation on someone else, you’ll only be as strong as they let you be. Simply put, own your goals and be your own biggest cheerleader.
Never Give Up
When working toward long-term goals, you have to accept that there will be times you want to give up. One of the main differences between people who succeed and those who don't, is that one stopped trying. It's only a failure if you quit.
Positive self-talk and positive visualization are cornerstones of sports psychology. You have to believe in yourself and be kind to yourself on the marathon to your goals. Yes, you have to be disciplined and not make excuses, but if you become too self-critical, it will hurt your confidence and make it harder to perform.
Mental toughness is more than a trendy term, it’s as significant a factor in individual performance as physical ability. The good news is that even a person who thinks they don’t have the qualities of mental toughness can learn to develop them to help achieve their goals.