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What is Mental Toughness?

By David Carnes ; Updated June 13, 2017

Mental toughness is the psychological attribute that separates greatness from mediocrity. Although it is most commonly mentioned in connection with athletic performance, it can be used to advantage in almost every area of life. No one is born with mental toughness--it is a quality that can and must be developed through training.

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Although most people have an intuitive notion of what mental toughness is, no generally accepted definition has emerged. Football coach Vince Lombardi understood mental toughness as "a perfectly disciplined state of mind that refuses to give in". Researcher David Yukelson defines it as a psychological edge that allows you to cope better than your competition with the demands that are placed on you, as well as the ability to perform consistently better than your competition.


Mental toughness is comprised of at least five primary attributes--determination, concentration, self-confidence, resilience and poise. Motivation is sometimes added as a sixth attribute, while other observers see motivation as a combination of the previous five attributes.

Motivational States

Psychologist Michael Apter identified eight positive motivational states related to peak performance--serious, playful, conforming, rebellious, mastery, sympathy, self-oriented and other-oriented. Pushing past pain at the end of a marathon, for example, would represent the mastery motivational state, while allowing yourself to be inspired by your supporters would represent the other-oriented motivational state. The ability to change motivational states according to the demands of the situation will enhance your ability to exercise the attributes of mental toughness.


Mental toughness training begins in practice, but continues throughout your pre-competition warm-up right through to the end of the competition. It.requires that you re-program your mind with positive affirmations and high expectations. You must practice switching motivational states and learning when each one is appropriate. You must focus solely on your own performance rather than your performance relative to other competitors. You must develop the ability to quickly let go of mistakes and focus only on your performance in the moment. Developing mental toughness is like training a muscle--you must train consistently and be satisfied with gradual results that will multiply over time.


An increase in mental toughness will initially manifest itself in the activity that you are using to train it. For example, if you seek mental toughness to turn yourself into a great baseball player, your most obvious initial results will be seen in your performance on the baseball field. Nevertheless, the various attributes of mental toughness will carry over into the rest of your life. Improved concentration, for example, may make you a better student or employee. Greater poise may enhance your personal relationships by preventing you from losing your temper during an argument. The expansion of the benefits of mental toughness into all areas of your life will be accelerated if you make a conscious attempt to apply it whenever it is useful.

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About the Author

David Carnes has been a full-time writer since 1998 and has published two full-length novels. He spends much of his time in various Asian countries and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. He earned a Juris Doctorate from the University of Kentucky College of Law.

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