Mental toughness

Mental toughness

Mental toughness - a term commonly used by coaches, sport psychologists, sport commentators, and business leaders - generally describes a collection of attributes that allow a person to persevere through difficult circumstances (such as difficult training or difficult competitive situations in games) and emerge without losing confidence.

Mental toughness is a contested term, in that many people use the term liberally to refer to any set of positive attributes that helps a person to cope with difficult situations. Coaches and sport commentators freely use the term mental toughness to describe the mental state of athletes who persevere through difficult sport circumstances to succeed. Only within the past ten years has scientific research attempted a formal definition of mental toughness as a psychological construct.


Popular Conceptions

Sport coaches have popularized the term mental toughness, and have aligned it with athletes who show a willingness to train hard, make sacrifices, tolerate difficult game situations, and emerge successfully. For instance, Vince Lombardi, former NFL coach, states:

  • “Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind – you could call it ‘character in action.’”[1]

Dr. Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute, in his book The New Toughness Training for Sports, defined mental toughness as:

  • "the ability to consistently perform towards the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances."

Definitions of Mental Toughness

Psychologists and sport psychologists have attempted to form a definition and a stronger conceptualization of mental toughness as a psychological construct. In particular, two research teams have produced both a definition and a construct definition for mental toughness.

Jones, Hanton, and Connaughton Definition and Framework

Graham Jones, Sheldon Hanton, and Declan Connaughton of the United Kingdom used Personal Construct Psychology in interviews with elite athletes as well as elite-level coaches and sport psychologists, to arrive at the following definition of mental toughness:

  • Mental toughness is "Having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer; specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure." (Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2002, p. 209).[2]

These same researchers published a second paper in 2007 which provided four dimensions (categories) for mental toughness attributes. One general dimension was outlined: a performer's attitude/mindset (specifically, the performer's focus and self-belief). Three time-specific dimensions were outlined: training, competition, and post-competition. These time-specific dimensions contain mental toughness attributes (such as handling pressure, handling failure, pushing yourself to your physical limit in training) that pertain to their use at these times.[3]

Gucciardi, Gordon, and Dimmock Definition and Framework

Daniel Gucciardi, Sandy Gordon, and James Dimmock of Australia have proposed a different definition and framework of mental toughness, based primarily on their work with Australian Footballers. Using Personal Construct Psychology, these authors proposed the following definition of mental toughness:

  • "Mental toughness in Australian Football is a collection of values, attitudes, behaviors, and emotions that enable you to persevere and overcome any obstacle, adversity, or pressure experienced, but also to maintain concentration and motivation when things are going well to consistently achieve your goals." (Gucciardi, Gordon, & Dimmock, 2008, p. 278)[4]

Although this definition was produced through work with Australian Footballers, it has been generalized to other sports including cricket [5][6] and soccer.[7] This definition conceives of mental toughness as having both reactive and proactive qualities, meaning that mentally tough players can use mental toughness attributes to help endure and perform well during adverse situations, but they can also employ other attributes of mental toughness when the game is going well to keep them playing at their best.

Studies of Mental Toughness

Sport specific studies

Some psychologists have argued that a separate, sport-specific definitions of mental toughness should be developed.[8][9] They have highlighted that the attributes of a mentally tough athlete in one sport may differ greatly from the attributes of a mentally tough athlete in a different sport. Differences have been hypothesized between male and female athletes, as well as between "team sport" and "individual sport" athletes, but to date, little empirical evidence has shown what these differences are.

Sport-specific studies of mental toughness have been conducted in cricket,[5][6][10] soccer,[7][11] gymnastics,[12] and Australian football.[4] [13] [14] [15] [16] These studies have not employed a common framework, although many have used the definition of mental toughness provided by either the Jones et al. study, or the Gucciardi et al study.

Developmental studies

Recent research seems to agree that mental toughness is primarily a developed characteristic, not genetic (although this same research has suggested that there could be a genetic component of mental toughness). Two studies seem to suggest that foundational processes occur during development that allow a person to build mental toughness throughout life. For instance, a study of Australian soccer players, parents, and coaches found that parents provide a "generalized form" of mental toughness upon which coaches can build a sport-specific form of mental toughness.[7] A similar study suggested that mental toughness develop proceeds first through the development of a tough attitude (strong focus and strong self-belief); upon a tough attitude, an athlete learns how to develop mental toughness attributes needed for training, then for competition.[17] Another study examined the developmental experiences of 10 super-elite athletes and found that coaches and significant adults played an important role in mental toughness development through all stages of talent development.[18]

Similar constructs

Mental toughness has been equated with better understood constructs from psychology such as resilience and hardiness. The term resilience is often used interchangeably with mental toughness. However, psychologists define resilience as a positive process of coping with stress and adversity, as opposed to a collection of psychological attributes or personality traits. Hardiness has been suggested as a similar construct to mental toughness. Hardiness has typically been constructed as a personality trait, which is generally seen as stable throughout the lifetime. This differs from the conceptions of mental toughness offered by both Jones et al. and Gucciardi et al. These authors both conceive of mental toughness as unstable, arising in development, fluctuating over time, and varying for an individual performer between different sport and life scenarios.


Two instruments have been developed and validated since 2009. Gucciardi and colleagues validated the Australian Football Mental Toughness Inventory (AFMTI),[14] while Sheard and Golby validated the Sports Mental Toughness Questionnaire (SMTQ).[19]

Several instruments have purported to measure mental toughness, but research has called their validity into question. The Performance Profile Inventory (PPI) developed by Jim Loehr used seven subscales to compute a mental toughness score. The Mental Toughness Questionnaire-48 (MTQ-48), developed by Clough, Earle and Sewell, consists of six subscales that yield a total mental toughness score. However, both of these instruments lack strong theoretical underpinning and have not stood up to psychometric analysis. The Mental Toughness Inventory (MTI) developed by Middleton and colleagues measures mental toughness using twelve subscales and appears to show strong theoretical evidence for its formation. However, construct validation has only been performed with a narrow sample of athletes, leaving its psychometric properties up for debate.[19]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2002). What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14(3), 205-218. doi:10.1080/10413200290103509
  3. ^ Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2007). A framework of mental toughness in the world's best performers. Sport Psychologist, 21(2), 243-264. Retrieved from
  4. ^ a b Gucciardi, D., Gordon, S., & Dimmock, J. (2008). Towards an Understanding of Mental Toughness in Australian Football. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20(3), 261-281. doi:10.1080/10413200801998556
  5. ^ a b Gucciardi, D. F., & Gordon, S. (2009). Development and preliminary validation of the Cricket Mental Toughness Inventory (CMTI). Journal of sports sciences, 27(12), 1293-310. doi:10.1080/02640410903242306
  6. ^ a b Gucciardi, D. F. (2011). The relationship between developmental experiences and mental toughness in adolescent cricketers. Journal of sport & exercise psychology, 33(3), 370-93. Retrieved from
  7. ^ a b c Coulter, T. J., Mallett, C. J., & Gucciardi, D. F. (2010). Understanding mental toughness in Australian soccer: perceptions of players, parents, and coaches. Journal of sports sciences, 28(7), 699-716. doi:10.1080/02640411003734085
  8. ^ Crust, L. (2007). Mental toughness in sport: A review. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5(3), 270-290. Retrieved from
  9. ^ Crust, L. (2008). A review and conceptual re-examination of mental toughness: Implications for future researchers. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(7), 576-583. Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2008.07.005
  10. ^ Bull, S., Shambrook, C., James, W., & Brooks, J. (2005). Towards an Understanding of Mental Toughness in Elite English Cricketers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 17(3), 209-227. doi:10.1080/10413200591010085
  11. ^ Thelwell, R., Weston, N., & Greenlees, I. (2005). Defining and Understanding Mental Toughness within Soccer. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 17(4), 326-332. doi:10.1080/10413200500313636
  12. ^ Thelwell, R. C., Such, B. A., Weston, N. J. V., Such, J. D., & Greenlees, I. A. (2010). Developing mental toughness: Perceptions of elite female gymnasts. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 8(2), 170-188. Retrieved from
  13. ^ Gucciardi, D. F., Gordon, S., Dimmock, J., & Mallett, C. J. (2009). Understanding the coach's role in the development of mental toughness: perspectives of elite Australian football coaches. Journal of sports sciences, 27(13), 1483-96. doi:10.1080/02640410903150475
  14. ^ a b Gucciardi, D., Gordon, S., & Dimmock, J. (2009). Development and preliminary validation of a mental toughness inventory for Australian football. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10(1), 201-209. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2008.07.011
  15. ^ Gucciardi, D. F. (2010). Mental toughness profiles and their relations with achievement goals and sport motivation in adolescent Australian footballers. Journal of sports sciences, 28(6), 615-25. doi:10.1080/02640410903582792
  16. ^ Gucciardi, D. F., Gordon, S., & Dimmock, J. a. (2009). Evaluation of a Mental Toughness Training Program for Youth-Aged Australian Footballers: II. A Qualitative Analysis. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21(3), 324-339. doi:10.1080/10413200903026074
  17. ^ Connaughton, D., Hanton, S., & Jones, G. (2010). The development and maintenance of mental toughness in the World's best performers. The Sport Psychologist, 24, 168-193. Retrieved from
  18. ^ Connaughton, D., Wadey, R., Hanton, S., & Jones, G. (2008). The development and maintenance of mental toughness: perceptions of elite performers. Journal of sports sciences, 26(1), 83-95. doi:10.1080/02640410701310958
  19. ^ a b Sheard, M., Golby, J., & van Wersch, A. (2009). Progress Toward Construct Validation of the Sports Mental Toughness Questionnaire (SMTQ). European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 25(3), 186-193. doi:10.1027/1015-5759.25.3.186

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