On Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is something that coaches welcome and athletes strive for. It’s also a trait scouts seek.

It is also something that coaches don’t seem to emphasise enough, apart from stating that it separates the great runners from the good. So why don’t they focus on it more?

Training is 90 per cent physical and 10 per cent mental, but at races, it is 90 per cent mental – because there’s very little that separates athletes physically at the elite level.

If an athlete trains harder, they will demonstrate their talent and their hard work. Better times, good technique, job done – until it falls apart at a competition, and suddenly running may not be so much fun.

Hard training and good technique do not necessarily equate or even lead to mental toughness or resilience. Top runners can still get nervous in competition, will sometimes concentrate on the wrong things, and can even lack self-confidence at times.

How you develop your mind, increase self-confidence, improve your focus and develop resilience will directly impact how you train and compete. Here are some tips that may help.

Focus on what you can control

Your effort and your attitude (including insecurities or lack of focus) are the only two things you can fully control. You cannot control your lane, the weather, the outcome, past results, or your competitors’ performances – so why even consider thinking about them? Instead, use self-talk. Self-talk is the internal monologue we carry on with ourselves, as opposed to talking aloud with others.

Remember this: your words dictate your thoughts, your thoughts control your actions, and your actions determine your success.

Focus on intrinsic motivation

Motivation is the prerequisite for all mental toughness, based on learned habits that form the foundation of mental beliefs that has the potential to set them apart. In other words, transforming a good athlete into a great one.

There are two types of motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic. Athletes with extrinsic motivation are moved by external factors, such as beating others, fame or money. Intrinsic motivation comes from within. If you enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn and actualise your potential, you are more likely to reach it.

Intrinsic motivation should outweigh extrinsic factors – it will keep you motivated throughout your career and help you realise why you love your sport.

Focus on self-belief

To attempt anything in sport, you need a sense of belief and trust in yourself. You also need some level of trust in your coach, who may well be attempting to instill a greater sense of self-belief beyond what you’re used to.

This self-belief leads to enhanced confidence. Confidence and athletic success are closely correlated, and they reinforce each other. When you run well, your confidence increases, and when you improve your self-confidence, you tend to perform even better.

But what happens if you don’t run according to expectations? You can lose confidence and focus. That’s where resilience comes in.

Focus on resilience

Resilience is the ability to handle stress, adversity and failure. Some days things just won’t go well no matter how talented you are or how hard you have trained. You may have hit a plateau or be low on energy. This is where character develops, or alternatively, where emotions take over and you compete below your potential. How your character develops depends on whether you view negative or unwanted performances as a threat of a challenge – whether you overcome them or succumb to them.

Great athletes have both resilience and mental toughness. Rather than seeing less than optimal performances as threats to athletic development and career progression, they are seen as challenges to improve next time.

When your mind is in the right place, you’ll be able to compete at your best without being distracted by any mental or physical blocks. You’ll overcome challenges, exceed your limitations, and perform at your best.


Dave Crampton is a New Zealand sports journalist and public relations consultant. He writes for Athletics Wellington and Swimming World Magazine


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