Mental Toughness: Brain Power for Sports

It is easy to play mind games when you play sports. No matter how much you practice, you always have to contend with your greatest enemy: the mind that asks "what if?"

What if rather than chipping onto the green, you duff and send the ball into the water in front of the green? What if you are serving at match point and you double fault, giving your opponent the tennis match?

Imagine if you no longer had to wonder "what if." Imagine if you had the toughness and confidence to succeed. With some simple training skills, you can have both.

What Is Mental Toughness?

Getting mentally tough does not mean bulking up your body to appear bigger, meaner, or stronger. It is not even about adopting a killer instinct. Instead, getting mentally tough means gaining the confidence that will pull you through any situation. Mental toughness is truly a state of mind. It is a skill that allows you to keep your eye on the goal while blocking out distractions.

Yet for many athletes, the physical aspects of training overshadow any mental conditioning. Without practicing mental toughness, you risk not getting the success you would like or getting burned out.

Traits of the Mentally Tough

Those who have acquired mental toughness exhibit similar psychological characteristics. They believe in themselves and their abilities.

Belief in yourself and your abilites goes a long way. Success is the ultimate goal. The desire to succeed motivates you to be committed to your sport.

Finally, you need to realize that you will face adversity. You might have a great day followed by a really bad day. In the long run, managing your lows may be more important than managing your highs. Remember that growth is a process of trial and error. Failure is part this process.

The Two Faces of Mental Toughness

Mental toughness consists of 2 elements. The first is self-efficacy, or believing that you can perform. Remember that chip shot over the water? Being mentally tough means knowing that you can place the ball safely on the green.

The second part is focus. Take, for example, basketball players shooting a free throw during a major game. Not only do they have to make the shot, they also have to block out the swarm of fans who are trying to distract them.

So how do you get these elements? With practice.

How to Muscle Up Your Mind for Mental Toughness

It's important to clear your thoughts before your workout and stay focused throughout. Don't dwell on past mistakes, move forward. Here are some techniques that athletes often use:

To make the most of your time, spend 5 minutes focusing before your workout. Close your eyes, take 10 deep abdominal breaths, and visualize what you would like to happen. Speak positive affirmations by telling yourself you can handle any situation. Then when you practice, you can spend the whole session focused on making improvements in your game.

Concentrate on breathing, whether you are practicing or competing. As you inhale deeply, breathe in confidence. As you exhale, release your doubts and fear. Use this technique especially when you get in situations that might ordinarily cause you to choke.

Practice Mental Imagery
This will improve your physical skill and quell the what-ifs in your head. See yourself making those impossible shots in golf or nailing those free throws.

Emulate the Pros
Watch 5 minutes of videos before you go to sleep. Pop in a tape of a professional athlete in your sport. Then as you close your eyes, breathe deeply and visualize the fluidity, gracefulness, and speed of the athletes. You may find that these positive thoughts make their way into your dreams.

Get into a Zone
It's easy to let your mind feed on negative thoughts. The anxious response causes you distraction and fear when facing an overwhelming task. The depressive response can make you feel hopeless and helpless. Ultimately, both responses make you lose focus on your final goal. To decrease negative thought processes, spend time alone before you compete to clear your mind. Use mental imagery and deep breathing.

Maintain a Balance in Your Life
To avoid putting excessive pressure on yourself, spend quality time away from your sport, get proper sleep, eat healthy, and pamper yourself before a big event by doing something that makes you feel good, like taking a hot bath.

Believe in Yourself
As your beliefs about your limits change, the limits themselves will begin to move.

Consider Counseling
You spend time building up your physical strength, so why not do the same for your mental muscles? Trained counselors can help you deal with the negative aspects of competition that can sideline your game and turn them into something positive. By using thought, perpective, awareness, and other behavioral tactics, you may be able to conquer your demons and take charge of the battlefield.


American College of Sports Medicine
The American Council on Exercise


Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology
Public Health Agency of Canada


The psychology of mental toughness. Psych Central website. Available at: Updated July 17, 2016. Accessed January 27, 2017.
Your performing edge: Top 10 tips. Sports Psychologist website. Available at:
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Yukelson D. What is mental toughness and how to develop it? Morgan Academic Support Center for Student-Athletes, Penn State University. Available at:
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Accessed January 27, 2017.
Last reviewed January 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 1/27/2017

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