Becoming Mentally Tough

Article written in The Sword Magazine for July 2015 edition by Jon Rhodes.

Everyone wants to be mentally tough, in exams, job interviews, and in this focus, sport. When working with coaches, some often inform me that certain children are naturally mentally tough, that they have a gift to withstand huge amounts of pressure, whilst others are regarded as mentally weak.

Researchers (Jones, et al., 2002) have defined mental toughness as; having a 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 and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control of pressure.

I must immediately point out (and going against – half of – the definition) that mental toughness is a completely trained attribution. No child is born mentally tough, but will develop the traits that contribute towards their level of toughness as time goes on. Therefore, everyone is mentally tough, but the level of toughness in certain circumstances changes depending on experience.

Considering people who like to debate genetics playing a vital role, genetics can contribute towards an accelerated learning process, meaning that some children may seem advanced for their age. But again, this is all dependent on having the right experience. So, what is the right experience and if mental toughness can be trained, how is it achieved? In answering the question there are two important areas that build a mentally tough athlete; mindset, and mental skills.

The mindset research has been driven by Carol Dweck since 2012; with her work focusing on a learning paradigm identi ed as growth and xed mindsets. A fixed mindset
is identified by a belief that attributions, such as intelligence or personality, are static and cannot be changed. Furthermore, when a task becomes difficult the individual will give up easily, takes the easier option, sees effort as fruitless, ignores criticism and is threatened by others success. This leads to individuals plateauing early and not maximizing potential. The flip side is the growth mindset, whereby the individual looks forward to a challenge, is persistent when faced with obstacles, learns from criticism and others success, and as a result increases their effort, enabling potential to be reached. The individuals’ mindset is key in developing talent, and creating a mentally tough athlete.

From a young age there are several key influencers that develop a belief structure for children, such as parents, family, peers, teachers, coaches and the media. A wrong reinforced message creates a wrong belief, which can stick with the athlete for a considerable time. Mindset is ultimately the way individuals perceive failure. Does the individual learn from failure, consequently enhancing effort, or does the failure prevent future behaviour, thus inhibiting effort? Dweck has found that mentally tough individuals are focused on goal completion rather than the performance result, and exhibit higher growth mindset attributions. Essentially, goals must be challenging but realistically achievable for the athlete to see progress, seeing failure as a stepping-stone to success.

Mental Skills are the interventions, or coping strategies, that the individual has to manage emotions and perceptions. Initially, goal setting is the most fundamental way
of increasing motivation and managing the task at hand. Mental skills such as imagery, motivational cues, self-talk, and meditation are becoming increasingly used in fencing with elite athletes. However, the specific methodological protocols for using mental skills (to have significant impact) in fencing needs rigorous testing (and review) and must initially be administered by a psychologist. Goal setting on the other hand can be completed weekly by the coach, which covers areas of technical, tactical, physical and psychological development.

In a recent study at Plymouth University with athletes from Truro Fencing Club, findings revealed that there was a linear progression between tactical and psychological development. Therefore, athletes believed that by “controlling distance” and “predicting opponent attacks”; psychological attributions such as confidence, controlling pressure and mental toughness increased. Not surprisingly, knowing what to do and when to do it impacts mental toughness as it focuses on the goal and immediate task, not the result.

Becoming mentally tough can be accelerated through a series of ways outside of goal setting and I thought it beneficial to mention two manageable ways for coaches to implement alongside goals. Firstly, in every sport I have worked in, be it fencing, tennis, judo, rugby or football, a key is to have a structured mentoring programme where cadets learn from juniors, and juniors learn from seniors (and seniors learn from vets!). Role models play an important part in the way beliefs are structured, how we learn from others’ experience, and evolve the club culture. Secondly, use the power of “yet”. Numerous times I have heard a coach inform the student that they do “not have good/ correct distance”. The student hears this as a static skill and minimal effort is applied. If the student hears “you do not have good/correct distance, yet”, the skill is now based around dynamic learning, which is improved through the application of effort.

Finally, goals can be a mixture of physical developments such as agility, and tactical areas such as the use of feints. Importantly, the athlete needs to have a tangible goal to measure progress otherwise there is no clear way of ascertaining goal completion. Measuring agility (for example) is simple, as circuits are timed before and after an intervention to establish if the training has had an impact. A straightforward way to measure functional mental toughness is to list the components of mental toughness, such as confidence in attack/defense, determination to complete goals, focus within hits, and controlling emotions when under pressure. The athlete rates each component out of 10 before the intervention (where 1 = do not agree and 10 = completely agree) and again a week after the intervention. The difference in scores would reveal if the coaching experience has been successful and the athletes belief in their individual ability. Furthermore, there should be an observable difference within the fencer.

As coaches it is our job to solve problems, innovate and challenge our athletes. Ultimately, it is the coach and parents who drive the passion and mindset of the student and although it is often a tricky and arduous job, it is vital in nurturing resilience, confidence and mental toughness in athletes who could be our future Olympians.


Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: how you can ful ll your potential. Ballintine, NY:USA.

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, 205–218.