How was mental toughness developed?

Exploring the potential of the human mind and body


Research into Mental Toughness

Since 2002, there has been considerable qualitative research into elite athletes to remove the ambiguity around mental toughness. Identification, and definition, of the key characteristics of mental toughness, has involved two distinct approaches.

  1. The first approach has been to formulate, (using qualitative research methods, including interviewing) a better understanding of mental toughness and its development, and subsequently reduce conceptual ambiguity (Bull, Albinson, & Shambrook, 2005; Gucciardi, Gordon, & Dimmock, 2008; Jones et al., 2002; Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2007; Thelwell, Weston, & Greenlees, 2005).
  2. The second approach, using quantitative methods, has involved researchers building upon existing psychological theories, from non-sporting areas, including health psychology, to develop measures, and models, to investigate mental toughness (Clough, Earle, & Sewell, 2002; Crust & Clough, 2005).
The Approach and its Limitations

Qualitative designs, including unstructured, or semi-structured techniques have provided important insights into, and informed the early development of, mental toughness, and provided definitions for quantitative research.  However, despite prior success, concerns have been raised regarding qualitative methods, including: (a) a reliance on the analysis of self-report questionnaires rather than scientific investigation; (b) a failure to provide ongoing advancement in the conceptual understanding of the development of mental toughness; and (c) an inability to generalise much of the published qualitative research due to the  focus on elite athletes.

Characteristics of Mentally Tough Performers

Researchers initially attempted to qualitatively define mental toughness and identify its key characteristics through interviewing athletes and their coaches (Bull et al., 2005; Gucciardi et al., 2008; Jones et al., 2002; 2007; Thelwell et al., 2005).

One of the most cited of these studies, was by Jones et al. (2002), who sampled athletes, from both individual and team sports, that had previously represented their country in major events, including the Olympics. Participants took part in focus groups to identify personal constructs in relation to mental toughness and individual interviews were subsequently held to confirm and rank the mental toughness attributes identified.  Jones et al.’s (2002) research, and accompanying analysis, defined mental toughness as being both natural and developed, providing an advantage over opponents through an improved ability to cope with the demands of training, competition and lifestyle, whilst remaining more consistent, attention focussed and controlled under pressure.

A list of 12 ranked attributes were proposed to develop mental toughness, including, a steadfast belief in the ability to achieve goals, a very strong motivation to succeed whilst maintaining focus despite distractions, a disregard of other athletes’ performances, and an ability to excel under the pressure of competition (Jones et al., 2002).  A subsequent study interviewed super elite athletes, coaches, and psychologists, from multiple sporting backgrounds, to further conceptualise mental toughness (Jones et al., 2007).  The earlier definition of mental toughness by Jones et al. (2002) was confirmed, whilst the number of listed attributes increased from 12 to 30, clustered into 4 dimensions, including (a) attitude and mindset, (b) training, (c) competition, and (d) post competition. 

Research by Jones et al. (2002, 2007) made an important contribution to the existing body of knowledge around mental toughness by providing a comprehensive definition of mental toughness, along with a detailed breakdown of its elements, and identifying it as a cross-discipline psychological construct important to success in sport. However, as with other early studies into mental toughness, there was lack of clarity regarding what mental toughness really is, or how it is developed, and a limited consensus regarding its common conceptual elements (Gucciardi et al., 2014). Criticisms have also been raised regarding small sample sizes, the assumption that athletes and sports professionals interviewed have a clear understanding of mental toughness, and the premise that the perception of mental toughness is homogeneous across sports. As a result of these concerns, and the assumption that elite-athletes are all mentally tough, it is unclear how the definition can be extended to non-elite athletes.

Seven participants from Jones et al. (2002) study were re-interviewed regarding the development, and maintenance, of mental toughness (Connaughton, Wadey, Hanton & Jones, 2008). Firstly, the findings indicate that mental toughness developed within three key stages, defined as early, middle, and later years. Secondly, three mechanisms were perceived to assist in the maintenance of mental toughness: a strong desire and internalised motivation for success; an established social support network; and, both basic and advanced mental skills, including focus and concentration (Connaughton et al., 2008). Developing this area further, Connaughton et al. (2010) observed that sports professionals viewed both positive and negative critical experiences, and incidents, as key to the development of mental toughness, and that it, along with maintenance, occurred in a particular dimensional order: attitude and mindset, training, competition, and post-competition. Connaughton et al.’s (2010) findings raise a further question: to what degree can psychological training programs develop mental toughness? Although the present study did not directly explore the development or maintenance of mental toughness in ultra-marathoners, life and sporting experiences, social support, motivation and personality are likely to underpin the decisions and behaviour that have led to success as an endurance athlete. 

Single Sport Qualitative Research

Several studies have been conducted to produce a more context-rich understanding of mental toughness and its development in athletes. One important study focussed on the development of mental toughness in cricket (Bull et al., 2005). A total of 12 cricketers, rated by their coaches as mentally tough were interviewed; thematic analysis was used to understand the development, maintenance, characteristics and attributes of mental toughness.

Five general dimensions, 20 global themes, and four structural categories emerged from the data (Bull et al., 2005). The authors concluded mental toughness is comprised of similar attributes to those highlighted by Jones et al. (2002), including self-belief, desire, and motivation, along with dealing with pressure and anxiety.  The ongoing development and maintenance of mental toughness were strongly influenced by both early environmental factors, including parenting, later exposure to international level sport, and competitor’s mind-set (Bull et al., 2005). However, the paper fails to specify the term mind-set, or provide a clear definition, conceptual clarity or detailed measurement.

The results of Bull et al.’s (2005) research has led to improvements in coaching including the involvement of sport psychologists, and an intervention programme to support the development of mental toughness in future cricket generations; this also provides an environment more conducive to winning.  Critics have suggested that the research, though built upon established psychological theories has several limitations: (a) the findings were largely descriptive, for example, an exposure to foreign cricket, and the exploitation of learning opportunities, are not obviously quantifiable, and therefore comparable between individuals; (b) it was unclear which global themes related to the development of mental toughness;  and (c) there was no explanation of how mental toughness might actually be developed  (Gucciardi et al., 2009; Connaughton et al., 2013).

A similar, single-sport, single cohort study by Thelwell et al. (2005), investigated soccer players, and provided further support for the definition of mental toughness provided by Jones et al. (2002). However, analysis of findings suggests one clarification, in that mentally tough athletes always, rather than generally, cope better with both the pressure, and the demands of the sport. Research also ascertained that the environments the players are placed in throughout their early career are essential to the development of mental toughness and may inform methods to teach less experienced players coping strategies. In addition, similar mental toughness attributes were identified in line with the study of Jones et al. (2002), including the need for a resilient, never give in to pressure, character, and a level of self-belief that is undeterred by the challenges associated with competition.

The study has a number of limitations worth highlighting, including a small sample size (n = 10), and the sole inclusion of international players, affecting whether the findings can be generalised to other sports, and non-elite athletes. Furthermore, it is questionable whether a person can be mentally tough all the time, leading to the suggestion that mental toughness is a state-like concept; whilst some properties may persist, it may vary across time and situations as a result of changing goals (Gucciardi, 2017).

A further study by Thelwell, Such, Weston, Such, and Greenlees (2010) explored elite gymnasts, to understand the dimensions involved within the development of mental toughness. Analysis of the results demonstrated that mental toughness can be developed through a range of mechanisms and experiences, including mental training, competition, coaching, and engagement with fellow athletes, friends and family. In addition to demonstrating a clear role for psychological skills training in the development of mental toughness, the study indicated, unexpectedly, that the nationality of the gymnast influenced the development of mental toughness, including both cultural and environmental influences (Thelwell et al., 2010). As with previous studies, shortfalls in the study include the assumption that all participating athletes were mentally tough.

Research by Gucciardi et al. (2009) used Personal Construct Psychology (PCP: Kelly, 1955; 1991), to better understand the key attributes of mental toughness in sport. Kelly (1955, 1991) postulated that we anticipate, or predict, events within our world based on personal theories we refine over the period of our lifetime. PCP is based around the idea that whether an individual is troubled, or untroubled, by an event, depends on the meaning that person attaches to it. Consequently, experience, cognition and behaviour are all determined by attempts to anticipate events, or people, and understand the outcome (Gucciardi et al., 2009). A key finding resulting from analysis of interviews with Australian football coaches, using PCP, is that mental toughness was not only observed to be salient for negative situations, or events, such as not being selected, or suffering an injury, but also, for positive situations, or events, such as handling the pressure of being an existing champion, and in good health.

This identifies a difference between mental toughness, and resilience and hardiness, both of which according to Gucciardi et al. (2009), fail to encapsulate the concept of positive pressure. And furthermore, that mental toughness may be defined as a collection of emotions and behaviours that enable the athlete to overcome, through perseverance, obstacles, or pressure, and ensure concentration and motivation to achieve goals when things are going well. The above studies used qualitative methods to explore the development of mental toughness, in individual sports, and assumed that the athletes involved are mentally tough. Little research has thus far captured the development, or definition, of mental toughness in non-elite ultra-marathoners.

Read next

Bull, S. J., Albinson, J. G., & Shambrook, C. J. (2005). Towards an understanding of mental toughness in elite English cricketers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 17, 209–227.

Clough, P., Earle, K. & Sewell, D. (2002). Mental toughness: The concept and its measurement. In I. Cockerill (Eds.) Solutions in Sport Psychology (pp32-45). London, Thomson. 

Crust, L., & Clough, P. J. (2005). Relationship between Mental Toughness and Physical Endurance. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 100(1), 192-194. 

Gucciardi, D.F., Gordon, S., & Dimmock, J.A. (2008). Towards an understanding of mental toughness in Australian football. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20, 261-281.

Gucciardi, D. F., Gordon, S., & Dimmock, J. A. (2009). Advancing mental toughness research and theory using personal construct psychology International review of sport and exercise psychology, 2, 54-72.

Gucciardi, D. F., Hanton, S., Gordon, S., Mallett, C. J., & Temby, P. (2014). The Concept of Mental Toughness: Tests of Dimensionality, Nomological Network, and Traitness. Journal of Personality, 83(1), 26-44. 

Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D (2002). What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation with elite performers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 211 – 224. 

Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2007). A framework of mental toughness in the world’s best performers. The Sport Psychologist, 21, 243-264.

Thelwell, R., Weston, N., & Greenlees, I. (2005). Defining and understanding mental toughness within soccer. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 17, 326-332.

Thelwell, R. C., Such, B. A., Weston, N. J., 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. 


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