What led to ‘mental toughness?

What is Mental Toughness?

Mental toughness is widely recognised by coaches and athletes, as an important, multidimensional, psychological construct related to performance enhancement in both training and competition. Researchers suggest that mental toughness provides a potential advantage over opponents, and enables individuals to cope better with the demands that sport places on them. It appears to do this by maintaining consistency in determination, focus, and the perception of being in control under competitive pressure. Researchers have attempted to define mental toughness, along with its constituent parts, to better understand how athletes respond to stress, to facilitate their development, and to define appropriate instruments for measurement.

Much of the early research, conducted to clearly define the concept of mental toughness, relied heavily on the theoretical understanding of the related concepts of resilience (Rutter, 1985; 2012), and hardiness (Kobasa, 1979).1


Resilience suggests an individual’s ability to bounce back from life’s challenges and unforeseen difficulties, providing mental protection from emotional and mental disorders. The construct is defined as a reduced vulnerability to environmental risk, and stress, a protective effect enabling individuals to maintain their functioning, and is often linked to the emergence of positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

According to Jackson and Watkin (2004), it is not the experience of hard times that determines whether we succeed or fail, but how we respond. Resilient individuals have an internal drive, and flexible thinking, to confront new challenges and an ability to focus on that which is within their control. Resilience is identified with an improved outcome for individuals from similarly adverse backgrounds or experiencing comparable, challenging experiences. Exposure to stress may have the beneficial effect of increased resistance to similar stressors.

According to Fletcher and Sarkar (2016), a lack of resilience should not be confused with weakness. A vulnerability to challenges may allow resilience to develop, as required for high performance. Furthermore, mental fortitude training, underpinned by resilience-related theory, has been shown to enhance resilience and the ability to thrive under pressure). Resilience training interventions have shown positive results in both the workplace (Robertson, Cooper, Sarkar, & Curran, 2015), and in sport (Bryan, O’Shea, & Macintyre, 2017), and may benefit, not only in dealing with stress and anxiety, post-traumatic growth (Rendon, 2015), but also as an enabler for greater accomplishments.

However, a recent systematic review identified a lack of clarity, and agreement, regarding the conceptualisation of resilience (Bryan, O’Shea, & Macintyre, 2017). In answer, Bryan et al. (2017) proposed that resilience is a dynamic ability to maintain functioning in response to challenges through facilitative adaptations, involving metacognition processes, including reflecting on mistakes.


Hardiness has its conceptual roots in health psychology, with researchers particularly focused on the relationship between stress and illness, and the impact of personality in recovering from illness. An individual high in hardiness recognises there is a choice regarding handling externally triggered events by maintaining an internal locus of control (Kobasa, 1979). Subsequent research, though correlational and restricted to adult students at a US defence college, identified individuals higher in hardiness as having a more healthy, high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and a lower body mass index (BMI), providing protection against cardiovascular disease (Bartone, Valdes, & Sandvik, 2016).

Hardiness can buffer an individual against stress, illness, and life events by impacting on an individual’s perception of a situation, or event, and subsequently affect behaviour through re-interpretation into something less threatening (Kobasa, Maddi & Kahn, 1982). The resilient person is less likely to avoid the stressor, but instead will become involved, and present, in whatever one does, or encounters.

Previous research has established hardiness as a personality trait comprised of three interrelated dimensions: control, a belief that the individual is involved, rather than helpless, in life’s outcomes; challenge, an acceptance that change is normal and provides opportunity; and commitment, implies activity, and involvement, rather than passivity and avoidance (Kobasa et al., 1982). Research by Kobasa et al. (1982, 1985), observed that business executives identified with increased levels of hardiness, had a reduced occurrence of illness resulting from stress.

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Bartone P., Valdes, J., & Sandvik, A.  (2016). Psychological hardiness predicts cardiovascular health. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 21(6), 743-749.

Bryan, C., O’Shea, D., & Macintyre, T. (2017). Stressing the relevance of resilience: A systematic review of resilience across the domains of sport and work. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1-41.

Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2016). Mental fortitude training: An evidence-based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 7(3), 135-157. 

Jackson, R., & Watkin, C. (2004) The resilience inventory: Seven essential skills for overcoming life’s obstacles and determining happiness. Selection and Development Review, 20 (6), 13-17.

Kobasa, S. C. (1979) Stressful life events, personality and health: an inquiry into hardiness. Journal of personality and social psychology, 37 (1), 1-11.

Kobasa, S. C., Maddi, S. R., Kahn, S. (1982). Hardiness and Health : a prospective study, Journal of personality and social psychology, 42, 168-77.

Kobasa, S.C., Maddi, S.R., Puccetti, M.C., & Zola, M.A. (1985) Effectiveness of hardiness, exercise and social support as resources against illness, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 29, 525-33.

Robertson, I. T., Cooper, C. L., Sarkar, M., & Curran, T. (2015). Resilience training in the workplace from 2003 to 2014: A systematic review. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 88(3), 533-562. 

Rutter, M. (1985). Resilience in the face of adversity: Protective factors and resistance in psychiatric disorder, British Journal of Psychiatry, 147 (6), 598-611. 

Rutter, M. (2012). Resilience as a dynamic concept. Development and psychopathology24(2), 335-44.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychology, 55, 5–14.


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