Mental toughness …. but in what?

This week, I got a question posed by a good colleague of mine (thanks Matt), and I thought maybe the answer might be of interest to more people.

Mental toughness is an expression often used in coaching, like mentally weak or mentally strong. But what is it? And most of the time we get the answer: “It’s like pornography, we know it when we see it”. Quite a few books and articles have been written about the subject but until now the final answer escaped me, so I tried to come up with an answer (probably not the answer) myself.
In my opinion mental toughness or strength can be compared to physical strength, the only problem is that it is not so easy to quantify. So if somebody tells me he or she is physically strong, I than ask “how much do you lift” in e.g. squats, cleans, or bench press and considering the age of the athletesor the sport he is involved in, the training age, the gender: these combined will give me a point of reference. 110 kg in squats might be great strength for a 12 year old girl playing table tennis, but not for a 25 year old male weightlifter. Another question is: is it specific and relevant? We know that strength in itself has many different expressions, but a great power lifter might not be a great weightlifter, so strength is rather specifically related to a  motor task.

I think the same principle applies to mental strength or toughness. You all have seen mentally tough people crumble when they perceive some “shocking” event or situation outside of their scope of toughness. Jet fighter pilots having fear of heights, special forces operators crying when their little girl is sick, policemen being afraid of needles. At the other hand one can read about perceived wimps doing very courageous things and housewives performing acts of bravery and persisting where everybody else failed. I just wanted to say we can speak of a general mental toughness, but it is mainly specifically situational dependent.
For me mental toughness is displaying an appropriate behavioural response in the face of danger, failure, threat, conflict, loss, uncertainty, lack of control, whatever the situation is.  Here one increases the probability of survival or success for oneself and/or others. Ordering a cappuccino at Starbucks does not demand a lot of mental toughness.

So far so good: I also feel that mental toughness is created by different factors:
•    genetic make-up, (warrior or worrier)
•    upbringing and education (your family surroundings in the first years of your life)
•    practice and training: preparing for a wide range of situations and having the self-confidence to handle those situations appropriately
•    experience: the perception of having handled adequately in previous situations,

Where you mentally tough taking your very first driving lessons and how is your response to getting into your car right now? I hope there is a difference.
And here is the paradox, reading this post on your PC, tablet or laptop right now…. how is your mental toughness level? I bet it is 100%.
But now you have to get up a high beam and walk over to the other side. How is your mental toughness level now? We can see from your white face, and your sweaty trembling hands that you are not as tough as you thought you were. So when you do not need mental toughness, you have it but when you really need it, it seems to decrease.

Mental toughness is, as far as I am concerned, a matter of quantity of mental and physical resources.
Some people are robust and mentally tough and have a lot of resources at their disposition. Some people are more fragile, have less resources and aren’t as tough.

The resources can be seen in the light of homeostasis and allostasis. Mentally tough people have a wide bandwidth of homeostasis, so they can function properly without tapping into their resources or reserves, no sweat. They can handle a lot of turbulence without going overboard. They have plenty of resources expressed in allostatic mechanisms, which guard their homeostasis too. The three main allostatic mechanisms are the central nervous system (perception, motivation, coping mechanisms) the autonomic nervous system (fight or flight) and stress-hormonal system (HPA-axis).

How did I reach these conclusions? By simply measuring stress responses in a wide variety of challenging situations, related to behaviour or success.  Just measuring your stress levels and look at your score in measurable factors, e.g. heart rate and shooting, or skin conductance and problem solving capacity, or even more basic: making a mathematical calculations and measuring skin conductance, muscle tension, breathing, heart rate variability, etc.

Measuring toughness
Measuring toughness

And again: you might see people normally perceived as mentally  e.g. a rugby player or football player tremble like a 10 year old girl, when faced with an unfamiliar threatening situation such as speaking in public, walking the high beam, or getting in a claustrophobic situation. In other words: something they don’t recognize or are not specifically trained for so they use more resources to deal with that situation, while a fragile or mentally weak person might not use his/her resources at all, just because they have done this before and are familiar with this kind of situations.

The million dollar question: can you improve mental toughness?
Yes, you can, but most people think that you get mentally tough by doing all kinds of physically demanding challenges like “hell week”, obstacle courses or verbally abuse people and treating them roughly. This isn’t going to do it.

How to do it?    Read the next post.


  1. Adam Scott

    Hi Henk,
    I’ve not been moved to comment before, as i often feel underqualified to pass comment on your excellent work. However, mental strength has always really interested me and i read and observe as much of the subect as i can find.
    Lord Moran wrote a book called, “The Anatomy Of Courage” which talks of a “reserve” of courage. You might find some interesting information there.
    From a personal perspective, having viewed acts of both mental toughness and weakness, during a career in uksf, i definately find it a quality which cannot be seen in outer appearance.
    Studies in resilience gained through trauma ( Collins D, MacNamara A. The rocky road to the top: why talent needs trauma. Sports Med. 2012; 42: 907-14 ) have highlighted to me that there are many paths to mental toughness.
    Thanks for writing such an interesting and varied blog.

    1. Hello Adam, thanks for your comment, glad you did! I immediately found the article and I am ordering Moran’s book. Never feel underqualified, at least not to comment on my posts, I have no official qualification for my work and just like to take the challenge to exchange my limited experience and knowledge with others. Yes, mental toughness cannot be judged or predicted from outer appearance, talk or non-stress behavior. There is a lot to say for the statement: why talent needs trauma, but there is also a lot to say for the “second hit” theory that describes how people whose survival-resources have already been taxed at an early age (abuse,neglect, etc.) will be more vulnerable for e.g. PTSS after a traumatic experience. I like to conclude there is an optimum of stress necessary: too little stress and you are not “hardened” or never learned how to handle adversity or stress. But too much or too often and one might suffer from the accumulation of irreversible damage. So mental training might share this characteristic with physical training, and the quality of the coach and the instructor depends on knowing and acting upon this individual optimal stress levels, mental as well as physical.
      Keep commenting if you like.

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