Mental Toughness in Training

Mental Toughness in Training

Photograph by: Mike Ridewood, COC

You’re up. You’ve performed well throughout your competition and you can practically taste the championship. All you need to do now is lay down a solid performance and you win. Pressure’s on. Do you choke or do you knock it out of the park?

Take a moment and close your eyes and visualize the situation. How do you feel? How have you responded in the past? It doesn’t have to be a championship, just a performance that you needed to go well.

If you’re mentally tough, you have no problems with the pressure (self-imposed or otherwise) and you will surely taste victory, if not, well … you know how it ends.

Mental toughness is an athletic characteristic that is easy to spot but difficult to define but I’ll give it a try. It’s a psychological advantage that allows certain athletes to perform better than their opponents in high pressure or important events. Mentally tough athletes can cope with distractions and barriers to success (e.g., poor officiating, unsupportive spectators, etc.) better than their competitors and have a decided edge in big competitions.

Mental toughness is not innate. Athletes aren’t born with it but, they develop it over time through experience and support from family, friends, and coaches. Mental toughness emerges often without intention but as a by-product of how the athlete trains.

Training for Mental Toughness

To start training for mental toughness, three important components need to be incorporated into your practice plan.

  1. Use long-term goals as the source of motivation
  2. Proper goal setting is the foundation of any successful athlete. Goal setting lets athletes focus on the right skills they need to develop to perform in high pressure situations. They push the athlete to persevere through tough challenges and nurture a problem-solving mentality.

  3. Control the environment
  4. This component is about training in an environment that works best for your development. To be mentally tough you need to train in a setting that encourages working through challenges and rewards you when you achieve your goals. It must always be a positive atmosphere. It should foster the competitiveness within you and among your teammates/colleagues and provide you with positive role models for you to train alongside. Examine your current training environment (facility and coaching). Does it meet with your needs? If you don’t feel challenged enough or it doesn’t provide opportunities to see how other top competitors train, it might be time to consider a change. Take control of your training.

  5. Pushing yourself to the limit
  6. This is a biggie! Mental toughness comes from facing challenges and experiencing success. You can’t expect to perform your best in big events if the challenges provided at those events are greater than what you have practiced. What you experience in training should be the most difficult thing you do in your sport. From the basic fundamental exercises to the most complex drills, you should be pushing beyond what you will see in competition.

If you feel that your mental toughness is a weak point in your game, take heart. Mental toughness can be learned. It starts in training. By using goal setting, creating a training program that is positive and challenging, and by expecting more from yourself in every practice, you can develop this skill (because it is a skill) just like any physical technique that you learned to perform. Facing challenges in practice on a regular basis and overcoming them develops the mental toughness you will need when you find yourself moments away from winning that championship.

Leave A Reply (3 comments so far)

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  1. Bonnie
    7 years ago

    I have been an athlete all my life I was the one asked to get a base hit in the bottom of the 7th man on third and I new I could do it, I was the one asked to serve an ace for the final point in the volleyball match sometimes even taken right off the bench and I could do it, now I move into a sport of Dog agility and my team mate,my dog, feels my adrenaline in pressure situations and I don’t know if she likes it she runs fast but sometimes out of control. Should I try to bring my adrenaline down so my teammate is not so high when we are in pressure situation? Let me know what everyone thinks I should do. My adrenaline has always helped me in my other sports can it be there in this one or not.


    • John Cullen
      7 years ago

      Since your team’s performance is determined by how well you and your dog do, there is a balance point you need to find. I’m making an assumption that you seem different to your dog during competition compared to practice and that may be the reason why your dog’s performance is sometimes out of control. You may want to try ramping up your practice so it looks more like competition. Get the adrenalin going while you’re training so your dog gets used to working with you when you’re “up”. You may also look at how your performance (individual and team) changes if you run with a lower arousal level.

  2. Marilyn Spitz
    7 years ago

    Both Riley (my 3yo Aussie) get pretty ampted at a trial. We have had our share of out of control, but as we train and trial more that energy has settled some and we are getting some really focused runs. When I am up for a final leg toward a title it is a given that we will be nervous and excited, but I breathe and remind myself that we are trained and ready. I remind myself to trust. Mostly when it really counts we deliver. I too had a long competitive sports history and although I rarely finished first I have reached plenty of personal bests. I have recently been reavaluating my training . After this reminder about setting long term goals and taking on challenging training opportunities I will be signing up for some tougher classes. We’re ready.

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