What matters more than intelligence, talent, and even luck? Mental toughness.
When you think about what makes a person successful, you might start by listing the advantages and talents of top performers:
“She’s at the top of her class because she’s the smartest.”
“He won the gold medal because he swims the fastest.”
“She got the job because her dad owns the company.”
But success is more than just luck and the natural talents you were born with. In fact, studies show that intelligence and talent only play a small part in predicting success and professional achievement.
Mental toughness, what some like to call “grit”, means the ability to stay focused and keep pushing to achieve long-term goals, despite setbacks.
Fortunately, like a muscle, you can strengthen mental toughness. I’m here to talk about what mental toughness means and why it’s so important. In this article, you’ll learn strategies to develop mental strength, based on science and advice from elite athletes and top performers.
What is mental toughness?
According to research published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, mental toughness means possessing a psychological edge that enables you to:
- Cope with demands
- Perform consistently
- Remain determined, focused, and confident under pressure
Researchers asked elite athletes who had competed on an international level across various sports to share their thoughts on mental toughness. They came up with 12 attributes:
12 Attributes of mental toughness, according to elite athletes
- Belief in your ability to achieve goals
- Steadfast self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities.
- Strong desire and intrinsic motivation to succeed
- Bouncing back from setbacks with increased determination
- Thriving under the pressure of competition
- Accepting and coping with anxiety in competition
- Not allowing the competition’s good or bad performance to negatively impact your own
- Staying focused in personal life
- Staying focused during competition
- Turning focus on and off, as needed
- Mentally pushing through boundaries, both physical and psychological
- Getting back on track and refocusing after unexpected events
How can developing mental toughness improve your life?
Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.Angela Duckworth
It’s not just at the Olympic games or championship sports match where grit matters. Grit also helps with achieving goals in your career, health, and family. The kind of mental toughness that it takes to become a great athlete also makes someone a great leader, a good parent, or a successful business owner.
The science of mental toughness shows that to be a top performer in life, you need grit.
In her TedTalk, Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, describes “grit” as the passion or perseverance to achieve long-term goals.
Duckworth conducted a study asking thousands of high school juniors in the Chicago public school district to take grit questionnaires. A year later, they waited to see who would successfully complete their studies.
The results: Grittier kids were more likely to graduate.
Grit played a more important role than:
- Family income
- Standardized test scores
- How safe children felt while at school
The research shows that people can succeed, despite obstacles, when they develop grit and learn how to build resilience and how to get back on track after a setback. When applied to any endeavor in life, mental toughness provides the fuel to keep going.
Habits of people with mental toughness
What kind of habits do people with mental toughness practice that make them succeed?
In her book, Grit, Duckworth explains how many talented people do not follow through with their commitments, and never reach their potential. In fact, grit usually has no relation, or even an inverse relation, to talent.
Instead, Duckworth suggests developing a growth mindset as a way to build mental strength.
Mentally strong people have a growth mindset
In her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford University researcher, Dr. Carol Dweck talks about the power of a Growth Mindset over a Fixed Mindset to achieve goals.
Here’s the difference:
Fixed Mindset: People with fixed mindsets consider intelligence and talent more important than hard work. They tend to have rigid beliefs that do not change.
Growth Mindset: Those with a growth mindset stick to daily routines and work consistently to achieve goals, which results in long-term success. They believe that intelligence can grow with experience and hard work.
Mentally strong people take responsibility
Fleet Maull, Ph.D., served 14 years in prison on a mandatory-minimum drug sentence. He overcame incarceration and addiction before becoming an executive coach and author.
“We are continually faced with a fundamental choice in life. We can allow ourselves to be victimized by our circumstances, or we can choose a self-empowered, co-creative approach to owning and responding to whatever challenges we face,” Maull told Business Insider.
The mentally strong take ownership for their behaviors and choices. They don’t waste energy blaming other people for their problems or stressing about circumstances in their lives they cannot change.
Instead of being a victim, they choose to take responsibility. That means looking at a situation honestly and asking what they can do to make it better.
Mentally strong people compete with themselves
When you compete against others, you compare yourself based on their metrics and values. So even if you win, you win based on what matters to them, not to you.
Instead, define your values and beliefs. Compete to become the best version of yourself, to achieve goals based on those values. Then you become stronger mentally and win based on your recipe for success, not anyone else’s.
Mentally strong people are happy when others succeed
Studies have found that envying your friends on social media can cause depression. Resenting people’s success in everyday life robs you of your mental strength as well.
Mentally strong people understand that life is not a zero-sum game. Someone else’s success doesn’t mean their loss. Comparing yourself to other people can take a toll on your mental health, too. Mental toughness becomes possible when we make our decisions based on our values.
How to develop mental toughness
Everyone is born with some degree of resilience and grit. If you feel like you’re low on these qualities, here’s some good news:
By shifting your mindset, changing habits, and practicing new strategies, you can become mentally tough — even to the level of badass.
Here’s how to develop that toughness:
Get clear on your values
A powerful way to maintain mental and moral fortitude is to live a value-based life. It takes courage and awareness to align your behaviors with personal guiding principles.
If we succumb to allowing ourselves to stray toward choices and actions that knock us out of alignment with our truth, we falter into mediocrity at best or feel feckless at worst.
Shift the focus to learning, instead of winning
When trying to achieve your goals, move the focus away from always winning, or always needing to be right. This type of perfectionist thinking will only set you up for disappointment. The constant pressure of needing to win will eventually make anyone pop their lid. Plus, you can’t learn without making mistakes sometimes.
One way I stay tough is by entering classes, lessons, opportunities, and even competitions with a learning mindset. I do much better when I enter a bout in fencing with no expectations and with a learning perspective.
Every situation is a chance to learn something new. I gain insight and progress instead of beating myself against the thick immovable boulder of perfectionism and winning.
Master your mind
Fitness trainer and choreographer, Shaun T, uses the phrase, “Conquer your mind, and your body will win.” In training, and in life, often the biggest hurdle is yourself.
Here’s an example: I don’t always feel like practicing fencing. Even if I consider it a passion of mine, it’s also a complex sport with a steep learning curve. I entered this new sport at the end of my 50’s with an eye set to reach a national podium sometime during my 60’s.
Meanwhile, most of my competitors have competed since they were young. This can feel discouraging. I don’t “feel” like practicing every day.
But then I remind myself of the future I envision. I refer to my core values of courage and integrity. They instruct me to get off my butt and to get dressed every morning, Monday through Saturday, and practice.
I value the outcomes of practice and I honor myself by staying tough, getting the damn practice done… and done well. As a result, I continue to build mental strength to do it again and succeed.
For any elite athlete to deliver a gold medal performance, they, of course, need to build physical strength, agility, and endurance. But mental toughness matters just as much, if not more.
Sports psychologists actually have athletes train in visualization techniques by imagining themselves competing and winning. The tactic works, and it’s backed by science.
Russian performance psychology researchers have proven the effectiveness of visualization techniques for athletes. They conducted a study observing four different groups of Olympic athletes which each devoted a different percentage of time to mental and physical training:
- Group 1: 100% physical training
- Group 2: 75% physical training, 25% mental training
- Group 3: 50% physical training, 50% mental training
- Group 4: 25% physical training, 75% mental training
So which do you think succeeded the most?
Surprisingly, the researchers found that the fourth group performed the best during the Olympic Games. They discovered that by visualizing their performances, athletes stimulated the same part of the brain that activates when actually doing the physical action. This built mental toughness in sport and gave them an edge when competing.
You can also practice visualization techniques like:
- Setting aside time each day or before an important meeting to visualize yourself succeeding
- Writing a list of goals and visualize yourself achieving them
- Meeting with a coach to discuss and visualize important goals
Replace unhealthy habits with healthy ones
To become stronger physically, you have to stick to healthy habits, like lifting weights. But if you want real results, you also have to give up on some unhealthy habits, like smoking cigarettes or eating junk food.
The same goes for mental strength. You’ll want to develop a growth mindset and focus on consistently pursuing your goals. At the same time, you’ll have to nix unhealthy habits that impede success, like wasting time on things you can’t control or getting caught up in limited thought patterns.
Without replacing your bad habits with healthy ones, you stay stuck. You won’t see progress no matter how hard you work.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) offers a method to recognize unhealthy thought patterns that get in the way of success. Some examples or irrational thought patterns that hold you back could include:
- A feeling of anxiety when speaking in front of large groups
- A cycle of negative thoughts triggered by a parent or spouse when they make certain comments
- Insecure thought patterns when speaking with your boss at work
- Fear or panic when dealing with health-related issues
The therapeutic process of cognitive restructuring, or cognitive reframing, helps to become aware of negative, irrational thought patterns, understand their source, and challenge those beliefs. This helps to heal mental health, manage stress, and reduce the cycle of negative thought patterns that hold you back. You can even replace these thoughts with positive, empowering ones that enable you to cope and build mental strength.
Start building mental strength
So are you ready to be a badass and develop the mental toughness to build the life you want?
If you need someone in your corner to show you the way, consider hiring a coach.
In the meantime, keep showing up and putting in the work.