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Have you ever wondered what makes some people more successful in life than others?
While many things contribute to a person’s success, top performers tend to share one particular thing in common. It’s not necessarily their talent or intelligence, although they may have that in abundance. More often than not, it’s their mental toughness. It’s what may separate the extraordinarily successful from the just-skating-by.
What is mental toughness?
Mental toughness is the ability to stay focused, positive, and competitive, despite failure or mistakes. It gives you strength and resilience to keep moving forward even when things aren’t going the way you’d hope. People who are mentally tough have a growth mindset, meaning they see challenges as an opportunity to grow and learn rather than getting dragged down.
Benefits of mental toughness
Mental toughness helps you be a more effective person (Mahoney, 2014). You can be a better leader, student, performer, friend, and more. When you are mentally tough, you can:
- Enjoy better self-esteem and well-being: Mentally tough people believe in themselves and are more liked by their peers. They have fewer concerns and more self-confidence in difficult situations, like switching to a new school or job. Mental toughness is also linked to lower stress and depression symptoms and more life satisfaction (Lin, 2017).
- Improve your athletic performance: Athletes who score higher on mental toughness demonstrate more endurance and stick-to-it-iveness. During competition, they are less stressed and don’t let their emotions distract them (Kaiseler, 2009; Stamatis, 2020).
- Improve your GPA and academic performance: Mentally tough students are less likely to skip school and are more focused and engaged during class. They have higher grades and perform better on memory tests (Lin, 2017).
- Achieve more of your goals: Mentally tough people are committed to achieving their goals. They are more consistent and focused, making them more productive since they get to work without hesitation instead of waiting for motivation to strike. Because they trust in the process, they become more resilient and confident, both when facing big challenges and the little everyday ones. And when they encounter problems, they are more resourceful in finding solutions (Lin, 2017).
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How to build mental toughness: 7 tips
Research shows you can develop more mental toughness throughout your life (Lin, 2017; Stamatis, 2020). Try these strategies for developing mental toughness:
1. Define your long-term goals
One thing that sets mentally tough people apart is their ability to set goals and create plans to make them a reality. This involves sitting down and defining your goals, then creating a clear, actionable plan for achieving them (Rice, 2016; Kaiseler, 2009). For example:
- Is your goal to strengthen your friendships? Make a plan to call a friend every week or organize a monthly get-together with friends.
- Is it working out more often? Choose days you want to work out, and then schedule your workouts ahead of time.
- Do you want to get stronger? Create a plan that allows you to gradually add more reps, weight, or time to your workout.
- Are you gunning for a specific promotion at work? Make a plan with your manager for how you will demonstrate your readiness for that new role.
2. Spend time in the mental gym
Mental strength grows just like the physical kind: with regular, consistent practice and increased effort (Kaiseler, 2009). Push yourself just a little further whenever the opportunity arises. Write one more page of your novel, squeeze in an extra rep at the gym, or take one more walk around the block.
Each time you flex that mental muscle, the more powerful you feel and the easier it becomes the next time—because you’re making it a habit. The effort you’re putting in makes you feel more in control and more masterful until, eventually, the hard work becomes a reward itself.
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3. Seek out mental toughness role models
From elite athletes to Fortune 500 CEOs, plenty of successful people have done interviews and shared how mental toughness contributed to their success, including Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, and Steve Jobs. Serena Williams calls mental toughness her greatest strength and even has a MasterClass on the subject!
So, learn from the people you admire. Read or watch interviews with those who have mental toughness or seek out people in your life who embody these traits.
4. Develop routines
Routines are a core component of mental toughness training (Poulus, 2020). Routines can give you a series of steps to focus on and complete. When you have a routine you trust, all you need to focus on is completing each step, rep, and task. There’s no room to doubt yourself or let fear, laziness, or boredom creep in. You’re too busy focusing on the routine.
Over time, as you start to see results, your trust will grow as well, helping you continue to trust your process moving forward.
5. Flip your perspective
When you experience a setback, see it as an opportunity to learn and grow. What went wrong? How can you change things for next time? Setbacks are part of the process, not a judgment on your value as a person. Sticking with it when it’s tough can make all the difference.
6. Practice positive self-talk
While feedback is useful, criticism that is too negative or overly harsh can be demotivating, especially when turned inward on yourself. People who value mental toughness develop habits of positive self-talk, such as (Rice, 2016):
- Repeating personal affirmations
- Reminding yourself of your accomplishments and abilities
- Cheering yourself on with a personal pep talk
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7. Use visualization to stay focused
Visualizing yourself achieving your goals can set you up for success. By visualizing yourself crossing the finish line, publishing your book, or celebrating with friends all around you, visualization meditation keeps you focused and helps you see the path toward your desired outcome. When you can see it, it’s easier to keep working toward it (Rice, 2016).
In one study, people were advised to imagine lifting a heavy object during a strength training exercise. This simple visualization measurably increased their muscle activity and strength, whether they were trained athletes or total newbies (Slimani, 2016).
Developing mental toughness can help you develop psychological skills and personality traits that make you more successful every day and in stressful situations. You’ll be more resilient, more focused, and more confident. You can make a plan to implement these strategies today.
- Kaiseler, M., Polman, R., & Nicholls, A. (2009). Mental toughness, stress, stress appraisal, coping and coping effectiveness in sport. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(7), 728–733. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2009.06.012. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2009-12225-012
- Lin, Y., Mutz, J., Clough, P. J., & Papageorgiou, K. A. (2017). Mental toughness and individual differences in learning, educational and work performance, psychological well-being, and personality: A systematic review. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1345. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01345. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28848466/
- Mahoney, J. W., Gucciardi, D. F., Ntoumanis, N., & Mallett, C. J. (2014). Mental toughness in sport: Motivational antecedents and associations with performance and psychological health. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 36(3), 281–292. doi:10.1123/jsep.2013-0260. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24918311/
- Poulus, D., Coulter, T. J., Trotter, M. G., & Polman, R. (2020). Stress and coping in esports and the influence of mental toughness. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 628. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00628. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32390900/
- Rice, S. M., Purcell, R., De Silva, S., et al. (2016). The mental health of elite athletes: A narrative systematic review. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 46(9), 1333–1353. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0492-2. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26896951/
- Slimani, M., Tod, D., Chaabene, H., et al. (2016). Effects of mental imagery on muscular strength in healthy and patient participants: A systematic review. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 15(3), 434–450. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27803622/
- Stamatis, A., Grandjean, P., Morgan, G., et al. (2020). Developing and training mental toughness in sport: A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies and pre-test and post-test experiments. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 6(1), e000747. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2020-000747. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32577300/
- Wolcott, M. D., McLaughlin, J. E., Hann, A., et al. (2021). A review to characterise and map the growth mindset theory in health professions education. Medical Education, 55(4), 430–440. doi:10.1111/medu.14381. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32955728/
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.