building mental toughness

Building mental toughness is just like building muscle – you have to work at it every day if you want to become stronger. In Peter Clough and Doug Strycharczyk’s book, Developing Mental Toughness, they define mental toughness as “The quality which determines in large part how people deal effectively with challenges, stressors, and pressure…irrespective of prevailing circumstances.”

Mental Toughness is:

  • Being able to suffer the longest
  • Being willing to do what other athletes won’t do
  • About your attitude and the way you think
  • A habit – the more you train it, the stronger it becomes
  • Consistently performing regardless of your situation
  • Remaining confident under pressure
  • Tolerating pain and discomfort

Mental Toughness is not:

  • Giving up when it gets hard
  • Having a bad attitude when you lose, fail, or make a mistake
  • Something you acquire in one day
  • About the destination
  • Extrinsically motivated

Athletes are more successful (emotionally, physically, and in their sport) when they’re mentally tough. Read on to learn about the qualities of mentally tough athletes and how to build mental toughness. 

Qualities of mentally tough athletes

Resilience is not something you’re just born with. While there are people naturally more resilient than others, you can cultivate it even as an adult. 

Take responsibility for their actions

Tenacious athletes use less excuses and conduct more analyses. When they make a mistake, they don’t dwell on it nor do they blame someone else. They look at it for what it is. They learn from their mistakes and they move on. 

Consistently challenge themselves 

Determined athletes are consistently trying new things to challenge their minds and bodies. They don’t do the same things over and over again because they know that generates the same results. They stay open-minded to new ideas and ways to train. 

Don’t take failure personal

Mentally tough athletes see failure as data and not a judgment of their character. They see failure as part of the process, not the end of the journey. They understand that mistakes are part of growing and that they’re always going to be a “work in progress.” 

Further, these athletes stay in control of their emotions and don’t let their emotions control them. Because they don’t take failure personally, they’re steadfast in taking risks. They see it as a way to improve, instead of dreading it. 

Confident in their abilities

The competition doesn’t scare resilient athletes. Instead, they greet it with enthusiasm. They view their competition as a way to improve themselves. Also, they don’t take the competition personally. In other words, they don’t let what their competitors says affect them. 

Strategies for building mental toughness 

Taking on a challenge, whether that be in sport, at work, or life in general, requires some mental toughness. Building mental toughness isn’t easy, but if it was easy everyone would be doing it. Try one or all of the following to start building mental toughness:

Set performance goals

Performance goals are intrinsically motivated and involve comparing an older version of yourself to your current self, such as achieving a new personal best. The focus is more on the execution than the results. They are “hows” behind an outcome.  

I recently raced up Mt. Evans for the third time. I wanted to get on the podium but looking at the roster of my competitors, I knew I’d be disappointed. Instead, I decided to focus on setting a new PR. I ended up knocking off 19 minutes from last year’s time. 

There are long-term and short-term goals you can create. Long-term goals will help remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing – like racing your bike. When your morale is low, ask yourself: why are you training as hard as you are! It’s that long-term goal, your “why,” that’s going to keep you going.

You also need short-term goals though because when you accomplish a goal, whether big or small, it gives you that additional motivation to keep striving toward your long-term goal.

When creating goals, make them S.M.A.R.T

Manage self-talk

What you think, you become. We’re constantly thinking thoughts — about 70,000, actually. And most of these thoughts are negative. Anywhere from 70–80% of our thoughts are negative. 

When you start fixating on a negative thought, ask yourself, “Is this 100% true?” and “Is this contributing to my overall happiness?” If the answer is “no” to both questions, move on to your next thought. 

Building mental toughness requires you to control your thoughts. As I raced up Mt. Evans, my low back, legs, and lungs ached. It would have been so much easier to turn around and take a DNF (Did Not Finish). I could have berated myself for being weak. Instead, I managed my self-talk. I continually said, “Keep going,” “I can do this,” and “I’m almost there.” 

If you’re giving yourself hell, realize what you’re doing and stop by focusing on the present. Focus on your five senses: 

  1. What can you hear right now?
  2. What can you taste right now?
  3. What can you touch right now?
  4. What can you smell right now?
  5. What can you see right now?

Having to think about your five senses brings you to the present. You can only focus on one thought at a time and thinking about your sense quiets your negative self-talk. 


Working on visualizing achieving your goal is difficult if imagination doesn’t come naturally to you. Try anyway. Visualize winning your race, taking corners fast, smooth, and confidently. Imagine what it’d feel like to go on the attack and get away from the group, how your legs and lungs would feel. Think about what the course looks like, what you’re wearing, what your competitors look like, etc. 

As I warmed up for the Mt. Evans Hill Climb, I imagined the road and all the cracks and potholes. I thought about the number of hairpin turns I’d ride up to get to the finish. I imagined my body feeling strong and fast. 

For “A” races, I start visualizing days, if not weeks, in advance. 

Practice looking at mistakes as data 

Mentally strong athletes act as a scientist conducting an experiment. Mistakes will happen. If they haven’t yet, you’re not trying hard enough. Look at your mistakes as data. 

I came in fourth on the Mt. Evans Hill Climb. Instead of thinking I’m a weak athlete, I analyzed my data and determined my weaknesses. Then I created steps I can take to become stronger. Next, I’ll experiment with my hypothesis. No, I don’t use words like “hypothesis” or “experiment” during my training. 

Then I do the hard things first. Don’t put off them off. Hate VO2 Max Intervals? Hate a certain weight lifting exercise? Get it done before the rest. 

Seek to fail

One of my cycling friends, Anna, told me to “race to fail.” She meant that your goal should be to fail. Seeking to fail is challenging yourself. You won’t know what you’re capable of if you never experiment. You can make it a game: “What can I do to fail this time?”

Anna has always sought failure. It’s probably why she’s a Cat 2 cyclist racing for Amy D. Foundation. I tried racing to fail once. At Boulder Roubaix I attacked at the top of a hill with a couple miles left until the finish line. I didn’t think it’d work. I thought the women would chase me down. I got away. Then I came in third place. 

By seeking to fail and constantly trying something new, you keep your competition guessing. 

Develop a pre-event routine that psychs you up 

Building mental toughness doesn’t have to always be difficult. Create a pre-event routine that gets you excited:

  1. Food that gives you energy/makes you feel good
  2. Music that pumps you up
  3. Practice visualization
  4. Practice meditation
  5. Create a mantra or find a motivational quote
  6. Find an object that means something to you
  7. Do you get more energy talking to people before the event or keeping to yourself? Do it. 

Create intrinsically motivating factors

If you’re extrinsically-motivated you are participating in your sport for external reasons, such as awards and trophies or to not disappoint a family member or friend.

Intrinsic motivation is when you participate in your sport for internal reasons, such as the enjoyment of the sport and you want to improve your skills.

Ask yourself “why.” Everyone has a reason for doing what they do. When you’re losing motivation, ask yourself why you’re doing this thing. What makes you continue on? What made you start in the first place? Do you remember your first race and what it felt like?

Building mental toughness takes time and dedication. When you’re mentally tough, you can effectively deal with any challenge that comes your way.

Someone who’s mentally tough: 

  • Takes responsibility for their actions
  • Consistently challenges themselves 
  • Doesn’t take failure personally
  • Takes risks
  • Is confident in their abilities

To build mental toughness: 

  • Set performance goals
  • Manage your self-talk
  • Practice Visualization
  • Look at mistakes as data
  • Seek to fail
  • Develop a pre-event routine that psychs you up 
  • Create intrinsically motivating factors

If you’d like to read more information about mental toughness and resiliency, here are my recommendations:

Brave Athlete 

Thinking Body, Dancing Mind

Developing Mental Toughness: Coaching Strategies to Improve Performance, Resilience and Wellbeing