Mental Toughness: Brain Power for Sports

It is easy to play mind games when you play sports. No matter how much you practice, you always have to contend with your greatest enemy: the mind that asks “what if?”

What if rather than chipping onto the green, you duff and send the ball into the water in front of the green? What if you are serving at match point and you double fault, giving your opponent the tennis match?

Imagine, though, if you no longer had to wonder “what if.” Imagine if you had the toughness and confidence to succeed. With some simple training skills used by professional athletes, you can have both.

What Is Mental Toughness?

Getting mentally tough does not mean bulking up your biceps to appear bigger, meaner, or stronger. It is not even about adopting a killer instinct; instead, getting mentally tough means gaining the confidence that will pull you through any situation. Or as James E. Loehr, EdD, writes in his book, The New Toughness Training for Sports, “Toughness is the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”

Everybody, no matter what their level of competition, can benefit from mental toughness training, says JoAnn Dahlkoetter, PhD, a sports psychologist who practices inSan Carlos,California, and a world-class triathlete. “Sports is 90% mental,” she says. “Being mentally tough is what separates winners from losers, and people who persist versus quitters.”

Yet for many athletes, the physical aspects of training overshadow any mental conditioning. Without practicing mental toughness, you risk getting burned out. “Without the mental conditioning, you may get a negative attitude about your sport or just not enjoy it anymore,” Dahlkoetter says.

The mental toughness you gain in your sport will also translate into life, says Robert Schleser, PhD, a professor of psychology atChicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology who has worked with NCAA Final Four players. “If you can learn how to develop mental toughness in sports,” he says, “you can transfer it to other areas of your life.” (The article “Mental Resilience: Bouncing Back From Adversity” offers more tips.)

Traits of the Mentally Tough

Those who have acquired mental toughness exhibit three main characteristics, all of which Dahlkoetter says can be learned.

“You have to have a dream or hunger that fuels your passion to achieve your goals,” Dahlkoetter says, adding, that you should want to achieve this for yourself. “Where the mind goes, everything else follows.”

That desire has to motivate you to be committed to your sport. As Dahlkoetter says, “Regardless of your level, you have to want to be good at that sport, to regularly stretch your limits and work on your goals, regardless of the obstacles that get in your way.”

Finally, you need to realize that you will face adversity. “Sports is an up and down roller coaster,” Dahlkoetter says. In other words, you might have a great day followed by a really bad day. “When that happens, you need to be able to calm yourself and see the big picture that you’re moving toward, in spite of those bad days.”

The Two Faces of Mental Toughness

Mental toughness consists of two elements, Schleser says. The first is self-efficacy, or believing that you can perform. Remember that chip shot over the water? Being mentally tough means knowing that you can place the ball safely on the green.

The second part is focus. “You have to be able to focus on the task at hand and not have distracting thoughts,” Schleser says. Take, for example, basketball players shooting a free throw during a major game. Not only do they have to make the shot, they also have to block out the swarm of fans who are trying to distract them.

So how do you get these elements? By practicing techniques recommended by Dahlkoetter and Schleser.

How to Muscle Up Your Mind for Mental Toughness

Clear your thoughts before your workout. “Most athletes waste time during their workouts by obsessing about their bad shots or thinking about everything they have to do when they get home,” Dahlkoetter says. “It’s not until the end of their workout when they’re focused.”


To make the most of your time, spend five minutes focusing before your workout. Close your eyes, take 10 deep abdominal breaths, and visualize what you would like to happen. Speak positive affirmations by telling yourself you can handle any situation. Then when you practice, you can spend the whole session focused on making improvements in your game.


Concentrate on breathing, whether you are practicing or competing. As you inhale deeply, breathe in confidence, Schleser says. As you exhale, release your doubts and fear. Use this technique especially when you get in situations that might ordinarily cause you to choke.

Practice Mental Imagery

This will improve your physical skill and quell the what-ifs in your head. See yourself making those impossible shots in golf or nailing those free throws. “You rehearse those crucial events so that when they occur in real time,” Schleser says, “you’ve done them a million times and therefore have the confidence to do well when it really counts.”

Emulate the Pros

Watch five minutes of videos before you slumber at night. Pop in a tape of a professional athlete in your sport. Then as you close your eyes, breathe deeply and visualize the fluidity, gracefulness, and speed of the athletes. “The last thing you think about at night is most often what you dream about,” Dahlkoetter says. “So while you’re sleeping, your self conscious can be working on these images and you wake up a more confident golfer, for example.”

Get into a Zone

“People get anxious before a competitive event because there’s nothing to do,” Schleser says. “Yet they feel okay as soon as the game gets underway.” To decrease your anxiety, spend time alone before you compete and clear your thoughts. Use mental imagery and deep breathing.

Maintain a Balance in Your Life

“Most people put too much pressure on themselves to do well, which can cause them to perform poorly,” Dahlkoetter says. To avoid putting excessive pressure on yourself, spend quality time away from your sport, get proper sleep, eat healthy, and pamper yourself before a big event by doing something that makes you feel good, like taking a hot bath.

Believe in Yourself

“Beliefs give rise to reality,” Dahlkoetter says. “You’ll find that as your beliefs about your limits change, the limits themselves begin to move.”


Dahlkoetter J. Mental Fitness Training: Workouts for the Mind .

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