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Mental toughness in sport and what we can learn from it

Tue, 05/07/2019 - 08:10
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How do Olympians find the determination, discipline and drive to compete in one of the worlds most highly pressured industries? Is there anything that we can learn from them and apply to our own lives?

It’s all about mental toughness

Mental toughness is considered one of the key attributes required in athletes as physical ability and talent alone are not enough to be successful in this field. This is a relatively new area of research to sport and, although the concept of mental toughness was first explored in 1957 (Raymond Cattel), it is only since 2000 that significant research has been undertaken.

man swimming

So, what is mental toughness exactly? In 2005, John Wayne Creasy Jr explored this exact question in his ‘Analysis of the Components of Mental Toughness in Sport’. He identified 12 key attributes:

  1. An unshakable self-belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals. 
  2. An unshakable self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents. 
  3. Having an insatiable desire and internalised motives to succeed. 
  4. Bouncing back from performance set-backs as a result of increased determination to succeed. 
  5. Thriving on the pressure of competition. 
  6. Accepting that competition anxiety is inevitable and knowing that you can cope with it. 
  7. Not being adversely affected by others’ good and bad performances. 
  8. Remaining fully-focused in the face of personal life distractions. 
  9. Switching a sport focus on and off as required
  10. Remaining fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions. 
  11. Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain, while still maintaining technique and effort under distress (in training and competition).  
  12. Regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events (competition specific). 

In the context of athletes, the key words that stand out for me here are:


Max Whitlock, five time Olympic medalist (and one of our BTEC alumni) says this, 

‘Fifty-per cent of being successful is down to your mental performance and the ability to stay calm under pressure. At the Olympics, four years of work can be undone by one small mistake, so you need the ability to focus and stay in the zone. I try not to look around too much and think about other people’s scores, and how they can affect my performance. I just focus on myself’

The mental - and physical - strength of Olympic athletes is inspirational and many people - including the press - continually refer to them as superhuman. They are strong role-models for a reason. So what can we, the ‘average’ human beings actually learn from these experiences? Here are a few things to consider:

Adversity - we all have to face challenges at some point. Whether these are work-based challenges, or personal challenges. At times, we find these hard and may even want to run away. Olympic athletes not only strive from challenges, they grow from them and consider adversity essential to being successful. 

Constructive criticism - Development is an essential part of what we all do, not just in the working environment, but to grow as individual human beings. The intense training programme for Olympic athletes involves not only an ability to set goals and objectives, but also to then learn from criticism, reflect, adjust and apply to their work accordingly.

Focus - The focus and determination of Olympians is incredible. Years of training for one race, one event, one moment. We all have goals and objectives we would like to meet, from daily tasks to long term projects etc. Fortunately, we can achieve those with less intensity and pressure than Olympians, however, focus and determination are key to achieving anything.

olive tree

But there is also an underlying principle to the Olympic games, and an overriding message we can all take away. When the games first started, around 776BC, the Olympic finish line was marked with an olive tree. The olive tree is said to represent: 

Peace, prosperity, hope, strength, victory and resistance.

Sports bring together communities and cultures in an incredible way. We celebrate each other while rooting for our own and welcome everyone - with pride. We admire the skill and talent of the competitors and it inspires and motivates us to try harder. Maybe we won’t win a medal, but we all have our own finishing lines and we can all work towards being the best we can possibly be.

I think we can all learn something from that.


Trained in dance, drama and music Fiona Ross has been working in the creative arts Industry for many years with her first professional job at the age of two. Currently working in the jazz industry, she has released four critically acclaimed albums in the past three years and performed in London’s top jazz venues. Fiona is also a freelance journalist for three major jazz publications and passionate advocate for mental health promotion and is a patron for the mental health organisation Insomniac Club.

She is involved in teaching, leadership and arrangement in education and was Head of British Academy of New Music, London, for nearly nine years (Ed Sheeran, Rita Ora, Jess Glynne etc)


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