Mental Toughness: What It Is And How To Develop It.

posted by Tyler Bradstreet

It was always said Michael Jordan got better when the playoffs started, however, when comparing his regular season stats with his post season stats, they are quite similar. When comparing the regular season stats of many of the athletes he faced in the playoffs during his career with their post season stats, a decline can be seen. So, what can this be attributed to?

Michael Jordan was said to be one of the most mentally tough athletes ever to play the game of basketball. Michael’s biggest strength was his mental game. Jordan held a decisive mental edge over his opponents throughout his entire career. But, what does being mentally tough really mean?

Mental toughness is one of the most used terms in applied sport psychology; however, it is one of the least understood (Jones, Hanton, & Connaugthon, 2002). Definitions of this construct not only vary widely among coaches, sport commentators, fans, and athletes, but also among researchers (Nicholls, Polman, Levy, & Blackhouse, 2008). One thing can be agreed upon; mental toughness is a multi-faceted construct made up of key components such as: (a) self belief; (b) contextual intelligence; (c) resilience; (d) emotional awareness and regulation; (e) attentional control; (f) optimistic thinking; (g) motivation; and (h) success mentality (Gucciardi, 2012).

Sorry everyone, that was the APA-researcher coming out in me. However, it had a purpose; We all use the term mental toughness, but cannot necessarily define it. The definition I feel that most represents the construct is:

” Having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands that sport places on a performer; specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure” (Connaughton & Hanton, 2009).

Now that we know what mental toughness is, how do you develop it?

Here is a simple 7-step model in order to develop mental toughness.

1.     Find the right attitude and state of mind. 

  •  what is your core confidence all about?
  •  confidence is knowing your are prepared and having an unshakable belief in your abilities to reach intended goals
  •  do you have the courage to leave it all out on the athletic field, play with heart, determination, and full focus?

 2.   Program your mind for success ahead of time with positive affirmations and expectations.

  • expect the best from yourself; affirm what it is you are going to do to be successful.
  • confident goal oriented statements such as: I will, I can, I am going to…etc.
  • focus on the things you want to occur, rather than things you’re afraid might go wrong.
  • script success: visualize yourself performing the way you want: being confident, energized, and full of focus.

3.    Find an appropriate routine: Develop a systematic pre-performance routine that sparks the desired mental-emotional
state of mind.

  • practice – commit yourself to giving everything you have the entire practice – this includes making a commitment to listening,
    learning, executing skills with precision and full  focus.
  • pre-game competition – develop a systematic routine for engineering the environment and getting yourself ready.
  • during competition; commit your self to being mentally tough and a great competitor throughout the entire game performance.

4.     Poise and composure: Learn how to let go of mistakes quickly if things do not go the way you want.

  • key part of mental training is about compensating, adjusting, and trusting.
  • do you have a plan A; plan B; plan C?
  • be persistent; don’t allow frustration to undermine your confidence/focus.

5.    Take control of negative self-talk: Reframe into positive task oriented suggestions.

  • gain awareness of situations that cause you to get frustrated, rushed, intimidated, lose focus – then reframe the negativity into positive, mentally tough self-suggestions.

6.    Look at failure as a stepping stone for future achievement.

  • champions approach to overcoming adversity: play to win as opposed to fear making mistakes.
  • focus on the process of competing well, winning will take care of itself.

7.   Be a difference maker, step up and have a peak performance when it matters the most




Being mentally tough in sports can be just as valuable as being able to run fast and jump high. Developing this mentally tough mindset can keep you one step ahead of your opponents; so go ahead; be like Mike (for those of you who remember the 90s commercials!).

Tyler C. Bradstreet
Master’s Student: Sport and Exercise Psychology
Teaching Fellow: Department of Kinesiology, Health Promotion, and Recreation
Sport Psychology Consultant: Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence
University of North Texas: Denton, TX


7 thoughts on “Mental Toughness: What It Is And How To Develop It.”

  1. Michael Jordan not only wanted the ball at crunch time, he got mad at his teammates when they took the last shot (except when he dished the ball to Kerr). Even when Pippen took the last shot, and made it (against Indiana in the playoffs), Jordan got mad at him. Why? Most people would be relieved if another person stepped up to take the last shot if, for no other reason than to lay the blame for the loss on someone else if that person missed the shot. Most big-time athletes won’t directly blame their teammate, they’ll say a cliche like: “We win and lose as a team,” but everyone knows they’re relieved the focus isn’t on them. Jordan apparently didn’t care about blame, or having a scapegoat, he just wanted the win. That type of drive, and belief, is almost unmatched in sports.

  2. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both equally educative and amusing, and let me
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