Mental Toughness: What Does it Take to be an Elite Athlete?

Tennis matches are long. With constant bursts of energy, sprinting and swinging, how do athletes stay tough and ready for competition in a tournament setting?

Dr. Barbara Walker, a UC Health psychologist and UC assistant professor of psychiatry, gives us more insight into what mental toughness is and how to build it.

Q: What is mental toughness?

A: Mental toughness encompasses so many things. Mental toughness can be anything like being confident, being focused, the ability to recover from mistakes and being resilient. Being prepared, having a healthy mindset before competition, being relaxed and properly motivated – all of these things feed into what we think of as mental toughness.

Mental toughness is a pretty abstract concept, but you can sometimes observe it in people, particularly before or during competition. Looking at things like body language, confident stances, making eye contact or being focused.

Q: How can people build mental toughness?

A: People can work to build mental toughness by making sure they focus on recovering physically after strenuous activity. Things like making sure you’re sleeping well, eating well and giving yourself the best opportunity to be in the best shape possible.

And also, making sure that when you’re practicing, you’re working as hard as you would and with the same amount of focus you would use in actual competition. This is called simulation training. For example, if an athlete is practicing really lightly, when they take that work into high-level competition, they don’t know how to handle it. Practicing well and simulating a competition-like environment is one way athletes build up their mental toughness.

Q: Why is it that some athletes, like marathon runners for example, seem to just naturally have more mental toughness than others?

A: I think it’s a little bit of experience. So, in the marathon runner example, it’s probably not as hard for them as it is for a newbie, because they’ve experienced it before. So they’re physically experiencing something that not everyone would experience.

They’re used to the ups and downs of training and racing, and they likely know their body really well. Someone who has run multiple marathons or engaged in multiple, intense and high-level competition is more likely to know better that maybe a little twinge in their thigh may simply mean they need more water. But when someone is newer to the activity, a twinge in their thigh might lead them to catastrophic thinking and thinking that their training is over. So I think that with mental experience in the face of tough competition comes mental toughness as well.

Q: What are the types of things that you can do to recover after strenuous activity to kind of recharge your mind?

A: A lot of that comes, again, with recovery. Recovery may be different depending on the person and what they need and what the activity is, but a big part of recharging is about proper recovery. Recovery could literally be taking a nap, it could be going out with your friends; anything that helps you take a break and feel refreshed after hard work. But mainly it’s about unplugging from your activity.

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