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Some athletes might never back down from challenges in a race, but find it ludicrous to train through rain. Others might train in 0-degree temperatures (a Minnesota heatwave), but find hard workouts and races too mentally taxing to do consistently.
Danielle Snyder, a licensed clinical social worker with an emphasis in sport performance who works with athletes of all abilities through Inner Drive Athlete, summarized the stakes: “We have such high expectations for our brains to perform and yet most individuals ignore the work that allows them to challenge the inner critic.”
While we are all unique, there are some unifying themes that might help you strengthen your mental toughness muscle and learn to work with your inner critic.
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Before we dive into the details, what is mental toughness?
The mental toughness literature really kicked into high gear in a 2002 article in the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology, which set out to answer a simple question in its title: What is this thing called mental toughness? Up to that point, mental toughness definitions seemed to be similar to how Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described hardcore pornography in a 1964 case: “I know it when I see it.”
The 2002 study addressed this conceptual gap through qualitative interviews of 10 international athletes (including a couple of runners and, interestingly, a trampoliner). From those interviews, applying social-science research methods, the authors found a definition that is largely accepted today. To paraphrase, “mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge” to cope with the demands of sport and be more consistent in “remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure.” It applies to training and lifestyle, not just competition. A passage from the study discussion sums it up:
“It is really about knowing what your priorities are at any given time and not being distracted from them. And priorities are not always about training and competition. Mentally tough performers are able to switch off from sport-related demands when they need or desire to.”
The most important attributes of mentally tough performers are “self-belief, desire and motivation, focus (performance-related), focus (lifestyle-related), dealing with competition-related pressure (external) and anxiety (internal) and dealing with physical and emotional pain.” Check those boxes, and you control some of the mental variables that contribute to top performance. But can mental toughness be developed over time?
Mental toughness can be developed, but we all start with baseline psychological profiles.
Early development matters for mental toughness, just like it matters for all of our psychology. A 2008 article in the Journal of Sport Sciences that looked at this question found that the “early years” of being an athlete played a big role in how we conceived of ourselves and sport later. On top of that, a 2018 article in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Physiology followed a single athlete for five months and showed that mental toughness varies over time based on circumstances.
So no matter where you are starting in the mental-toughness spectrum, give yourself the grace to know that it varies over time and it’s not just a choice you make each day. Instead, it’s a complex mix of all the things that make you who you are. If you are a bit less mentally tough on a hard workout, that could be the flipside of being generous and caring to a coworker later that day (or some other trait you wish to cultivate). Everything is intertwined into your full personality, and as always, you are enough as is.
While there is a baseline mental-toughness framework we bring into our athletic lives, the research points out a few things we can do to optimize our development.
Find encouraging communities and support networks.
A 2007 article in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology identified community in the form of fellow competitors, teammates, coaches, parents or partners as important in alleviating performance anxiety and other issues related to mental toughness. Accountability and support structures matter, whether you are a runner or writer or chef or a puppy that wants nothing more than to pee on the carpet.
Strategies: Join a running group, get a coach, talk with people you care about, work with a therapist or sport psychologist.
Develop a motivational setting of challenge, reward and enjoyment.
Sustainable mental toughness requires exposure to challenging conditions. There’s no way around it—you have to embrace the suck.
For some people, that might mean running in the rain or snow. For others, it might mean practicing mindfulness about discomfort during hill intervals. As Snyder says, when it comes to sport psychology, “Practice makes permanence.”
To be adept at not backing down when the going gets tough, you need to keep going when parts of your brain might not want you to. A 2011 article in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology interviewed NCAA head coaches and found that these mental-toughness learning opportunities were perceived as the most important parts of toughness development.
However, the article points out, in the challenge should be some joy. Reward behaviors you wish to support, celebrate successes and recognize that you are exceptional because of the grind, not because of the accomplishments that come from the grind.
Strategies: Don’t choose the path of least resistance, be openly proud of yourself, laugh in moments you may be discouraged, use positive self-talk during tough running moments, practice using a neutral-observer approach to pain and discomfort during runs, sign up for races.
Support an intrinsic motivation to succeed.
Sustainable drive usually comes from within because external incentive structures often crumble over time. You might train to prove the doubters wrong, but, eventually, you’ll realize that no one thinks about you as much as you think about you (unless you’re the New England Patriots, in which case you can always make up new “doubters” each year). Or you’ll give everything for a race, sacrificing some of what you like about yourself, only to burnout after you cross the finish line and realize nothing changes. A 2010 article in the European Journal of Sport Sciences backs that up, finding commitment as the unifying trait of mentally tough performers, usually co-occurring with positive self-talk, emotional control and relaxation strategies.
Intrinsic motivation varies a lot for each person, but the main goal is to understand why you are doing what you are doing. Simple answers are OK; just make sure even the simplest answers acknowledge the complexity of a running life and are not just optimized for sunny days.
Strategies: Write down positive affirmations about the type of person and runner you want to be, reflect about your journey each day in a training journal, use positive self-talk inside and outside of runs.
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Learn from pressure and anxiety.
A unifying trait of mentally tough performers is that they are not ruled by a fear of failure or difficulty. The reality of an athletic life is that failure will be a constant companion. That can be big failures like not finishing a race, or daily failures like blowing up in a workout. A number of articles point out that fear is an emotion that sabotages growth because it counters the self-belief required to be mentally tough.
Fortunately, failure is a wonderful teacher. A 2011 article in the Journal of Sport Psychology in Action pointed out that athletes should be encouraged to reflect on setbacks and failures. “Negative experiences, as well as the confidence-boosting outcomes of achieving goals, provide opportunities for personal growth, and allow important lessons to be learned.”
There’s a reason every entrepreneur recounts stories of epic fails that got them to where they are, and I’m not talking about Jeff Bezos-style fails. It’s because without failure, we have little reason to change behavior and grow. So accept pressure and anxiety as affirmations of life, demonstrating that you care. And caring is good, because without it, there’d be no reason to persevere when the going got tough.
“From failure, we can build resiliency,” Snyder says. “And resiliency makes big dreams possible.”
Strategies: Talk or write about failure rather than bottling it up inside, make failure a goal each year since it shows you are striving to your limits.
There are a bunch more elements to consider, but put it all together, and it really comes down to cultivating persistent self-belief, during good times and bad. A 2018 study in PLoS one found that athletes generally grouped into low, medium and high mental toughness categories, and the biggest difference between the toughest athletes was resolute self-belief. How each of us gets there varies a ton.
I like athletes to believe in themselves from a place of universal context. We are stardust with big dreams, how cool is it that we can find meaning in things like athletics? As Kurt Vonnegut said in A Man Without A Country, “We are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anyone tell you different.” We control our narrative, so let’s make that narrative about how freaking awesome you are and how amazing this all is.
Others might find totally different approaches grounded in anything from spirituality to innate competitive drive. Your brain and background are beautifully unique, so where you derive your mental toughness from will be unique, too. Remember these basic principles, and try to apply them to your life, changing the specifics based on your background.
But, most importantly, try to remember how freaking awesome you are. That will get you most of the way there.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.