In sport there is an increasing awareness of how important psychological factors are within athletic performance and it is now being recognized that physical talent is not the only component which leads to success (Gucciardi, Gordon & Dimmock, 2008).   In the scientific and sport community, mental toughness is viewed as one of the most important attributes that will lead to a successful athletic performance (Bull, Shambrook, James, & Brooks, 2005).  At the highest level it is often the mental game which separates the elite performers from the good performers (Gould, Jackson, & Finch, 1993).  In sport there has been very little scientific attention focusing around mental toughness and this is seen as very surprising considering that the term has been widely used over the last twenty years (Gould, Hodge, Peterson & Petlichkoff, 1987).  Due to a lack of research, mental toughness is seen as one of the most overused and least understood term in the area of sport psychology (Jones, Hanton & Connaughton, 2002)

Early Perspectives

The earliest attempt to define mental toughness was proposed by Raymond Cattell who suggested that it was a personality trait (Cattell, 1957).  The concept of tough mindedness was identified by Cattell, (1957) as one of the 16 primary source traits which were measured by his 16 personality factor questionnaire (16PF).  The 16PF has been widely used in psychological research, however it has not been used in sport to measure mental toughness.  Cattell (1957) saw tough mindedness as an important trait which was part of personality and many other researchers followed in this direction (Kroll, 1967). However it can be argued that this research is not grounded in sound scientific theory and more recently researchers have been arguing that it is important to understand mental toughness from a theoretical perspective (Clough & Earle, 2002a)

Sport General Research

Within sport the term mental toughness is used by a variety of coaches, performers and sport psychologists, and it is only recently that researchers have attempted to define and understand the concept (Thelwell, Weston & Greenlees, 2005).  Fourie and Potgieter (2001) were the first to identify psychological attributes which people considered to be related to the concept of mental toughness in sport. The researchers conducted a study which looked at written responses from 160 elite athletes and 131 expert coaches from 31 individual and team sports (Gucciardi, Gordon & Dimmock, 2009. The data from these written responses was content analyzed and it was found that there were twelve main components of mental toughness which were identified by the participants. These twelve components were; team unity, preparation skills, competitiveness, motivation level, coping skills, confidence maintenance, cognitive skill, discipline and goal directedness, possession of physical and mental requirements, psychological hardiness, ethics and religious convictions (Gucciardi, Gordon et al., 2009).

Jones, Hanton et al., (2002) set out to expand on the understanding of mental toughness by focusing on what essential attributes are needed to become a mentally tough performer.  The researchers recruited ten international performers who took part in interviews, focus groups and a rank order task. After conducting the research the term mental toughness was defined as (Jones et al., 2002, p. 209):

“Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to:

  • Generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on the performer.
  • Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure”

As well as defining mental toughness, Jones at al. (2002) investigated the key attributes which are essential to becoming a mentally tough athlete. Many of the attributes found in the study were very similar to those which have been found in previous literature (Thelwell, Weston et al., 2005).  Jones at al. (2002) conducted a rank order task to determine the order of importance of the attributes and it was found that the following were all key for a mentally tough athlete: (a) having self-belief in one’s ability to achieve goals; (b) being able to recover from set backs and having an extra determination to succeed; (c) having a high amount of self belief that one has better abilities and more qualities than their opponents; (d) having a high amount of motivation and desire to succeed; (e) being fully-focused

on the task even when there are distractions; (f) having the ability to regain psychological control following uncontrollable events; (g) having the ability to overcome emotional and physical pain; (h) being able to accept and cope with the anxiety experienced in competition; (i) thriving on pressure; (j) having the ability to not be affected by good or bad performances; (k) having the ability to remain fully focused even in the face of distraction; and (l) the ability to switch the focus on your sport on and off.

To extend on their earlier research, Jones, Hanton and Connaughton (2007) conducted a study where eight Olympic champions were interviewed along with three of their coaches and four of their sport psychologists. The main aim of this study was to develop a framework of mental toughness which would help to identify key attributes that are used in a number of different sports. The methodology used for this study was a data triangulation and it is seen as one of the most in depth investigations to date (Jones, Hanton et al., 2007).  From the study the researchers found 30 key attributes which differed from the 12 attributes which were identified by the international performers in their last study.  These attributes were put into sub categories within four central main dimensions. The first dimension was related to attitudes which were possessed by a mentally tough athlete, whereas the other three related to characteristics which were relevant for three major aspects of an athletes performance which were training, competition and post competition (Jones et al., 2007). This framework is seen as providing one the most in-depth descriptions of what types of mental toughness may be needed in specific contexts (Gucciardi et al., 2009).

Sport-specific research

In sport there have been two recent studies which have focused specifically on cricketers (Bull, Shambrook, James et al., 2005) and soccer players (Thelwell et al., 2005) views of mental toughness. Both these studies have focused on mental toughness from a specific sport context and they have both been seen as significant contributions towards its understanding.  Bull, Shambrook et al., (2005) interviewed 12 male English cricketers who were identified as being high in mental toughness. From the analysis of transcripts there were four main themes which were identified and placed in a hierarchal structure pyramid

The first theme was environmental factors, which was seen as the foundation of the development for mental toughness. Within this theme it incorporated aspects such as parental influences, childhood background and exposure to foreign cricket as an important part of environmental influences. The next three themes all related to the individual person. The second theme was tough character and this related to factors such as a resilient confidence and competitiveness. The third theme was tough attitudes which was seen as important for having a tough character.  These included attitudes such as; willing to task risks, a never giving up attitude and determination to make the most out of any challenge. The final theme was related to tough thinking which looked at aspects such as being able to think clearly and having high self confidence (Bull et al., 2005).  However, it can be argued that the study was not grounded in empirical data and that the data interpretation was very descriptive and did not involve any in-depth analysis (Gucciardi et al., 2009)

Thelwell et al., (2005) examined mental toughness within the soccer population where he was trying to expand on the finding of Jones et al., (2002) study.  The study comprised of interviewing six male soccer players and comparing their soccer definition of mental toughness to the definition which was proposed by Jones et al., (2002).  From the results it was found that there was a high amount of overlap between the two definitions, however the soccer sample saw mental toughness as always being able to cope better than their opponents as opposed to just generally coping better.  In the study conducted by Thelwell et al., (2005) it was found that the majority of participants were not uniform in their understanding of what mental toughness actually was.  From the results it was found that the soccer players characterized mental toughness as being able to react positively to situations and being able to remain calm under pressure (Crust, 2007).  However, from the six participants it was actually found that only half of them enjoyed being under pressure whilst in performance.

Recently Gucciardi, Gordon et al., (2008) provided researchers with a theoretical advancement into the area of mental toughness by interviewing 11 elite Australian football coaches which was developed from a personal construct psychology framework (Gucciardi et al., 2009). The researchers addressed this from a grounded theory approach where there were three components that were seen as key to the development of mental toughness. These three components were characteristics, behaviours and situations (Gucciardi et al., 2009). The characteristics represented 11 bipolar constructs such as tough attitude versus weak attitude, concentration versus distraction and resilience versus fragile minded.  The situations related to the different events that the athlete experienced which helped develop mental toughness (e.g. injury, fatigue).  Behaviours related to what the athletes would do in situations that required mental toughness. This research was unique to the area of mental toughness as it looked at how you develop mental toughness (processes) and what outcomes come out from it.

Mental Toughness Literature: Problems

To understand mental toughness Jones et al (2002) used a three-stage procedure using ten elite athletes from a number of different sports. The first step of the procedure involved a focus group which involved using three elite players to all brainstorm about mental toughness.  Within research focus groups are often seen as a method that can obtain descriptive rich data, however there are also a number of limitations which should be acknowledged (Gibbs, 1997). There are three main limitations: lack of confidentiality among the participants, lack of diverse opinions from the participants and finally a lack of control from the researcher (Gibbs, 1997).  Focus groups are often seen as place where individuals can be open about experiences and challenge each other in what is said (Kitzinger, 1995).  Therefore when conducing a focus group it is often suggested that a researcher uses group sizes which are between six and ten participants (Bloor, Frankland, Thomas, & Robson, 2001).  In the study conducted by Jones at al., (2002) the focus group was the first part of the study and it can therefore be argued that this would have an affect on stage two and three of the study. As well as this the sample size was very small and therefore this should be taken into account when looking at the validity and reliability of the study.

Within the research it can be argued that individual differences have not been taken into account.  While there are consistent attributes of mental toughness in many studies, there are also many attributes that are not consistent among studies (Crust, 2007).  The mental toughness needed for rowing could be very different to the mental toughness which is needed for a soccer or rugby player.  Ignoring individual differences this can have a detrimental affect on helping to develop high levels of mental toughness among the sport population.

Measuring Mental Toughness

To study mental toughness, qualitative research is seen as one of the most common to help us understand what mental toughness is and how people acquire it (Crust, 2008).  However researchers should also be encouraged to used quantitative methods to help look at differences among athletes in relation to their cognitions and behaviours (Crust, 2008).

Within the mental toughness research the main method which has been used to measure this construct has been through the use of questionnaires (Crust, 2007).  The main questionnaire which has been used in many studies (Golby, Sheard and Lavalle, 2003; Shin, Kim & Lee, 1993) is the Psychological Performance Inventory (PPI; Loehr, 1986).  The PPI consists of 42 items which measures seven subscales which are self confidence, attentional control, visualization, imagery control, negative energy, attitude control and positive energy.  Recently researchers have conducted tests to assess the psychometric properties of the PPI (Crust, 2007).  Middleton, Marsh, Martin, Richards and Perry (2004a) tested the construct validity of the PPI and found that the questionnaire was not a valid measure for the definition of mental toughness.

Clough, Earle and Sewell (2002b) developed the Mental toughness 48 inventory (MT48) which consists of four subscales which are control, commitment, challenge and confidence. Clough, Earle et al., (2002b) conducted research to test the psychometric properties of the MT48 and it was found that it had a high-test retest coefficient of 0.9 and there was high internal consistency of all four subscales. The MT48 subscales were developed through an association with hardiness and mental toughness and it has been argued that Clough et al., (2002b) did not provide sufficient justification between the two concepts.

Middleton, Marsh, Martin, Richards and Perry (2004b) developed the mental toughness inventory (MTI) which was used for their own definition of mental toughness.  The questionnaire consists of 67 items and measures 12 different components of mental toughness. The questionnaire has been developed from justified research and has been found to have strong psychometric properties (Middleton, Marsh, Martin, Richards et al., 2004b).  However the instrument needs to be tested on much larger populations to see whether it can be used to compare elite and non-elite players.  The development of these questionnaires is very important for researchers who want to study mental toughness, however most of them need further testing of validity and reliability before they can be accepted to be used (Crust, 2007).

Development of Mental Toughness

In the literature there are still many arguments concerning issues as to whether mental toughness is a personality trait or a mindset (Crust & Clough, 2011). It is therefore very important to look at the underlying factors that help develop mental toughness.

Even though personality traits are influenced by genetics they are also affected by the environment and are constantly going through a developmental process (Crust and Clough, 2005).  Psychologists are now adopting the approach that both nature and nurture are important with contributing to the development of behaviour and personality. Horsburgh, Schermer, Veselka, and Vernon, (2009) assessed mental toughness among twins and found that it had a strong genetic influence and was also influenced by the environment. As well as this, there have been recent studies looking at differences in brain structures between more and less tough participants. Clough et al (2010) found that there was a positive correlation between high mental toughness scores and more grey matter tissue in a person’s right frontal lobe. All of this research shows us that it is clear that genetics play a key part in the developmental of mental toughness, however it is equally apparent that there are other environmental and developmental processes which need to be taken into account.

In general psychological development and the development of mental toughness is a long complex process which involves a number of environmental factors (Connaughton, Wadey, Hanton & Jones, 2008; MacNamara, Button & Collins, 2010).  The first moment an athlete is in contact with his coach the developmental process will already start to have an impact on that player’s performance.  In Bulls et al., (2005) study it was found that environmental influences such as parental influences and childhood upbringing are key for mental toughness.  Other research has also supported this, showing that coaches, parents, and athletes play a significant role in the development of mental toughness (Crust & Clough 2011).  A study which can relate to these aspects was conduced by Van Yperen (2009) who looked at success in soccer players over a 15 year time period.  It was found that players who had more siblings and had parents who were more likely to divorce experienced more successful transitions.  Therefore by experiencing stressful events, players might develop coping strategies which allow them to deal with the high pressures in their sport.  Coulter, Mallett and Gucciardi (2010) also found that experiencing stressful events inside and outside of sport aids with the development of mental toughness. This research shows us how important the environment is for developing mental toughness and shows us how some of these aspects can be easily manipulated.

Future Recommendations

While there has been much research focusing on trying to define mental toughness, more work needs to be conducted due to differences in peoples understanding of the concept.  Research needs to focus on trying to define mental toughness which is grounded in relevant personality theories.  It needs to be understood whether mental toughness is best studied from a sport general perspective or a sport specific perspective.  As well as this more research needs to be conducted around the observational analysis of mental toughness behaviors so that sport psychologists can intervene and identify how to improve mental toughness (Crust, 2007).  Future research could look at the relationship between mental toughness and a persons cognitions (Crust, 2007).  For example do mentally tough athletes exhibit more positive self-talk in comparison to less mentally tough athletes.  Most studies focusing around mental toughness have lacked methodological diversity and therefore longitudinal studies may benefit researchers who are trying to study mental toughness. By focusing on developing this future research, this could help to build programmes which will develop more mentally tough athletes for the future.

Overall mental toughness is an extremely important topic within sport, however much of the research which has been conducted is based on personal opinion rather that sound empirical research.  Future researchers face the challenges of exploring mental toughness in a broader context and more attention is needed to look at how mentally tough individuals perform in all areas of their life.