What Is Mental Toughness

Close up of closed chain to reflect mental toughness for sports and exercise.
What Is Mental Toughness: Skills For Sports & Exercise: EMAC Certifications

What Is Mental Toughness: Skills For Sport And Exercise.

You may have heard the term before, but exactly what is mental toughness and how does it translate into what we do? Broadly speaking, mental toughness is the refinement of skills that allows you to be resilient and confident, direct and control your focus, optimize stress management, and ultimately see goal achievement. Some also refer to it as mental strength because it relates to mental and emotional components that influence the development of a successful person. Although mental toughness training translates well to most areas of life, its roots are in sport psychology. An elite athlete needs physical aptitude, skill, and prowess, but without the ability to hone their mental energy, it can be the difference between first and last place at an Olympic event.

Most research around this form of toughness is specific to sport and exercise as part of sport science studies. This is because both sport and exercise receive so much focus on physical health and development such as skill, technique, and ability. Historically, the psychological skill conversation has been ignored. But in recent years, research on mental toughness in these scenarios has skyrocketed. Mental toughness, in general, isn’t a new discussion. In fact, mental strength components are applicable in business, leadership, and other areas. Therefore, developing your mental toughness can help you persevere through a stressful situation, whether temporary or long-term, and allow you to manage emotion and build inner strength. 

Here, we’ll explore mental toughness training and how you can apply it to improve sports performance, achieve fitness or weight loss goal, or coach others. We’ll cover:

  • Background Of Mental Toughness
  • Applicable Components of Mental Toughness Training
  • Using Mental Toughness In Sport, Exercise, And Weight Loss

What Is Mental Toughness? The Background

Although mental toughness has its roots in applied sport psychology, it didn’t have general expansion until the development of an assessment and compartmentalization model. The concept of mental toughness was developed by Peter Clough and his colleagues. In their research, they compartmentalized four critical attributes of mentally tough people. These components are the 4 C’s and stand for Control, Commitment, Challenge, and Confidence. 

Below is a brief description of the 4 C’s.


In mental strength, Control refers to the degree to which you feel like you have control over your performance, behavior, and life (generally speaking). It’s common to focus on that which you cannot control or consider yourself a victim of other circumstances. However, a mentally tough person feels in control of their thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and world. Therefore, it’s a measurable dimension in mental toughness training.


In the 4 C’s, Commitment is the degree to which you can set a goal and achieve it consistently. This is done through commitment and mental resilience. Focus is another key element here. When you’re mentally tough, you’re able to focus on what you want and what you need to do to get there. Then, you commit to the goal and are able to achieve it. In part, this is due to goal setting that is both precise and accurate. It also reflects an individual’s ability to prioritize activities and decide what is more important to them. Collectively, commitment strength is another mental skill that improves performace. 


How you view failures and setbacks reflect your Challenge drive. Those who view both wins and losses as opportunities to improve excel in toughness. Their thoughts transform a stressful situation into one that can propel them to success. This personality trait also allows an individual to have greater mental and emotional control. In turn, it fuels their ability to feel in control of their environment.


The last C in building mental toughness is Confidence. Confidence includes your self-efficacy (the belief that you can accomplish something) and the belief that you have influence over your environment. People high in confidence believe that they have the ability to achieve the goals they set out for themselves.

Applications Of Mental Toughness Skill Development

Simply knowing the 4 C’s of mental toughness won’t get you far. You might be able to self-reflet and determine where you need to improve. But, how will you improve your control, commitment, challenge, and confidence levels? As you might guess, the 4 C’s influence one another and sometimes overlap. Therefore, developing mental strength in one area might overlap into another area. To improve your performane, regardless of whether it’s sport, fitness, or weight loss, requires training. Here, we outline different sport psychology skills you can use as “exercise” to become a mentally tough person. 

Remember, however, this skill list is grounded in psychological training. It’s not to imply anyone can be a sport psychologist. Nor should it replace any type of treatment for mental health issues. Consider it this way. A personal trainer can help you learn how to do a squat correctly to develop lower body strength. However, learning to do a squat with a fitness coach isn’t an intervention for a hip replacement. Although extreme, consider each skill as an “exercise” rather than a treatment plan.

Routine Development

Regardless of what it is, when you have a routine, life is easier. Generally speaking, as the day wears on, our brains get tired and we are susceptible to decision fatigue. Decision fatigue can lead to mental and emotional fatigue, leading to anxiety and further development of stressful situations. Therefore, having a plan allows you to avoid making bad decisions. Routine development can be before a practice, game, workout, high stakes interview, or board meeting. You develop a plan and routine in advance, practice it, and then accurately execute it when you need it most.


Imagery and visualization are great as part of a mental toughness training program. The brain doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined events. Therefore, if you imagine a difficult scenario, and play it out in your mind’s eye before, you’re able to better control the outcome. It also gives you confidence that you’ll be able to respond in the real scenario. In sport and exercise, it’s also important. When you imagine, in great detail, a movement, the corresponding muscle fiber fires on a microscopic level. Therefore, an elite athlete like a pro golfer or olympic gymnast can refine skilled movements through mental practice.

Self Talk

Our thought process is a constant inner dialogue we have throughout the day. What we say to ourselves influences our emotional responses. And, emotional responses influence our behaviors and how we react and respond to stimuli. When you can control your self talk, you’re able to maintain greater levels of control in what you do. You’re also able to increase your confidence levels. While you might not be aware of your self talk, some common negative thoughts in sport and exercise include:

  • I’ll never be able to get this right
  • The competition is just so much better than me
  • I’ve never been able to lose more than 20 pounds
  • Exercise is just so hard
  • I can’t do this

There are others more specific to a given situation. But these are common. Developing a positive self talk skill is a critical part of sport performance and mental toughness.

Thought Reframing

Really, this is also a part of positive self talk. But, it can be separate here as you consider it as part of how you handle feedback, failure, setbacks, and more. In practice, an athlete might get discouraged when they get negative feedback from their coach. They can take the information as personal, or allow it to further damage their existing self talk. With thought reframing, you take your existing thought response to a situation and reframe it in a more positive light. The positive thought shouldn’t be unrealistic or just a sliver lining, it should be real and reflect an opportunity for something greater. 

Attentional Control

This includes the ability to block out incoming information that’s not important or harmful to the goal. Likewise, you learn to increase your focus on the most important task at hand. It allows you to increase your commitment level and control level as part of your mental toughness skill development. 

Breath Control

Being able to control your breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This helps on a physiological level to bring everything back down. Being able to develop breath control is also critical for mindfulness and meditation activities. Both meditation and meditation are used in visualization, imagery, progressive relaxation, and attentional control.

Using Mental Toughness In Sport, Fitness, And Weight Loss

You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete for mental toughness skill development. Even if you’re a recreational athlete, an average exerciser, or someone who just wants to lose weight, mental toughness can help you. In some instances, your coach or personal trainer may have used these with you before without either of you realizing it. Similarly, if you are a coach or personal trainer, you can learn more about mental toughness training and incorporate exercises into your programming for fitness and athlete clients.

Sport Performance Tips

  • Create a habit that you can repeat before you go to practice, a game, or take a shot. For example, before practice, you write down three intentions you want to focus on during the practice. You also do five minutes of meditation just before beginning and then do the same warm-up each time.
  • Imagine a high-stakes performance going successfully. In your mind’s eye, practice it over and over. It may be challenging at first but will improve over time.
  • Learn to take coaching feedback as an opportunity to perform better. Without it, you’d stay the same over time. But with the right guidance, you can only perform better.
  • Practice thought stopping techniques by recognizing when you have negative thoughts and note to yourself “negative thoughts”. It will help to create distance between the negative thought and your emotional response.

Fitness And Weight Loss Tips

  • Identify what’s in and out of your control. You can’t control your friends wanting to go to happy hour or out to lunch. But, you can control your appetite by having a salad ahead of time or making a commitment not to drink alcohol.
  • Decide what you’ll do before each workout in advance by completely writing up your program. Listen to the same playlist before your workout.
  • If you’re struggling to follow your meal plan, visualize what you enjoy about the foods you’re eating. Or, think about the positive, healthy benefits the food you’re consuming is having on your goals.
  • Practice mindulness with each meal. Pay attention to how your food looks, smells, tastes, and feels in your mouth. You’ll find yourself feeling fuller and appreciating your meals more.

EMAC Certifications provides education to the fitness and coaching community to get clients the best results possible. EMAC provides a strong focus on the mental toughness element of performance and getting clients results through Education, Motivation, Accountability, and Coaching. Knowing how to lead a soccer team isn’t enough if you don’t know how to help the athletes overcome their mental barriers. 

Likewise, even the best fitness program is only as effective as the ability of a personal trainer to get their client to be resilient and persevere until they achieve their goals. With EMAC Certification courses, you get it all. You’ll learn the physical and exercise foundations you need to know for exercise, weight loss, and sport performance. Then, you’ll get the applied psychology that offers the key difference between progress and success.

Register for your online EMAC fitness certification today!

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