Mental Toughness

This was first published in Fresh Business Thinking on 16th August 2014.

Man up!

The deluge from the cloud burst meant the streets had become streams. As I ground my way slowly up the steep hill 150 miles in with 50 to go on a long training bike ride, a driver overtook me. The wave of water from the wheels, taller in height than me, drenched me in filthy road water. It ran down my neck, filled up my ears, and forced grit into my eyes. To get the rest of the way home I was going to have to “man-up, dig deep, get my head together, stay focussed” and all the other expressions we use when we want to encourage mental toughness.

Whether it’s a really difficult business meeting, a sports event, or a challenging personal issue, we often find ourselves using expressions such as these as if it is clear what that means we have to do. But what does ‘digging deep’ really mean? What is mental toughness? Is it something we can develop or are some people just naturally mentally tougher than others?

As clear as…..

You would think the academics would have this nailed by now, but it turns out to be very much a work in progress. Perhaps unsurprisingly most of the research comes from the world of sport.

According to Jones, Hanton and Connaughton (2010), it 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 a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.”

It’s when you get inside what this definition of mental toughness means that the application to business and life in general rather than just sport becomes clearer. The resilience needed to achieve great things in both sport and business would seem to have some similarities.

Why we need mental toughness in business….

In business we need mental toughness not so much because of opponents in the sporting sense of the word, but in overcoming the many barriers, hurdles, distractions and competing agendas with which we have to deal.

For example, we need mental toughness to overcome the insidious business disease of ‘corporate helplessness’. This is a condition where people abdicate responsibility to others for their failure to perform. Symptoms include “I haven’t been on a training course”, or “No-one has shown me”, or “We’ve tried that before.” All these reasons could be valid but too often they hide apathy, indifference and laziness. Mental toughness is required to overcome this pernicious disease.

Nature or nurture?

But first, let’s get the nature or nurture debate out of the way. As with most personality traits, it is a combination of who your parents are and the environment in which you grew up. So yes, some people are predisposed to be more mentally tough than others, and we can all do things to help develop aspects of who we are that will contribute to mental toughness.


Depending on what you read, there are a number of aspects to mental toughness. Where almost all seem to agree is that the most important dimension is attitude or mindset. This can be subdivided into belief and focus. At the next level in terms of significance are things such as resilience – your ability to keep going in the face of adversity, being able to handle pressured situations, a focus on controlling what you can control to your advantage and the ability to handle failure. In future blogs I will be exploring some of these dimensions, but for now, let’s take a look at belief.


You have to really believe you can do what you are setting out to do. You might not have done it yet, but you absolutely believe you can do it. This belief is something that grows over time. The accumulated experience combined with disciplined continuous development generates confidence that you can do what it is you have set out to achieve. What is clear is it is not the blind optimism of “yes I can do it” irrespective of your starting point. It is the combination of evidenced based thinking and the inexorable drive towards improving what and how you do things.

In sport, with structured coaching plans and biometric feedback it is possible to develop the evidence in support of self-belief through data analysis. In business we need to have the clear vision of what we hope to achieve backed up by a compelling logic and robust evidence from the relevant and appropriate sources, and, critically, really believe it can be achieved.

I remember working with a far sighted Director of Operations who absolutely understood the imperative of changing the shift patterns in his business, essential to ensure the long term survival of the company. The hurdles were huge, it was a heavily unionised business whose members did not all share the same view. He portrayed an absolute belief that this was the outcome that was essential and that it could be achieved. He was a driving force behind the change. His prescience was well founded. His compelling belief also carried along those around him.

Ask yourself:

Do you really believe you can do what you have set out to achieve? If not, what’s stopping that belief and what can you do about it?


The second major attribute is being focussed on what you want to achieve. This means prioritising the long term goal over everything else, sometimes requiring short term sacrifices. In my experience, being focused means helping people work out the ‘acid test’ questions they need to ask of everything they do. For example:

Ask yourself:

How does what I am about to do contribute to the goal?
What impact will this event / issue have on achieving the goal we have set?
How can we minimize / maximize the impact of this event / issue on achieving the goal?

Having this clarity of purpose helps a business determine whether to chase after one piece of business or another. What prima facie seems attractive may distract you from what you should be focussing on. I’ve written on the power of goals elsewhere – it seems they are an important dimension in mental toughness too.

The price of toughness

There is a downside to being mentally tough. For the sports person it could mean pushing through an injury when it would have been better to stop. It may mean ignoring at too great a cost the impact of the decisions you take on your friends and family. In business it may mean riding rough-shod over other people’s hopes and dreams. Like all attributes, for every benefit there is a downside. Be aware of the price of being mentally tough.

For me

I made it home despite the torrential rain and being regularly soaked. I was chuffed with having the mental toughness to complete the ride. Less so with the cold and sore throat that developed soon after.