Mental Toughness: Is It Caught or Taught?

My favorite definition of mental toughness comes from the Oxford Reference. It is:

A quality of mind or intellect characterized by, among other things, a refusal to be intimidated, a determination to finish a contest even when things are going badly, and an ability to control emotions and remain highly focused when under the pressure of intense competition.

 So many people see mental toughness as something you have or you don't. Is it a trait that comes out of environmental causes? Or the result of trauma? 

Or is mental toughness something that can be taught and learned? 


Is Mental Toughness Taught or Caught?

The truth is that mental toughness can be taught and caught. It's true that how a person is raised and the experiences he has can determine mental toughness. It's also true that how ever much mental toughness you possess, you can develop this trait as much as you want.


What Exactly Is Mental Toughness?

Mental toughness is a type of strength of mind that helps people to consistently perform at a high level especially under pressure. It describes different traits, skills, and thought processes that help people to persevere when things get tough. 

Some of the most important characteristics of mental toughness are:

  • Resilience
  • Confidence
  • Focus
  • Motivation
  • Stress Tolerance
  • Optimism
  • Emotional Regulation

The characteristics of mental toughness enable top performers to go beyond what other people are capable of. 

If you want to see mental toughness in action, turn the TV on to any professional sporting event. Sports are a great laboratory to see the difference between how mental toughness seperates top performers from the rest.

Maintaining composure and the ability to focus in high pressure situations are clear distinctions that you see in a group of people with similar physical abilities.


Mental Toughness Can be Taught

According to Peter Clough, Professor of Psychology at the University of Huddersfield, mental toughness can definitely be taught. In fact, he believes that it is the most healthy and effective way someone can increase mental toughness. 

"The saying that 'whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger' is simplistic, disingenuous, and potentially destructive. While it’s true that some who experience horrible events are stronger for surviving them, this is probably only true if they were strong to begin with. In the face of horrible events, others are more likely to be traumatised and suffer for years or decades after." 

He also said that "The key difference is a focus not on simply battening down the hatches in the face of emotional storms, but of feeling capable of seeking out demanding environments and prospering in them. Mental toughness in this sense is a positive psychological variable related to success, with psychologically beneficial properties that extend beyond accepting and dealing with anxiety, to finding opportunities for self-development and growth."

In other words, Mr. Clough says that the mental toughness that is taught, leads to positive growth while the type of toughness that comes from traumatic situations more often than not leads to brokenness.

Mr. Clough and others developed a program for teaching mental toughness that centers around the "4 C's" model of mental toughness. 1

The 4 C's are:

  • Control
  • Commitment
  • Confidence
  • Challenge

To see more about the 4 C's you read more here.


Mental Toughness Is Often Caught

Though mental toughness is general thought to be a skill you can learn, it is also believed that there needs to be a foundation of "toughness" to build on. 2  

One study of American soccer players found that parents provide a form of mental toughness that coaches can use to build a sport-specific form of mental toughness. 3

Working through obstacles and overcoming challenges both contribute to mental toughness. Especially when dealing with failure and how to respond to it purposefully.

A revelant popular case study of mental toughness that seems to be caught is with David Goggins. 

He came from a place of hardship early on didn't just overcome the obstacles in his way, but smashed them to pieces. To get the full story read his book "Can't Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds".

As one example, in his early twenties he was obese and working a dead end job. He happened to see a documentary on the Navy Seals and something inside him turned on. He lost 100 lbs in only 3 months and went on to become a Navy Seal.

This is only one example of a man who has come to epitomize mental toughness. His whole approach was born out of some of the critical traumas and difficult challenges he faced growing up. Yet here's what he says about mental toughness:

"There are so many studies out there about mental toughness. A lot of studies say you are born with it or develop it at a young age. I see the same studies about leadership. This may be true about some people but a lot of this b******t gets in our heads and we believe it to be true. The human being is the most amazing thing ever created. Let me go a step further...the human mind is the most amazing thing ever created.

I believe anyone can develop a hard mindset. I wasn't born this way nor did I develop it at an early age. Whoever says you can't develop mental toughness or anything else doesn't truly understand the human mind or the human spirit.

We are built to overcome anything. The hard part is trying to find what drives us to a place mentally that most people can't even understand. The cold hard honest truth is most people love to put limits on what we are capable of."


The Mindset of Mental Toughness

Mental toughness has a lot of aspects to it. There is no one thing that makes up mental toughness. There is a way of thinking and feeling plus how a person respond to challenges. It's not just enduring but how we see and respond to difficult situations. Here are a few of those aspects:

  • Self-Efficacy: This is an individual's belief in their ability to succeed in specific situations. High levels of self-efficacy are commonly associated with mental toughness. 
  • Growth Mindset: Individuals with a growth mindset believe that abilities and intelligence can be developed, which fosters resilience and a willingness to confront challenges.
  • Attentional Control: Mental toughness involves the ability to maintain focus and avoid distractions, especially under pressure. 
  • Stress Tolerance: 

    Psychologically, mentally tough individuals are often better at handling stress. They tend to view stress as a challenge to overcome, rather than a paralyzing obstacle. 
  • Optimism: 

    Optimism contributes to resilience and the ability to persist in the face of setbacks.
  • Mental Flexibility:

    This refers to the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to balance competing desires, emotions, and thoughts. 
  • Resilience:

     Resilience focuses on the ability to bounce back from adversity.
  • Personality Traits:

    Certain personality traits, such as conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience, have been linked to mental toughness. These traits influence how individuals approach and handle challenges.


Is It In the Genes?

Although there is thought be a definite genetic connection to mental toughness, there aren't any studies that pinpoint a certain gene. There are few studies that demonstrate a probable genetic link.

One study took identical twins tested them to see if they would express similar mental toughness despite environmental factors and training. 4

Genetic research is limited in this area but the current findings support just what you might expect. That there are hereditary aspects to mental toughness but how much influence that has is unknown.


What Have We Learned?

 After going through quite a bit or study it seems that mental toughness is caught and taught.

There are hereditary factors and environment. Early life and education plays a role. At the same time, wherever you begin on the scale of mental toughness, you can train it, develop it, and use it to help you perform at higher and higher levels consistently.

Knowing this, what can we do to help ourselves grow in mental toughness?


Training Mental Toughness

So how do we go about developing our mental toughness superpower? There are many programs available and they all look pretty good. They also look pretty similar.

I decided to go with the tried and true, so let's take a look at some key principles of training mental toughness used by the U.S. NAvy Seals.

First we have what are known as the "Big 4" :

  • Goal Setting:SEALs are trained to set small, achievable goals to maintain motivation and focus, especially in overwhelming situations. Breaking down a large task into smaller, manageable parts helps them to stay on track and not get overwhelmed.
  • Mental Rehearsal or Visualization:Visualization is a common practice among SEALs. They mentally rehearse missions and visualize success, which helps prepare them mentally for various scenarios. This practice reduces anxiety and improves focus.
  • Positive Self-Talk:The SEALs are trained to practice positive self-talk to counteract negativity and self-doubt. This technique helps maintain confidence and morale in challenging situations.
  • Arousal Control:This involves controlling the body's response to stress. By using breathing techniques and focusing on physical sensations, SEALs learn to manage their body's reaction to stress, helping them stay calm and clear-headed.







In addition to these I would add:

  • Mindfulness and Meditation:Use mindfulness practices to enhance focus and present-moment awareness. Use meditation to reduce stress, improve emotional regulation, and maintain calmness.
  • Physical Training and Fitness:Regular physical exercise can enhance mental toughness by improving stamina, discipline, and pain tolerance.Engage in endurance training, which can transfer to mental endurance and resilience.
  • Breathing Techniques:Practice controlled breathing methods, like deep breathing or box breathing, to manage stress and stay calm under pressure.
  • Developing a Routine and Discipline:Establish a structured daily routine that includes time for work, training, rest, and personal development. Stick to the routine to build discipline, a key component of mental toughness.
  • Step Outside Comfort Zones:Actively seek out new challenges and opportunities to step outside your comfort zone. Learn to embrace discomfort as a part of growth and development.
  • Reflection and Journaling:Engage in regular reflection to assess challenges faced, responses to them, and areas for improvement. Keep a journal to track thoughts, feelings, and lessons learned from various experiences.
  • Network and Mentorship:Build a network of peers, mentors, or coaches who can provide guidance, feedback, and encouragement. Learn from the experiences and advice of others who have demonstrated mental toughness.


Time To Level Up!

Mental toughness is often the missing "it" that separates the best from the rest. The good news is that wherever you are in terms of mental toughness you can have even more through practice. 

The truth is that the only thing that stands in the way of reaching that next level is you. 

Step out of your comfort zone and see how you can make every day better!



1.Mental toughness can be taught. (n.d.). Psychology.

2.Gardiner, C. (2019, September 12). Mental toughness: Nature vs. Nurture? - BelievePerform - The UK's leading Sports Psychology Website. BelievePerform - the UK’s Leading Sports Psychology Website.

3.Tristan J. Coulter , Clifford J. Mallett & Daniel F. Gucciardi (2010) Understanding mental toughness in Australian soccer: Perceptions of players, parents, and coaches, Journal of Sports Sciences, 28:7, 699-716, DOI: 10.1080/02640411003734085

4.Horsburgh, V. A., Schermer, J. A., Veselka, L., & Vernon, P. A. (2009). A behavioural genetic study of mental toughness and personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(2), 100–105.

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