How To Develop Mental Toughness in Sports

We have all heard of the phrase ‘mind over matter’, and never has this been so important as in sports. Mental strength is a reservoir to draw upon when your physical strength has been depleted.

It can be the difference between an okay sportsperson, and an award winner. There is an insane amount of pressure associated with competitive sports, particularly when you get to professional and elite levels. You must be mentally tough in order to thrive in this world.

Sports psychology is a rapidly expanding field of study, as we begin to understand more the link between mentality and physicality. Many athletes consider mental training as a key aspect of their training regimen, one that supplements their physical abilities. 

No one is born with mental toughness. It is something that you must choose to constantly work on and improve every day.

It is true that some people are more predisposed to being mentally strong, but everyone can achieve this with perseverance and consistency. It is very similar to physical strength, in that if you stop working on it, you will lose strength. 

Sports psychology

According to Dr. Bartholomew, a professor in the Kinesiology and Health Education field, sports psychology focuses on the psychological factors associated with physical performance. It is an emerging science, believed to give athletes the edge over their competitors. 

The field focuses on building self-confidence and mindfulness within sporting activities. A decent understanding of sports psychology allows players to deal with the pressure of large crowds, high anxiety levels, and the fear of failure. 

Self-belief

A huge part of mental toughness is having a strong sense of self-belief. This will immediately put you in a more positive frame of mind and can help you feel more relaxed and confident. This allows you to gain some perspective on any issues that you may be facing.

Even if you do not feel particularly confident in yourself, fake it until you make it. People will believe what you present them with, and you will notice a clear difference in the way people perceive you when you believe in yourself. 

Concentration

It is easy to tell someone to concentrate, but it is a lot harder to actually do this. One aspect of sports psychology involves teaching athletes how to remove external distractions and focus on their goals. This can be integral to their success in a match or competition environment. 

Coping with pressure

There are many pressures that athletes will face, both mentally and physically. If you do not know how to cope with stress and pressure, it can build to extreme levels and can cause anxiety. This can get on top of you and will rapidly overwhelm you. 

There are many different strategies for coping with pressure in day-to-day life. Mindfulness is one key way to achieve this. Other strategies include time management, improved organization, and positive self-affirmations. 

Look after your physical health

Mental and physical health are incredibly closely linked. The foods that you consume and the way that you live your life permeate out to impact everything you do. We recommend trying to get a good sleep routine in place, ensuring you get an adequate amount each night. 

Eat a healthy diet that is high in protein and carbs, with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Try to not consume excessive quantities of alcohol or caffeine. We also recommend excluding drugs such as nicotine and illegal substances. 

Try to drink at least 11 cups of water per day to ensure you remain adequately hydrated. If you are concerned about your weight or nutrition, it is worth contacting a dietitian or nutritionist for further help and advice.

Work on your weaknesses

If you hate leg day at the gym, it can lead to you avoiding training legs altogether. This will eventually lead to uneven training, lack of motivation, and mental deterioration. It will be tough, but you should work on the things that you are worst at first of all. 

Doing them first means that you cannot slack off doing them in favor of training them in your next session. Working on your weaknesses and building your confidence in them will grow your mental toughness immeasurably. It will not be long before your former weakness is your biggest strength. 

Closely monitor your progress

If you are training to reach a certain milestone, it is a good idea to record your training progress. Say your goal is to bench 200 pounds for 3 sets of 10, but all you can do at the moment is 200 pounds for one rep. 

Work up gradually, recording the date and reps completed. Keeping track like this will help to motivate you to keep pushing yourself. This does not just work for weight lifting. When training, you should always have a clear goal in mind that you are working towards. Constantly thinking of this will help to keep you motivated and working to achieve it. 

Hold yourself accountable

This kind of goes hand in hand with the point mentioned above. By keeping a log of your training, you are being mindful of your progress and efforts. If you find self-motivation difficult, you could always ask a friend, family member, or coach to hold you accountable. 

They will make sure you do not skip out on any training sessions. If your teammate is keeping track, you could do the same for them. You could even make your training sessions into competitions to further spur you to perform your best. 

Don’t make excuses

Good athletes make changes, not excuses. There is no point in trying to assign blame to external factors when you know you did not do all that you could. Remove yourself from the situation, and try to look at it as an outsider. Think about how you could have handled that situation better, and what you could do differently next time. 

Instead of excuses, make adjustments to your performance. Make sure you take responsibility where it is appropriate, as this will make you a better athlete. 

Don’t run away from problems

No problem in life is solved by running away. They will always catch up to you, and usually with a vengeance. Dealing with them head-on, despite how bad it may seem, is always the best option. A little pain and struggling in the short term is almost always better than the long-term problems caused by leaving the issues to fester. 

We recommend taking some time to consider your issues and the best way to deal with them. Many people find it very helpful to confide in a friend or trusted family member. As the adage goes, a problem shared is a problem halved.

It can be nice to know that someone understands what you are going through, and they are likely to have a fresh outlook on your problem. They may even come up with an alternate solution that has never crossed your mind. Working on yourself in this manner will improve your mental health, making you much more mentally tough. 

Focus on yourself

Particularly in the world of competitive sports, it is easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to others. The best athletes are those that solely focus on themselves and their career progression.

Do not live your life trying to please others, as you will never manage to achieve this. The one constant throughout your life will always be you, and so this is the only person whose opinions and achievements truly matter. 

Reflect on the past

While it is not healthy to dwell on the past and you should try to live in the present primarily, reflection is a key part of mental growth. Try to look at the past as a series of experiences that have shaped you into the person that you are today.

Whether they were good or bad experiences, they have all taught you valuable life lessons. Try to let go of any negativity from the past that is holding you back. In the immortal words of Kelly Clarkson, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. 

Focus your energy

Try to not spend valuable time and mental energy on things that are irrelevant. There are many things we encounter every day that create minor inconveniences and aggravation. If you allow these to affect you mentally, it will grind you down over time. 

Think to yourself, will I still be upset about this issue in 5 years’ time? If the answer is no, it is not worth wasting your energy worrying about now. Take a step back and gain some perspective. Things always look better when you remove the emotions.

Focus on the moment and overcome the relevant challenges that you are facing. This will give you the best chance of success.

Take risks

No one ever made it big by playing it safe. The fear of failure is something that we are all familiar with, and it can be daunting. Mentally tough athletes will be able to face this fear head-on and take risks. Risks force you to step outside of your comfort zone, which is where the biggest leaps and bounds are made. 

Think of the risk as a positive, and enter into the activity with genuine enthusiasm and willingness. Yes, you may fail or not meet your goals, but at least you will have tried. Try to remain positive even if you do fail, and do not let it defeat you. Failure is not the end, and should never be your reason for giving up.

Recondition your thoughts 

The way that you think governs the manner in which you act. If you have negative thoughts and refer to yourself in an unkind way, this will deplete your mental strength. If you notice yourself thinking things like “I’m bored”, “I’m tired”, “I can’t do this”, try to replace them with positive affirmations. Think of statements such as “I’m strong”, “I’m capable”, “I’m enjoying myself”. 

You may think that this is silly but try it once. You will be shocked by how significant of an impact this makes on your mental state and your performance. 

What are some things to incorporate into my daily routine?

A really great way to start your day off well is to state some positive affirmations. As you are making your breakfast, think about some things in your life that you are grateful for. Write these down or say them out loud to cement in your mind this positive mental attitude.

You can do this again in the evening with your gratifications from the day. This forces you to focus on the positives each day and will steadily improve your mental health over time. 

We also advise writing a list of intentions for the day every morning. This allows you to clearly see your goals for the day and can help to motivate you to achieve them. Check in with these intentions periodically throughout the day. What steps are you taking to achieve these goals? What else could you do?

Every time you catch yourself thinking a negative thought, stop and recondition your mind. This will allow you to rewire your thought processes and eventually will become a thing of second nature. 

If you find yourself caught in a rut that you cannot escape from, accept the feelings. If you have tried to counteract the negativity and cannot, accept that this is just how you are feeling today and that that is okay.

If this is the case, you should try to distract yourself from the negative feelings instead of allowing yourself to wallow in them. Grab some headphones and go for a walk in nature, do some coloring, cooking, or arts and crafts. Focus on whatever makes you feel at peace with the world. As you engage in these activities, try to think thoughts of gratitude and self-acceptance. 

If you ever find yourself at a real mental low, please do not wait to seek help. There are many phone lines you can contact 24 hours a day, such as 1-800-273-8255.