By: Emma Glasgow

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” ~ Unknown

Mental toughness and resilience are two similar concepts often heard in the world of sports and education. Though neither are new (not even new to SNYB, check out earlier blogs for more on the topic) there has been recent focus how each relate to development and performance. This article will focus on mental toughness, resilience being a piece, and how to cultivate and nurture this quality amongst young athletes.

What is Mental Toughness?

Mental toughness refers to an individual’s ability to respond to stress, pressure, challenge and change regardless of circumstance. It is a mindset achieved by developing resilience and confidence.  Everyone has the potential to be mentally tough. It is not something innate to the individual, rather something to be cultivated.

Strycharzyk and Clough break mental toughness into 4 C’s: Control, Commitment, Challenge and Confidence.

Control is exhibited in various ways. It is evident in an athlete’s autonomy over his/her choices, mood, and accountability. Controlled athletes have the ability to control their own emotions and affect the emotions of others in a positive way. These athletes seem to lift the team regardless of their own mood.

Commitment is often exhibited through goal setting and orientation. Committed athletes set SMART goals and work hard to deliver on those goals. Once goals are achieved, there is self-reflection, but more importantly, more goal setting!

Mentally tough athletes embrace challenge! They push boundaries, embrace change and accept risk. They exhibit a growth mindset seeing all outcomes and viewing challenges as opportunities rather than threats.

Confident athletes believe in themselves! They believe in their abilities, whether that be athletic skills or interpersonal skills and have a practiced approach to dealing with challenge and conflict. This may be the easiest factor to isolate and deal with when nurturing mental toughness! (

As you may have already identified these attributes are all plastic. That is they have the ability to change. This is great news! It means coaches, parents, players and teammates have the ability to help athletes work on their mental toughness.

What does a mentally tough athlete look like?

Mentally tough athletes are confident and competent problem solvers!

Why is mental toughness important?

Mental toughness permeates every choice an athlete makes, on and off the court. It has the profound ability to impact performance, well-being and positive behaviours. These athletes have excellent problem solving skills. They are often touted for their ability to “take things in stride”. A commendable attribute that makes individuals more likeable, employable, coachable and influential in their life and the lives of others.

How does sport help?

Sports are invaluable to building mental toughness because they simulate life on a small scale. Sports regularly  provide challenges and obstacles. They are about learning to make decisions and dealing with the consequences of those decisions. They provide regular opportunity for success and failure, allowing children the chance to deal with those victories and losses however large or small. Sport has the ability to cultivate or crush mental toughness, but it requires adult supervision. Coaches and parents have a responsibility to help young athlete’s deal with the trials and triumphs of sport!

What about the more sensitive athletes?

Toughness occurs on a spectrum. All athletes will have their moments of toughness and sensitivity alike, but some athletes trend towards the sensitive. Strycharzyk and Clough describes these athletes as mentally sensitive. The mentally sensitive account for 20% of the population. These athletes offer a valuable perspective to the team, often different than many of their teammates. It is important to identify these athletes early and support them in building on their 4 C’s. Try focusing on their confidence!

Can mental toughness be developed?

The short answer is yes! Where ever your athletes lie on the scale of mental toughness, there is room for growth. Even the players who exhibit the 4 C’s regularly can benefit from support! Thankfully the  Here are a few things to be encouraged in order to promote an environment that builds mental toughness.

1. Positive Thinking

Focus on the positives! Point out small successes and moments of learning in every experience despite the outcome. Help athletes identify small successes to keep their confidence high.

2. Goal Setting

Block off time for goal setting. Be sure to outline SMART goals, provide examples and set team goals to model for athletes. Goal setting is a great life skill and something that needs to be practiced. Check in with athletes on their personal goals and do what you can to help them stay committed to achieving those goals!

3. Communication

Keep the lines of communication open with athletes! This will allow athletes to feel comfortable expressing and dealing with emotions in a healthy, constructive way.

4. Self-Reflection

Encouraging athletes to reflect on their performance will allow help them to begin taking responsibility for that performance good or bad. It will also turn the focus on comparing current performances to past performances rather than the performance of others. Their biggest competition is themselves! Be sure to emphasize that their self-worth isn’t tied up in their performance. Young athletes can often take losses personally. Shift the focus back to performance not outcome!


Mental toughness is a mindset. It is a positive life skill that should be cultivated in all athletes regardless of their default. Coaches, parents and athletes can all play a role in developing mental toughness. Sport naturally challenges athletes to become better problem solvers. By encouraging positive thinking, goal setting, communication and self-reflection combined with the natural benefits of sport, all athletes have the potential to become more resilient and mentally tough!

There is lots more information out there regarding mental toughness! If this topic is of interest to you, read more from my Sources:

Doug Strycharczyk and Peter Clough, Resilience and Mental Toughness,

OR their book

Developing Mental Toughness in Young People: Approaches to Achievement, Well-being and Positive Behaviour

Positive Sport Parent Article:

Changing the Game Project:

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