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How Tough is Too Tough

mleung01's picture

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What is survival of the fittest? Is it an internal mechanism, a built in behavior or it is pure instinct? Survival of the fittest does not mean that the fittest will definitely survive. In Biology, it meant “suited for” or “appropriate to,” who can pass down their traits the best to the next generation, not “hearty.” However, the scientific meaning to survival of the fittest is differently than what most of us associate with today. Nowadays it is define as physical health, the strength of our body, pushing and challenging ourselves to the limit, basically competition. But another integral part of fitness is mental fitness or mental toughness.


What is mental toughness exactly and why does it play a huge part in sports? The official definition of mental toughness by sport psychologist is having the “natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: cope better with performance demands than your opponent and become more consistent, more controlled under pressure.” If you ask athletes for their definition of mental toughness, it is along the same line as stated above; blocking out “what’s not important”, not letting anyone break you, withstanding pain, outlasting your opponent till the end, etc. No matter what sports you play, mental toughness plays a significant role in determining the outcome of the game.


So lets take a sport that has be deemed 80-90% mental toughness as an example, tennis. When it comes to playing tennis, you do not have to be the strongest, tallest or even the fastest in order to succeed. You do however need to be constantly thinking about ball placement on the court and out maneuvering your opponent. When the question of whether a player can reach his or her full potential without focusing on the mental side of tennis arises, Dr. Jorge Valverde, the leading sports psychologist, replied that it will be difficult for a player to reach full potential without a well developed mental approach to competing. He also said that the mind is very powerful. It cannot differentiate visualization and physical practice. This is why we must diligently train the mind just like how we train for a forehand.


Then exactly how do you figure out what qualifies and quantifies mental toughness? We can look at two studies that were conducted by Hull University. The first one used volunteers using 30-mintues static cycling trials with three different intensities of maximum oxygen uptake, 30, 50 and 70%. The results showed that participants with higher mental toughness used less exertion even at 70% of oxygen intake with not much difference with lower exertions. The second test, participants were asked to complete planning tasks after completing a series of motor tasks after being given a positive or a negative feedback. The purpose of the second test was to see how participants fare when they were given the feedbacks and just like the first test, mentally tough participants performed better on the planning task and were relatively consistent with their results.


As you can see, mental toughness is something that can be train. Degrees of mental toughness all depend on personality traits and coping mechanisms just to name a few. With this said the concept of being the “underdog” during a match-up could be arguable. Obviously skills and training comes into factor however when the opponents are equally matched, I think there can only be the mentally tough and the mentally tougher.


"Peak Performance." Sporting Exellence . 2008. Peak Performance, Web. 23 Feb 2010.



Templeton, Simone. "The Valverde System: Complete Mental Toughness Program."

            How Important is Mental Toughness in Tennis. Web. 23 Feb 2010.




Paul Grobstein's picture

mental toughness and the brain

A "dickensonian" like myself (to say nothing of an ex-athlete who suffered from being beaten by the "mentally tougher") can't help but wonder what "mental toughness" means in terms of the brain.  And whether everyone could have it.  And whether we should all want to.  "Tin Cup" is one of my favorite movies.