Johnny Martinez is up at the plate working an 11-pitch count, game is tied, 8th inning, two outs, runners in scoring position. Johnny stays true to his routine, fouling pitch after pitch off, keeping the AB alive. He steps out of the box, looks at his coach, then at his focal point, takes a deep cleansing breath, the inspirational words of both his coach and mental training specialist resonate “keep battling, you are doing great, win the next pitch”, Johnny steps back into the box, centers, focuses, in the back of his mind knows “this guy can’t get it by me”, sure enough, sensing frustration on the part of the pitcher, the pitcher muscles a slider that misses its intended location, Johnny see’s it and drives the ball into the right center gap clearing the bases. Performing well in the clutch is not a hit or miss thing; being resilient and mentally tough in pressure situations is a skill that is developed and refined through quality reps, belief in oneself, and a sharp mental game.
The notion of resiliency and mental toughness has long been recognized by coaches and athletes as important in sport. In addition to the baseball scenario depicted above, I asked some of our student-athletes at Penn State a few years ago for their perspective on Mental Toughness and following represent some of their responses:
- “Mental toughness is not letting anyone break you.” – Football
- “Mental toughness is not being affected by anything but what’s going on in the game or competition no matter what coaches, other players, or refs are doing. It’s being able to block out what’s not important (the noise) and focus on the task at hand.” – Basketball
- “Mental toughness is doing whatever is necessary to get the job done including handling the demands of a tough workout, withstanding pain, or touching an opponent out at the end of a race.” – Swimming& Diving
- “You can’t be a good swimmer without being mentally tough. You wouldn’t make it through a single workout if you weren’t. Swimmers must have the mental ability to let go of what their body feels and focus on the race, their stroke, or anything else that helps them compete successfully and finish the race.” – Swimming & Diving
What is mental toughness? Sport psychologists have learned to achieve consistent performance at the highest levels requires commitment, belief, mental focus and fortitude, composure, persistence, and the development of self-regulation and emotional self-control skills to perform well under any given situation. An area of particular interest to coaches and athletes is mental toughness and resilience in sport. Striving to build a conceptual understanding of mental toughness in sport, Sport Psychologist and Organizational Development Consultant Graham Jones and his colleagues developed a series of focus group interviews with elite athletes designed to assess ideal attributes characterizing a mentally tough performer. They operationally defined mental toughness as “having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to generally cope better than your opponents with the many demands that are placed on you as a performer (e.g., competition, training, lifestyle, etc.) and specifically, to be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining confident, determined, focused, resilient, and in control under pressure7,8”. Four key attributes emerged from the study:
- Self-Belief – having an unshakable belief in your ability to achieve competition goals and unique qualities that make you better than your opponents.
- Motivation and Self-Determination – having an insatiable desire and internalized motivation to succeed.
- Concentration/Focus – being able to switch focus on and off as required: remain fully focused on the task at hand despite competition-specific distractions; and not being adversely affected by others performance or your own internal distractions.
- Poise/Composure/Able to Handle Pressure: – accepting that anxiety is inevitable in competition and know you can cope with it; able to regain psychological control following unexpected events and/or distractions; able to bounce back from performance setbacks with increased determination to succeed.
More recently, Fletcher and Sarkar operationally defined psychological resilience as an individual’s ability to use personal qualities to withstand pressure, adapt to stress, bounce back from adversity and/or setbacks quickly in a positive manner5,6. In general, the literature on resiliency points to two key components: handling adversity and positive adaptation to bounce back (the concept of grit, determination, stick-tu-itveness, keep battling mentality).
Recent research addresses another component that is relevant to sport: sustaining excellence for the duration of a season, or even seasons. I recently conducted a qualitative study with 7-time NCAA National Championship Volleyball Coach Russ Rose investigating what goes into winning consecutive national championships16. Commitment to team culture and positive adaptation to handling adversity over the course of a season(s) were integral issues addressed.
When it comes to team mental toughness, there are a variety of team variables that come into play such as strong internal team leadership, collective belief and strong-minded determination to get the job done, synergistic team functioning and collective resolve, and caring for one another. These variables interact with many of the individual resilient attributes noted above whereby team members use their individual and collective resources to positively adapt when confronted with significant adversity or challenging situation11,16. Penn State Head Baseball Coach Rob Cooper feels team mental toughness is about accountability, choices, and respect for the program. He says” individually as a player, you have to be mentally disciplined and focused, willing to make choices based on what is good for the team at that particular moment, and not what might be best for your stats or you. If something goes wrong, don’t point fingers, don’t make excuses, and don’t let bad body language impact others. You have to stay the course, keep battling, execute, and get the job done (in baseball terminology, win the next pitch, with this at bat, win the next inning, etc.” (Yukelson and Weinberg17, page 555)
Can mental toughness be developed? A key question for sport psychologists is whether champions inherit the dominant psychological traits needed for success or can mental toughness be acquired through training and experience. While research suggests that some people are naturally more tough-minded than others, recent research in the resilience and social learning literature suggests athletes can be ‘toughened-up’ with the correct approach to training 4,5,8,9,11,15.
In 1982, Jim Loehr was one of the first to write on the topic of mental toughness and resilience in sport9. Establishing a connection between self-awareness, self-regulation, and emotional self-control, Loehr developed an Athletic Excellence Training program specifically geared at building athlete’s confidence, mental focus, and sense of resilience and mental strength. One of the keys to helping athletes, in this case tennis players, perform well under pressure was the use of routines and refocusing strategies to reset and take each play one point at a time. More recently, in their book Heads Up Baseball15, Ravizza and Hanson suggest the key to being present and a mentally tough competitor one pitch at a time lies in mental training and conditioning; developing a systematic routine each ballplayer can call their own.
Along these lines, many elite athletes and successful coaches believe that psychological factors play as crucial a role as physical attributes and learned skills in the make-up of champions14. Many believe that when physical skills are evenly matched, the competitor with greater control over his or her mind will usually emerge as the victor. They also believe that mental strength is not going to compensate for lack of skill, but in close contests, it can make the difference between winning and losing.
Sports psychologists believe that the key component of mental toughness training is teaching athletes how to condition their minds ahead of time to think confidently, act confidently, be poised and composed under any circumstance that may come up while competing i.e., positively evaluate and interpret pressure, not allowing frustration or negativity to undermine one’s confidence or focus.
How do you develop mental toughness? The consensus among many sports psychologists is that there are several essential general steps or procedures that athletes must complete in order to successfully develop or improve mental toughness. These include:
- Mental toughness starts with having the right attitude and state of mind. An athlete must be confident and understand that confidence comes in knowing that you are prepared and having an unshakable belief in your abilities to reach your intended goals. It is tied to commitment, belief, work ethic, a growth mindset and time put into working on your game. Confidence is about who puts it on the line, who has the courage to compete like a warrior without fear of failure and who has the courage to leave it all out on the field, and play with heart, determination and full focus11,17.
- To achieve or improve mental toughness, you must program your mind for success ahead of time with positive goal-oriented affirmations and expectations. Ballplayers must expect the best from themselves; affirm success, think confidently, act confidently, and get after it. Positive goal-oriented self-statements starting with “I will, I can, I am going to…” “no way I am going to be denied” coupled with process-oriented performance goals really help (“pitcher -quality pitches, get ahead in the count 8 out of 10 times”, “hitter make solid contact 7 out of ten times at bat”). The key is to focus on the things you want to occur, rather than things you are afraid might go wrong.
- Athletes must script success by visualizing themselves performing exactly the way they want with confidence, energy, composure and full focus. Visualization is a great mental training tool to enhance performance at both practice sessions and competitions. A key to visualization training is vividness and controllability, making an image do what you want it to do, similar to creating a movie in your own mind scripting success. A colleague, Terry Orlick once termed this technique “Feelization”, where athletes visualize and feel themselves performing with great rhythm, tempo, timing, confidence and trust; in command and in control so to speak. World champion Olympic Swimmer Michael Phelps relied heavily on this technique to help prepare for peak performances in pressure situations. He would visualize himself in vivid detail seeing and feeling himself achieving optimal performances in world class settings. He would visualize his races over and over again in real time to help automate pre-programed responses. He would visualize what could be, what should be, and any potential problems that could arise in a race so he had a plan to deal with the unexpected and be ready for anything that might come his way13. Visualization is a great tool for baseball players to rehearse desired responses to game situations ahead of time, particularly with recent advances in video technology today, it becomes a great performance enhancement tool, both in terms of preparation and as a source of performance feedback afterwards.
- Successful mentally tough athletes routinize their behavior by developing an effective, systematic pre-performance routine that clicks on the desired mental-emotional state of mind during practice, pre-game and competition. During practice, once they walk through the gate, a ballplayer must commit themselves to giving it everything they have the entire practice including making a commitment to listening, learning, executing skills/drills with precision and full focus. In pre-game activity, they must develop a systematic routine for engineering the environment and getting themselves ready. During competition, once the athlete walks between the lines, he/she is committing himself/herself to being mentally tough and a great competitor throughout the entire game. No matter what field they are playing on or the criticality of a given situation, having a systematic routine the athlete can take ownership over and call their own helps funnel concentration into the task at hand and creates the right mental-emotional state of mind to be connected, present, and ready to do battle. Newly acquired San Francisco Giant Evan Longoria has always been a strong proponent of routines and mental conditioning skills to help him focus and be in the present moment each pitch, each at bat10
- Mentally tough athletes must take control of negative self-talk and reframe “stinking thinking” into positive task-oriented suggestions. A key component of mental toughness training is controlling self-talk, particularly if you a high achieving competitor that hates to lose and has a tendency to overthink, overanalyze, overcriticize, or fall prey to nothing is ever good enough syndrome. Controlling “stinking thinking” starts with being aware of situations that cause you to get frustrated, rushed, intimidated, lose focus, and like a pancake on a grill, FLIP IT or reframe the negative thoughts into positive, mentally tough self-suggestions.
In basketball, e.g., instead of thinking “I can’t hit that shot if my life depended on it”, reframe into something more positive and task oriented like “get a good look at the basket, see it, feel it, trust it”.
In baseball, a pitcher who is pressing might think “I am getting squeezed by the umpire” or “I can’t get my change-up working today”. He should stop, step off the rubber, breathe, refocus, visualize the feel and tempo of a solid release point and athletic follow through, say to himself “this one is going to drop off the shelf” get back on the rubber ready to deal and get after it. A hitter may be overthinking mechanics or frustrated the count is 0-2 again, step out of the box, breathe to slow things down, flip the self-talk to something positive and affirming something like “keep the at bat alive, see it and drive it”. The idea is you have to control self-talk or it will control you!
- Mental toughness requires poise and composure. Athletes must learn how to let go of mistakes quickly if things do not go the way he/she wants. A key part of mental training is about compensating and adjusting14. If plan A doesn’t work, go to plan B or C. Athletes must be persistent and mentally tough. The must not allow frustration to undermine their confidence and focus. Keep battling, keep competing, believe in yourself, win the next pitch, at bat, inning, etc.
Successful athletes look at failure as a stepping stone for future achievement. Michael Jordan, 6-time World Champion missed 9000 shots, missed 26 game-winning shots and lost 300 games. His take on all of this was – I failed over and over, that is why I succeed.” Likewise, MLB all-time hit leader Pete Rose said, “If you have 3,000 hits in 10,000 at bats, you hit .300 and went 0 for 7,000. The key is to focus on the process of competing well. If you do this, winning will take care of itself. Mentally tough athletes are difference makers. They step up and have a peak performance when it matters the most.
What can you do to develop or improve mental toughness? There are a number of mental training skills and things that you can work on to develop or improve mental toughness “Tools in the Toolbox” including relaxation and mindfulness techniques to be more attuned, fully engaged, and focused in the present moment; diaphragmatic breathing to help you relax and be centered; visualization drills in which you “see and feel” yourself succeeding and making appropriate adjustments; motivational affirmations or key words that trigger a proper thought, mindset, and/or movement process; having a consistent authentic routine/approach each game, at bat, and pitch that helps you be present, fully engaged, and focused each game, at bat, and pitch; a refocusing technique to help you let go and get to the next pitch, being able to shift attention, thoughts, and emotions back to the task at hand right here, right now in the present moment (attentional flexibility) with a strong minded belief and determination to get the job done (choosing confidence in mentally tough situations). A detailed discussion of these techniques is outside the scope of this post, but the reader can find some of these skills in the references below 1, 9, 11, 15. Create a “Habitude”, these techniques require practice to be perfected.
One method used by several athletes and teams to help them prepare mentally for the physical and mental challenges of competition is simulation training. For instance, football coaches often pipe in loud music to simulate high audible crowd noises that the team will experience in a visiting stadium to enhance concentration, mental clarity and attentional focus, reinforce self-confidence and instinctive decision making under pressure. Similarly, Australian tennis legend Rod Laver embraced the fatigue from hard training regimens because it sharpened his concentration and will power to persist which was crucial to success in long matches. When the going got tough, he forced himself to concentrate and work even harder during the latter stages of training sessions, so when he was tired, he became used to the mental strain of such conditions and was able to transfer that mentally tough mindset into competition effectively. He cited this as one of the key factors in his long-lasting success3.
Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan was well known for his mental toughness and dedication to conditioning. Throughout his 27-year MLB career, Ryan conditioned himself to pitch 11 innings, not the regulation 9, and it paid off. He made 616 starts and completed 222 of them. He completed 36% of the games that he started, a feat that will probably never be matched. Not only did he complete 36% of his starts, but most of them were exceptional starts as illustrated by the fact that he threw 7 no-hitters, 12-one-hitters and 18 two-hitters. The MLB leader in no-hitters with 7, Ryan was one out away from potentially throwing 19 no-hitters, a feat that would never have been possible without exceptional fitness and mental toughness. Another testament to the effectiveness of his approach was recorded in 1974 in a 16 inning 4-3 win against the Red Sox in which he threw 235 pitches and struck out 19 batters over 13 innings.
Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte used a similar procedure during spring training. Each would perform a grueling 45 to 60-minute conditioning workout immediately before pitching in spring training games. They believed that pitchers, especially early in spring training, were so far ahead of hitters that they got little out of pitching in spring training games. They used the stress of the pre-game workouts to simulate the fatigue that they would experience in the middle and latter innings of a game during the regular season. Each believed that starting the game with physical and mental fatigue would help them stay focused and work on making pitches and hitting locations instead of trying to overpower the hitters.
Pitching and hitting coaches use drills in which the pitcher and/or hitter start out in the hole to increase the risk of failure and increase focus. The pitcher might, for example, start an at bat with a 2-0 count on the batter forcing him to throw quality strikes. Likewise, the batter might start with a 1-2 or 2-2 count forcing him to be selective and protect the plate. Simulation training provides athletes with an opportunity to deal with mental stressors in controlled situations, toughen up and prepare for the real challenges of competition.
In summary, mental toughness will enable an athlete to:
- Achieve relatively consistent performances regardless of situational factors.
- Retain a confident, positive, optimistic outlook, even when things are not going well, and not ‘choke’ under pressure.
- Deal with distractions without letting them interfere with optimal focus.
- Tolerate pain and discomfort.
- Remain positive and persistent when the ‘going gets tough.
- Have the resilience to bounce back from disappointments.
We have all been in clubhouses or weight rooms and seen the motivational sign that says “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” and wondered what exactly does this mean? It’s in reference to mental toughness and implies that athletes who are (mentally) tough will consistently perform toward the upper range of their talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.
We know that mental toughness is important in baseball. Nolan Ryan demonstrated it over 27 seasons and Yogi Berra said it. According to Yogi, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” Willie Mays also had something to say about the importance of mental toughness. He said, “What you are thinking, what shape your mind is in, is what makes the biggest difference of all”.
Ultimate Goal of Mental Toughness Training: Be a confident resilient baseball competitor every pitch/AB/inning/game. How you think, talk, act, prepare on a consistent basis is vital!
- Bonetti, B. Building Mental Toughness in Sport: An Introduction into Sports Psychology for Athletes. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
- Clough, P. and D. Strycharczk, Developing Mental Toughness: Improving Performance, Wellbeing and Positive Behavior in Others. Kogan Press, 2012.
- Duckworth, A. “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner Publishers, NY, 2016
- Fletcher, D.; and Sarkar, M. “Mental fortitude training: An evidence-based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, Vol 7, 135-157, 2016.
- Fletcher, D.; and Sarkar, M. “A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions”. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 669-678. 2012
- Jones, G.; Hanton, S.; Connaughton, D. “What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers”. J App Sport Psyc. 14 (3): 205–218, 2002.
- Jones, G.; Hanton, S.; Connaughton, D. “A framework of mental toughness in the world’s best performers”. Sport Psychologist. 21 (2): 243–264, 2007.
- Loehr, J. The New Toughness Training for Sports. Atlantic Books, 1995.
- Longoria, E. Interview on ESPN E60 in 2011. Evan Longoria’s Mental Approach to Baseball including use of routines and work with Mental Training Specialist Ken Ravizza. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yIx2nhsO5iU&t=3s&index=5&list=PLjbA-hjfKR46NMuIBhPho73t6vfy1E86e
- Lynch, J. Way of the Champion Lessons from Sun Tzu’s the Art of War and Other Tao Wisdom for Sports & Life. Tuttle Publishing, 2011.
- Morgan, P., Fletcher, D. & Sarkar, M. “Defining and characterizing team resilience in elite sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14, 549-559, 2013.
- Phelps, M., and Bowman, B. MP Journey series with Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman: Visualization (2018). https://swimswam.com/mp-journey-series-with-michael-phelps-and-bob-bowman-visualization/
- Pitino, R. Success is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life. Broadway Books, 1997.
- Ravizza, K., and Hanson, T. Heads Up Baseball 2.0, Hanson House, 2016
- Yukelson, D., & Rose, R. “The psychology of ongoing excellence: An NCAA coach’s perspective on winning consecutive multiple national championships”. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 5, 44-58, 2014.
- Yukelson, D. & Weinberg, R. “Team Resiliency in Sport: Theory to practice”, in Schinke, R., McGannon, K, & Smith, B. (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Sport Psychology, Ch. 52, 547-558, 2016.
- Zigler, J. Champion Mindset: The Athletes Guide to Mental Toughness. St. Martin’s Press, 2017.
David Yukelson, Ph.D., recently retired after 29 years as the Director of Sport Psychology Services for all 31 teams in the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics at Penn State University. He is currently working part time as a Mental Training and Sport Performance Consultant in the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics at Bucknell University.