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What is mental toughness (and what is not) and how to develop it

Mental toughness is often misconstrued as withstanding hardship and abuse for as long as possible. It comes from the military, where in a combat situation one is put under massive pressure for a limited period and needs to weather that pressure – no matter the cost.

In the context of coping with life in general, this definition of mental toughness is not applicable. It’s simply not sustainable as it was not formed around a long term plan, what life is. How long can one withstand the pressures of hardship and how would one progress in life, if all that one does is weather pressure?

what is mental toughness?

Mental toughness is more about managing stress and navigating difficult situations than stubbornly withstanding pressure. It doesn’t mean taking abuse, letting oneself being exploited or stretching oneself to the breakpoint by any means. It is often called resilience, [1] which refers to finding ways or to move out of the pressing situation and bounce back from lows. It may sound counter-intuitive, but toughness is not rigidity. It is agility.

Mental toughness does not arise from one singular process within the brain but through a combination of many [2]. These processes can be refined separately and in parallel.

Components of mental toughness

#1 Integrity (or boundaries)

One of the main components of mental toughness is integrity, which refers to holding back others trying to pass over our set boundaries. What I’m willing to do for what price, what I believe in and to what extent, what are my priorities as opposed to what the outer world tells me they should be. These are examples of boundaries marking out a person’s own mental territory. Integrity is our first line of defence against others’ push towards emotional and physical exploitation.

#2 Emotional control (or emotional resilience)

The other main component of mental toughness is emotional control [3]. Those who negotiate a lot know, that whoever loses their emotional control first is the one who loses the business. Where losing emotional control means they let in what the other said, let themselves be flooded with emotions, and make their lack of integrity transparent. At this point, it’s easy for the other party to take advantage of them since the loss of composure also means the loss of rationality. Composure protects us from getting hurt/being wounded by criticism and selling ourselves short. The same applies to all facets of life, including combat sports, such as grappling arts and MMA.

#3 Self-awareness

The third component of mental toughness is self-awareness. We can only control what we already know. To be able to control my fear, I need to be:

  • Aware of the presence of fear
  • Able to recognise the trigger of that fear
  • Capable to notice and manage the impact of that fear on my performance

This doesn’t mean that all my internal happenings must be figured out. Still, I need to be able to notice my conditions and the changes in that condition that happens for external triggers because those changes dictate my behaviour.

Developing mental toughness

Mental toughness is not an innate skill. Even though there are mental cards (or personality traits) that make it easier to develop it [4]. And some environments are more suited to support the development of mental toughness. Whatever the circumstances may be, in the end, it is the result of personal efforts, be it a conscious effort (building a strategy) or an unconscious one (having raised or thought to do so).

Success in building mental toughness has two prerequisites:

  • A manageable level of physical and/or emotional challenge
  • A subsequent evaluation of that challenge so that a lesson we can be taken forward and a new approach for our next challenge can be built upon that

Both components are crucial [5], because:

  • with no challenge or a challenge that is way beyond the manageable level for the person at that stage of life, there is no growth – only breakdown.
  • without reflecting on a situation to formulate a coping practice out of the experience, there is no growth. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is only accurate if the reflection had been done and the necessary life lessons were extracted. Without that, it won’t make you stronger, only more depressed.

How much “challenge” at any given time is manageable for a specific person depends on the available emotional resources and the personality cards (mental traits). More demanding life circumstances generally take up a lot of resources, making it harder to handle any additional challenges that come our way. In these cases, that stand for a lot of people, additional challenge is not needed, but a development of a suitable coping mechanism with the help of regular retrospective and guidance.

Also, personality traits like high withdrawal and volatility mean that a smaller challenge would demand more resources from the person to cope with. Accordingly, a challenge that is optimal for one person could cripple another. Comparing oneself to others is pointless in this regard.

The same boiling water that softens the potato, will harden the egg.


Grappling arts are our focal martial arts because they are specifically relevant for building resilience. They evoke many emotions during practice due to their close contact nature, challenging the internal status quo with each roll. At the same time, these are small doses of disturbance. There is enough time between training to deal with whatever comes up. Also, the repetition of exposure gives a lot of opportunities for an individual to build a coping mechanism gradually.

The other factor that makes martial arts specifically suitable for developing mental strength, which is not specific for grappling arts, is that they are intentional exposure to challenges, proven to give better results than accidental exposure.


In summary, mental toughness is not a unique attribute that only a few chosen people possess. It is a mental state developed through a conscious effort to confront challenging experiences and reflect on the outcome. To reiterate, the 3 factors that contribute to the development of mental strength are:

  • The gradual and appropriate level of exposure to challenges ideally with allocated resources for preparation (before) and reflection (after)
  • Conscious reflection on the event to extract the learnings and form life lessons
  • Awareness of the unique personality cards that define the challenge level and the type of reflection is needed for that person

Mental toughness (or mental resilience) is one of the most demanded life skills because it determines how we come out the battles of our everyday life and how far we get with our competition goals. Accordingly we have a special focus on the topic, looking into the practices for building mental strength and the mental preparation for grappling competitions.


(More context in Literature review on mental toughness and the way to cultivate it.)

  1. APA-accredited, P. A. (2015). JEFFREY M. SPIELBERG. Social, Cognitive, & Affective Neuroscience10(3), 408-415.
  2. Lin, Y., Mutz, J., Clough, P. J., & Papageorgiou, K. A. (2017). Mental toughness and individual differences in learning, educational and work performance, psychological well-being, and personality: A systematic review. Frontiers in psychology8, 1345.
  3. Clough, P., Earle, K., & Sewell, D. (2002). Mental toughness: The concept and its measurement. Solutions in sport psychology1, 32-45.
  4. Ong, A. D., Bergeman, C. S., Bisconti, T. L., & Wallace, K. A. (2006). Psychological resilience, positive emotions, and successful adaptation to stress in later life. Journal of personality and social psychology91(4), 730.
  5. Powell, A. J., & Myers, T. D. (2017). Developing mental toughness: lessons from paralympians. Frontiers in Psychology8, 1270.

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