How Valuable Is Mental Toughness In Your Business?

Simon Hartley

Be World Class

We hear the words Mental Toughness used a lot these days. Sports coaches have long-understood the benefit of having players who have mental strength, grit, determination, hunger, drive, fire and spirit. It seems that businesses are also starting becoming acutely aware how valuable these qualities are in their people.

Whichever words we use, it seems that Mental Toughness is becoming very highly prized.

But what exactly is it? How do we recognise people who are tough and how can we develop Mental Toughness in our teams?

I believe that the first stage is to understand what genuine Mental Toughness is, and is not.

What does it look like?

What does it sound like?

Some people would say that the toughest people are those who shout the loudest and bang their fists loudest. There are a lot of people who try to intimidate others in an attempt to appear tough. But do they actually display true mental toughness?

In my work as a sport psychologist, it is something that has always fascinated me. I’ve seen many athletes and teams who have crumbled when they’ve hit tough challenges. I have seen some teams that have imploded at crucial times during a game, or during a season. Some panic if they go behind. They seem to throw their game plan out of the window when they’re questioned. For many years, I defined Mental Toughness as the ability to stick to the game plan, no matter what. Obviously, I recognise that ‘the game plan’ needs to be flexible and adaptable. However, we should not abandon it completely and start panicking at the first sign of trouble.

I have seen many athletes that seem to shrivel up when they’re exposed to criticism. It is hard for some to take, especially if that criticism is very vocal and comes from 40,000 fans on a Saturday afternoon. In fact, whilst working in a Premiership football club a number of years ago, the coaching staff developed a saying… “when the going gets tough, the tough hide under the treatment table”. We used to see the number of injuries rise (and take longer to heal) when we were struggling and the players were being booed by the fans. The players were actually using the treatment room to escape! Coincidently, our captain (who did the shouting and fist waving) was the most regular visitor to the treatment room if we lost at home.

When I look at tough athletes, I don’t tend to see fists banging. The genuinely tough players don’t tend to be physically or verbally intimidating. Perhaps they don’t feel the need to be. Instead, the people who show true Mental Toughness tend to have three distinct qualities.

1. Resilience – Commonly seen as ‘bounce-back-ability’ and the ability to thrive in adverse situations.

2.  Tenacity – The ability to keep going and push to the very limit.

3. Composure – The ability to make really good decisions and execute skills to a very high standard, whilst ‘under pressure’.

As you’ll appreciate, these qualities are not only required in sport. Success in any walk of life normally requires a degree of toughness. These are challenging times. We are presented with tough tests on a daily basis. Uncertainty is a given. Adversity is a given. Knowing this, we have a simple question…

How will we respond?

As a sport psychologist, I am interested to see how athletes respond when they hit challenges. These are the times when I see how tough an athlete really is.

How can we see toughness in action? Look at how people respond when they encounter challenges.

How do they respond to criticism or when they make mistakes? What about a poor run of form or results? Will they come back stronger, or will they wither? Will they hide? Will we hear excuses and blame or see people taking responsibility? Do people choose the easy option or the best option? Do they prefer to push themselves or stick to their comfort zone? How do they respond in ‘pressurised’ situations? Would they resemble rabbits in the headlights, or would they be able to produce a peak performance?

If your team were a football team who found themselves 4-0 down with 15 minutes to go… would they throw in the towel or fight to the very end? I recently saw my home town team in exactly this position. Unfortunately they imploded and ended up losing 6-0.

The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about Mental Toughness in your people. Often the toughest people are not the ones who shout loudest, make the most noise or appear the most intimidating. Sometimes fear can be dressed up as toughness. Bravado tends to be a façade; ‘fake toughness’. I suspect that it is a sign of weakness rather than strength.

Like any skill, Mental Toughness can be developed and learned. It is not simply an attribute that is inherent in people. Therefore, business leaders and managers can actually help to foster mental strength and toughness in their people, and also develop it in themselves. Once we understand what genuine Mental Toughness looks like, we have a great starting point!

Simon Hartley is the author of Peak Performance Every Time, published by Routledge ( and How To Shine, published by Capstone.