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How Athletes Can Build Their Mental Toughness

Updated on January 21, 2016

Athletes are People Too

Sometimes when you reach a certain level in your athletic career people expect you to have superhuman capabilities and completely shut off any emotional state at the touch of a switch. It works really well in movies, and even on some TV shows, but in real life no one can turn off their emotional state and shut down the feelings or pain. You could try, but those emotions will be there until you address them, and if you don’t take them head on, like you do an opponent in the ring, those emotions will surface at the most inopportune times, and can affect everything from training, fights in the ring, and most importantly, your mental game. Just take a look at Tiger Wood’s career progression and you’ll know what I mean.

Athletes are under a lot of pressure because they are often in the public eye, performing what they love to do in front of large audiences. Their private lives are also made public. Yet, it seems that athletes are held up to unrealistically high standards, where little room is made for life’s sometimes inevitable occurrences, such as a death in the family, or through heartbreaking circumstances such as divorce.

Somehow, athletes are expected to be mentally tough and put that aside to perform, and when they don’t, they are ridiculed for it. If occurrences like these happen right before an important match, the effects can be devastating. A loss during a low point in one’s life does not help an athlete’s self-esteem.

Out of everything we are taught in school, we are not taught how to recover from life’s painful events. If you’re going through a stressful time and you have a huge match coming up, and everyone’s telling you to just suck it up and put it aside for the moment, don’t feel bad if you are having trouble. It doesn’t reflect how mentally tough a person is.

Mental toughness has to do with the ability to take on any challenge, even ones that have to do with emotions. There are ways we can work to these issues and soften the blow on your emotional state and still be able to be at peak performance while going through adversity.

Are you mentally tough?

Steps to Build Your Emotional Toughness


There are different types of meditation there out there that’ll help ease emotional suffering help calm in mind and let you continue with your training and work at peak performance. Meditation has been studied and is effective in lowering heart pressure, getting the brain waves to that beta state, the state the brain is in when sleeping or relaxing, which will help ease the pain in your heart and lower your stress.

Find a Hypnotist

Going through hypnosis can help calm your subconscious and ease emotional pain. Many people think that it’s all hocus-pocus, but I use it quite often in my practice in with my clients with success. If you use the right techniques you can help anybody.

Find Your Happy Place

Do you have a favorite lake you visit, or a moment in life where you had a great memory? You can use your happy place whenever these deep emotional trials start twisting you from the inside out.

I have found that finding a happy place is very effective when a trigger point is hit. A trigger is something that reminds you of a painful event, then sends you back to that moment when you felt that pain and loss. At that point, it doesn’t matter whether or not it happened ten minutes ago or ten years ago. You are reliving that moment as if it is happening right now.

For instance, it could be as simple as seeing a picture on a sign or a bus or hearing a person’s name on TV, or passing by someone in a crowd that reminds you of someone you lost. These can all be trigger points and take you from a very good place to a very sad, withdrawn emotional painful place in a matter of seconds. Bringing yourself back to your happy place can counter your triggers.

Fortunately, this can be countered if you’re able to refocus your mind. Find a happy place. Find something in your life, a person that always makes you laugh, a place you’ve been where you have had a great memory. If it’s possible, go sit somewhere where you can be alone and comfortable for about five minutes. Concentrate on that happy memory, or that place that makes you happy, or that person. Imagine being there with as much detail as you can. If you can’t physically call that person on the telephone that makes you happy, imagine calling and hearing what that person would say to you.

An example of a happy place would be a beach you visited and have happy memories of, so every time you think of the memory it brings a smile to your face. It was a very happy time for you. You had a lot of fun. It’s a very good memory to go back to, and by keeping that memory alive, you are able to relive that happiness you felt when you experienced it, and it will trump the negative feeling you are experiencing. Any time you are feeling sad, alone, or emotional, stop, take a few deep breaths, and think of that beach or that place. Then you can go back to concentrating on your training, or get your head back into a match or game.

Of course, you want to work on these before you match and make sure that you have worked towards getting to a better place before any kind of a match or event or game happens, but if by some chance things creep up on you while you’re in your match, just the act of taking in a few deep breaths might be able to give you the benefit you need to hold down those emotional issues long enough to keep fighting.

Find your happy place.

Don't Delay - Seek Help

Over the years, I have worked with people going through so many of life’s tragic events, and even with people going through exquisitely painful periods, meditation, hypnosis, and the happy place are the three most effective coping techniques. They compliment each other. Meditation can be used alone or as a precursor to the other two techniques, but I have found they work best when used together because with painful life experiences, there is always an underlying, high level of stress, and there will almost always be something that triggers those painful memories and bring them to the front of your brain. You need all three to manage the ways emotional pain manifests in you.

Most importantly, remain positive. You do not have to suck it up, be a superhero, or suffer through this alone no matter what anyone tells you. There is help out there. You accept help from your trainers and coaches to excel at your sport. Sometimes, even athletes need outside help to learn effective coping techniques to manage high amounts of stress caused by adversity and tough life situations.


  • Training and performing through adversity is one of the hardest things to do.
  • Athletes are people too, with a full set of emotions, even though society sets standards for athletes that are unrealistically high, the price of being in the public eye.
  • You can use coping techniques to help get you through the rough patches.
  • Seek help immediately if you are experiencing any difficulties in coping with daily life or are having trouble overcoming your grief.

Developing ways to cope with hardship makes you shine from the inside out.

What Have You Done to Survive Emotional Turmoil?

When you went through a great deal of emotional turmoil, did you:

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