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Building Mental Toughness



Push the limit. Always try to better yourself by setting realistic challenges.


What do we mean by the term “mental toughness”?


We consider mental toughness to be the ability to continue according to plan in a way that is in line with your values even though negative thoughts and emotions are pulling you in another direction. Or, in layman’s terms: The ability to get present and move forward in a stressful situation.


So how can we help a person develop mental toughness?


1.  Solving problems


The medical model of solving problems is to find it and remove it. Say you had high blood pressure. Your doctor would prescribe medicine to lower the pressure. Or if you had a tumor, a proper way to treat it would be to find it and surgically remove it. Problem solved.


Even in daily life, if you have a problem, this is a good approach to handle it: isolate it and remove it. Small apartment? Find a larger one. Don’t like your job? Find another one. This model is frequently used in mental health care as well. Depression? Take antidepressants. Anxiety? Try a sedative. Disturbing thoughts? Replace them with “better” ones.


Traditional cognitive therapy focuses on identifying maladaptive thought patterns and replacing them with more adaptive ways of thinking. In mental health care, this model works off the idea that negative thoughts and emotions aren’t normal and healthy. The problem with this idea is that it can create a vicious cycle. If anxiety isn’t considered normal, a person could get anxious from feeling anxious and start to avoid situations causing feelings and thoughts associated with anxiousness.


2. Choosing Behaviors


A modern approach called the “third wave of cognitive behavioral therapy”-has a different belief about negative thoughts and emotions. Those thoughts and emotions are considered a normal part of life and a natural consequence of a person’s experience. In these therapy forms, the goal isn’t to get rid of disturbing thoughts and emotions, it’s the opposite: to increase tolerance for them.


In the best cases, when you get negative thoughts and emotions, you recognize them and continue in a way that is in line with your values. Say you have a value to lead a healthy lifestyle. A behavior associated with that value is exercising, perhaps four times a week. You decided your workout days are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On Monday, after work, you feel tired and hungry and the last thing you want to do is head off to the gym. In your mind, you’re now entertaining thoughts like: “I’m too tired today,” “I really don’t want to exercise today.”  This is the time to stop and observe your thoughts and recognize they are a natural consequence of working all day and missing your afternoon snack. And, most important, this is the time for committed action. Now more than ever it’s important to act according to your value of being healthy and get your ass to the gym.


Make Your Own Rules

A few rules useful for athletes to develop toughness and confidence are:


  1. Start off at the right level. A beginner needs to experience success, not failure. Therefore, use proper scaling. Set up yourself and others for success. No one gets better by constantly failing.
  2. Push the limit. Always try to better yourself by setting realistic challenges.
  3. Commit to your workout. Plan your workout, prepare and then do it. Quitting is not an option unless there’s a risk of injury. 
  4. Train yourself at observing thoughts and feelings. Learn to recognize your normal thought patterns during strenuous exercise. 



  1. Hayes SC, Strosahl KD, and Wilson KG. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change. New York: The Guilford Press, 1999.
  1. Lind E, Welch AS, and Ekkekakis P. Do “mind over muscle” strategies work? Examining the effects of attentional association and dissociation on exertional, affective and physiological responses to exercise. Sports Med., 39(9): 743-764, 2009.
  1. Vecchiet L, Vecchiet J, Bellomo R, and Giamberardino, MA. Muscle pain from physical exercise. Journal of Musculoskeletal Pain, 7(1): 43-53, 1999.


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