| | When the Going Gets Tough

Author / John

AFL Rd 16 - North Melbourne v HawthornI was introduced to the concept of Toughness Training when I was studying music, specifically performance, in college.  One of my professors was a huge sports fan and despite his admittedly nerdy love of opera, he would often compare training for sport to training for music.  This is where I had my first real understanding of the implications of perfecting muscle memory.

In opera and classical performance, the slightest deviation from the intended shape, intensity, and emotion of a given syllable or note would derail the entire piece and in turn, the performer.  As one can imagine, this tedious attention to detail was accompanied by inevitable failures.  As explained by my professor via sports psychology, these failures were not unlike the setbacks seen by even the most adept athletes.  Coming from a competitive sports background I could appreciate the valid parallels between on stage performance and on field performance.

The question then becomes “How do we equip competitors with the mental tools to succeed?”

In analyzing the talents, skills, and abilities of some of the top athletes there is ubiquitous factor that separates the good from the great.  How and why do the best athletes maintain their mental toughness even after making mistakes?  We can physically practice to create the best movement patters, athletic defaults, and agile bodies, but the beauty of sport is that the opposition presents variables to test those limitations.  What are we left with when perfect movement fails us?


In this article we’ll discuss the components of mental toughness as well as how to create and maintain it’s power while under the stress of competition.
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file_182565_3_broner_vs_maidana_3_20131214_1751794474Toughness Training is a term that was popularized and utilized by James Loehr, prominent sports psychologist and author.  He has worked with Olympic and Nationally ranked athletes from speed-skating to tennis, testing his theories and developing the tools to optimize mental toughness.

What is Toughness Training?

“The ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”

Let’s think about that for a moment.  One can infer from the above definition that an athlete’s ability to be tough under pressure is a reactive mentality.  The real question is, can this mental toughness be learned?

Luckily, mental toughness is a skill and tool that can be learned through improving the very markers associated with optimal mental toughness. Mental toughness is almost entirely dependent on individual emotional characteristics.


1. Emotional Flexibility – the ability to absorb unexpected emotional turns and remain supple, non defensive, and balanced, able to summon a wide range of positive emotions to the competitive battle.

Example: A referee makes a bad call, but it is already beyond your control.  You adapt and focus on the task at hand.

2. Emotional Responsiveness – the ability to remain emotionally alive, engaged, and connected under pressure.  Responsive competitors are not calloused, withdrawn, or lifeless as the battle rages.

Example: Being coachable under heightened stress.  Become more of a team player, not less, when the outlook is grim.

3. Emotional Strength – the ability to exert and resist great force emotionally under pressure, to sustain a powerful fighting spirit against impossible odds.

Example: Being assertive and leading others through encouragement especially in losing situations.  It’s not over til’ it’s over!

4. Emotional Resiliency – the ability to take a punch emotionally and bounce back quickly, to recover quickly from disappointments, mistakes, and missed opportunities and then jump back into battle fully ready to resume the fight.

Example: Missing a free throw, penalty kick, or shot of any kind and being able to get back to emotional/mental stability.

2012-05-17_003Toughness training is one means to reach something that is described as an IPS, or Ideal Performance State, by Loehr.  Interestingly enough, the phrase “fake it til’ you make it” has a lot of relevance in elevating toughness levels.  Overcoming mental and emotional setbacks during performance can be drastically improved by simply acting.

Tips for Mental Toughness Training

  • Tough Thinking

The first challenge comes from within the brain’s self-talk.  After having suffered a performance blow, a good athlete begins a positive dialogue within themselves.  Even if the feeling does not initially come naturally or genuine, studies have proven that training the “bring it on” inner monologue is a way to trick your performer self into fighting on.  Call it lying to yourself or using your imagination, but having disciplined tough thinking will make “tough acting” all the more effective.

Loehr states that an athlete should, “Make every effort to suppress negative feelings during competitive battle unless you can do something positive right away to meet the expressed need.”  Positive thinking isn’t just a distraction, it’s a means to ignite the kind of behavior you wish to exhibit.

  • Tough Acting

Body language, posture, and physical expression are huge indicators of an athlete’s confidence.  Without the ability to convey a strong sense of dominance over not only your emotions but your opponents, you will lose a commanding presence.  This demeanor is of the utmost necessity to both intimidate the competition and reinforce your own self confidence.  When a mentally tough athlete makes a huge mistake, they physically turn away from it immediately.  This is an attempt to re-calibrate as they realize nothing productive will come from dwelling on a flub while in the midst of performance.

Adding to Tough Acting, athletes are encouraged to spring onto their toes or jump when they are at their most tired.  This behavior sends a message that there is a lot of fight left within the individual.  Similarly, keeping an heir of poise and supreme confidence can be a great tool even when you’ve just choked under pressure.  Loehr encourages athletes to smile and stand tall not breaking eye contact, as if to say, “You were lucky this time. Next time you won’t be.”

Toughness Training begins and ends with exhibiting the qualities we most admire and respect about advanced athletes.  Being cool, calm, and collected is not a coincidence but is a conscious concerted effort by the athlete to maintain their IPS.  This reactive behavior is rehearsed, practiced, and repeated until it becomes a default like any other patterning.

disabled sprinter start blockDo some self evaluating to find which of the four components of mental toughness needs work and attack it by Tough Thinking followed by Tough Acting.  In sport winning or losing is truly a “sum of the parts” and those parts are not limited to one’s physical prowess.  Instead, physical efficacy is highly dependent on the athlete’s mental state.  A gifted athlete without toughness training is like a Fast and Furious movie without The Rock.  You know it could be good, but realistically it’s just a matter of time before the whole thing falls apart.


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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. Jason Gonzales on October 16, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    That was the best article so far.

  2. Nick41 on October 17, 2014 at 8:00 am

    This also reminds me of the old saying “be comfortable with the uncomfortable”. Great article Cali. I think the mental aspect of training/sport is often missed or not as thought about as much as the physical.

  3. Paula on October 19, 2014 at 5:57 am

    Another excellent article Cali! This can also be applied to the ‘sport’ of business.

  4. Gavin on October 19, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    Cali: excellent. Thanks.

  5. Matt Lahana on October 21, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    What did you study performance in @cali ?
    I studied performance on classical guitar… But don’t play anymore
    Chose rugby instead… Too many broken fingers

    • CALI on October 22, 2014 at 10:35 am

      Voice was my instrument.

      …yikes. Better switch to kazoo.

  6. Matt Lahana on October 30, 2014 at 2:28 am

    Broken from rugby I mean!

  7. Ingo B on October 30, 2014 at 7:15 am

    Would these suggestions work while picking up chicks at a bar? How about at a Whole Foods?

  8. Nick on October 30, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Great Read Cali

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