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What is Mental Toughness?

What is Mental Toughness?

We at Lets Talk Tough are frequently asked “What is Mental Toughness”, and How does it differ from Resilience? On the one hand it is relatively simple to define and differentiate. Mental Toughness is essentially about how well we take on life’s challenges and it differs from Resilience insofar as Resilience is about our ability to bounce back if we are knocked over in life whereas Mental Toughness is about not being easy to knock over in the first place. Ideally we have a combination of both, which is reflected in the 4C model of Mental Toughness which Lets Talk Tough use a the basis for our on-line and in-house Coaching & Training programmes.

What is being Mentally Tough?

Although widely accepted in the sports world, when the term “mental toughness” was first introduced into the occupational, social and health worlds, the reaction of many was to take a dislike to the term and seek to replace it with resilience or character. It is definitely a wider and more useful idea than resilience alone. Character is very poorly defined, it can mean different things to different people.
Most of the negative response was to the Word “toughness” with its connotation of being “macho” and for some, conveying a sense of aggression and being domineering.

Toughness here is about being strong, rebounding and capable of accepting that life can be difficult but that it is full of opportunities as well as threats. Professor Clough the author of the Mental Toughness Questionnaire often describes it as “being comfortable in your own skin” — having that inner strength to deal with whatever life throws at you.

It is also useful to perceive it as a significant factor in “being the best that you can” which links it well with Maslow’s theory of motivation — particularly the key to self-actualisation. And, of course, this is the sense that Loehr identified. During the London Olympics, the BBC hired Michael Johnson, one of the world’s greatest athletes to be one of the main sports commentators. He spoke daily about mental toughness and its importance but did so in an interesting way.

He would focus attention on athletes who perhaps had not reached a final and who had not won a medal. He drew attention to the fact that they were achieving their own “personal best” and he linked that to their mental toughness. Unlike many commentators, who only recognise the gold medalist as a winner, Johnson reminded everyone that all those who achieved their personal best were also Winners.

This is what we mean by mental toughness and the 4 fallacies:

  1. Mental toughness is a macho, male dominated concept.
    Not so. Studies show that males and females show similar patterns of mental toughness.
  2. Mentally tough people are uncaring and self-centred
    Not so . . Studies show a close relationship with emotional intelligence
  3. Mental toughness is all about winning.
    As we see above, everyone can be a winner.
  4. Everyone should be mentally tough.
    Everyone has a degree of Mental Toughness, it is about how much we need to deal with life’s challenges at any time. As well as
    being mentally sensitive than tough it is also possible to be too mentally tough

Defining Mental Toughness

Two main definitions have emerged over time. Both say the same thing. The different language simply
reflects the different audiences to which these are offered. The most recent definition is the definition
which is now the most widely used.

“The capacity for an individual to deaf effectively with stressors, pressures and challenge and perform to the best of their abilities, irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves”.
(Clough & Earle 2002)
“Mental Toughness is a personality trait which determines, in large part, how people respond to challenge, stress and pressure, irrespective of their circumstances”.
(Clough & Strychorczyk 2012)

Why is it important?

Studies in the occupational, educational, health and sports worlds consistently show that mental toughness is directly related to:


Individuals perform more effectively in terms of volume and quality of work. ln education, we see a clear correlation between mental toughness and performance in examinations and tests at all levels of education. These studies consistently show that around 25%
of the variation in a person’s performance in exams is explained by their mental toughness.

In the workplace, studies in call centres, managerial groups, etc. show similar patterns. Moreover, when aggregated, we can observe similar patterns between the overall mental toughness of groups and organisations and their measured performance. Mental toughness is an organisational and cultural issue too.

Positive Behaviour.

The higher the level of mental toughness, the more the individual demonstrates positive behaviours. They will adopt a “can do” attitude and there is clear evidence that the higher the level of mental toughness, the more likely the individual will engage in activities with which they are associated (asking questions, engaging in discussion, volunteering to carry out tasks, etc). They are more likely to volunteer for things, to welcome change, to see the positives where other see the negatives and are more accepting of responsibility.


The greater the level of mental toughness, the greater the sense of wellbeing. This translates into outcomes such as:

  • Improved attendance/reduced absenteeism.
  • Dealing more effectively with difficult days and adversity.
  • Reductions in reported bullying.
  • Being able to put setbacks into perspective and recover more quickly.
  • Sleeping better.


Studies show that mental toughness appears to be positively correlated with career aspirations and aspirations in general. The mentally tough appear more ambitious than the average. For instance, in social work, this can be particularly significant in areas of social and economic deprivation where the prevailing ethos might be one of despair or “helplessness”.


There is a clear relationship between an individual’s mental toughness and their ability both to get a job and to get thejob they want. Higher mentally tough persons are more competitive. There is evidence to show that programmes in further and higher education which attend to qualifications and skills but not emotional resilience, do not deliver promised results. This is particularly effective with the use of career guidance tools such as Carrus.

Completion/Drop-Out rates.

Several studies show a strong link between mental toughness and the extent to which a student will stick with a programme of study or work and will see it through to a conclusion.

Measuring Mental Toughness and its Applications

The MTQ48 was created to meet a very tangible need in the occupational world. It sought to respond to four questions increasingly at the front of the minds of most senior managers:

  1. Why is it some people handle stressors, pressure and challenge well and others do not?
  2. Can we measure where people have strengths and weaknesses in these matters?
  3. Can we do something to improve “mental toughness” in people to improve their performance?
  4. Can we evaluate the effectiveness of interventions which are all claimed to be effective?

More than eight years of careful and innovative research enabled Peter Clough and Keith Earle to emerge with a tool that allowed these questions, and others, to be answered positively and effectively. Initially, the concept and the measure was applied mainly in the occupational world, looking at developing employees and managers to perform effectively, especially in challenging environments (e.g. emergency services,) and in adverse circumstances, (e.g. the Z008/9 economic downturn and now today’s Corona Virus). These are obvious applications for mental toughness and MTQ48.

The MTQ48 is a 48-item questionnaire which takes about 10—minutes to complete. lt is:

  • Extremely easy to use. The questionnaire uses a 5 point Likert scale to capture responses. The test is available in online format or
    paper and pencil format.
  • Accessible. The reading age for the item databank is 9+ years of age. Language in the reports is such that the reports can be read
    and understood by those who are not trained psychologists.
  • Quick. Test results are processed immediately online and expert reports are immediately available.
  • Cost effective. The price structure enables users to be relaxed about frequent use of the measure.
  • User-friendly reports. Several expert reports are available to the test user.
  • Reliable. A technical term to indicate whether MTQ measures mental toughness consistently. The reliability score for MTQ overall is
    0.90, which is generally acknowledged as high.
  • Valid. Another key technical term which indicates whether it measures what it claims to measure. The concurrent validity score for
    MTQ48 overall and its scales range from 0.25 to 0.42, which again is generally acknowledged as high.

Understanding the Mental Toughness model — the 4 Cs

The following pages provide information to help users understand the mental toughness model and the scales. When first using the measure it is useful to refer to this section regularly to guide the user in interpreting the output from the MTQ measure and in working with the test taker to help them understand what the results might mean.

Description of the 4Cs .

The mental toughness questionnaire (MTQ Plus) is a 68—item instrument comprising four subscales,
measuring different elements of performance related characteristics. The four subscales are:

Defined: Control is the extent to which a person feels they are in control of their life. Some individuals
believe that they can exert considerable influence over their working environment, that they can make
a difference and change things. ln contrast, others feel that the outcome of events is outside their
personal control and they are unable to exert any influence over themselves or others.

Applied: This means for example that, at one end of the scale, individuals feel their input really matters
and are motivated to make a full contribution. At the other end, they may feel that their contribution is of little importance and hence may not play as full a part as they could. An implication may be that one can handle lots of things at the same time and
the other cannot.

Ongoing development has enabled the identification of 2 subscales to this scale:

Emotional Control — Individuals scoring highly on this scale are better able to control their emotions. They are able to keep anxieties in check and are less likely to reveal their emotional state to other people.

Life Control — Those scoring highly on this scale are more likely to believe they control their lives. They feel that their plans will not be thwarted and that they can make a difference.


Defined: This subscale measures the extent to which an individual is likely to persist with a goal or work
task. Individuals differ in the degree with which they remain focused on their goals. Some may be easily distracted, bored or divert their attention to competing goals, whereas, others may be more likely to persist.

Applied: An individual who scores at the high end of the scale will be able to handle and achieve things
when faced with tough and unyielding deadlines. An individual at the other end will need to be free
from those types of demands to handle work.

Ongoing development has enabled the identification of 2 subscales to this scale:

Goal Orientation – individuals scoring highly on this scale are orientated towards setting goals and targets for activities. They are likely to be effective at prioritising, planning and organising.

Achievement Orientation — Those scoring highly on this scale are more likely deliver that to which they are committed. They are likely to “do what it takes” and gain satisfaction (and perhaps relief) from achievement.

Defined: Individuals differ in their approach to challenge. Some consider challenges and problems to be opportunities, whereas others may be more likely to consider a challenging situation as a threat. This construct measures the extent to which an individual is likely to view a challenge as an opportunity. Those scoring highly on this scale may have a tendency to actively seek out such situations for self-development, whereas low scorers may avoid challenging situations for fear of failure or aversion to effort.

So, for example, at one end of the scale, we find those who thrive in continually changing environments. At the other end, we find those who prefer to minimise exposure to change and the problems that come with that, and will strongly prefer to work in stable environments.

Ongoing development has enabled the identification of 2 subscales to this scale:

Risk Orientation — Individuals scoring highly will be open to change and new experience. They are open to learning and are prepared to manage risk.

Learning Orientation — Those scoring highly on this scale will see all out comes as having a positive element. They will see opportunity where others will see threat and will not be deterred by setbacks.

Defined: Individuals high in confidence have the self belief to successfully complete tasks that may be considered too difficult by individuals with similar abilities but lower confidence.

Applied: For example, individuals at one end of the scale will be able to take setbacks (externally or self generated) in their stride. They keep their heads when things go wrong, and it may even strengthen their resolve to do something. At the other end, individuals will be unsettled by setbacks and will feel undermined by these. Their heads are said to “drop”.

Again, continuing research has identified two sub-scales for this component.

Confidence (Abilities) — Individuals scoring highly on this scale are more likely to believe that they are a truly worthwhile person. They are less dependent on external validation and tend to be more optimistic about life in general.

Confidence (Interpersonal) — Individuals scoring highly on this scale tend to be more assertive. They are less likely to be intimidated in social settings and are more likely to promote themselves in groups. They are also better able to handle difficult or awkward people.

Lets Talk Tough design and deliver on-line (webinar) and in-house sessions/programmes on Developing Mental Toughness & Well-Being. We also produce individual development programmes that allow people to gradually build their Mental Strength and/or Well-Being by taking 10-15 minutes a day on specific ideas, activities or actions based around the 4C model of Mental Toughness or the Lets Talk Tough SEPSIO Framework.

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