Boosting Mental Toughness in Young Athletes & 20 Strategies

Mental toughness in young athletesMental toughness is not about being the loudest and brashest athlete on the sports field, pitch, track, or in the pool.

Instead, mental toughness is what gets the athlete out training at 5 a.m., enables them to play at their limits when their team is behind, and ramps up their focus when facing up to a more experienced and highly successful athlete (Strycharczyk et al., 2021).

For our young athletes, boosting this aspect of their psychological makeup can protect them from stress, support their decision-making, and offer them more consistent performances — where they feel at their best mentally and physically more of the time.

Let’s explore what mental toughness for young athletes entails and why it matters so much for those in early-career sports.

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The Importance of Mental Toughness for Young Athletes

Mental toughness offers many advantages. While difficult to fully define, it provides insights into why we respond the way we do to life events and how we perform at our limits (Strycharczyk et al., 2021).

Give two people the same situation, and each will respond differently.

Mental toughness is essential because it helps us be the best possible version of ourselves, lead a productive and contented life, and strive toward our goals (Loehr, 1986).

Mental toughness is also central to how we deal with potentially stressful situations. As such, it is vital for young athletes to cope with tough training and fierce competition combined with academic challenges (Kremer et al., 2019; Rigoni, 2013).

For young athletes, it can boost perseverance in training (even reducing the time to fatigue), provide an edge in competition, and support a healthy life outlook, improving self-esteem, optimism, and self-efficacy; lowering anxiety; and increasing life satisfaction (Strycharczyk et al., 2021).

Mental toughness can be the psychological factor separating a winner from a loser in sports. A 2019 review suggests that it ranks top among Olympians when determining successful performance and outcomes (Liew et al., 2019).

Interventions targeting elements of mental toughness have been shown to benefit athletes’ performance and competitive edge alongside their psychological and physical wellbeing and offer support for consistent training and competition outcomes (Bell et al., 2013; Strycharczyk et al., 2021).

A 2021 research paper explored mental toughness in US collegiate athletes and found that while building mental toughness increased wellbeing, it also reduced stigma toward help seeking (Bird et al., 2021).

Beyond Resilience: 4 Key Components of Mental Toughness

Components of mental toughnessResilience is not simply bouncing back from difficult events, obstacles, and challenges. Instead, it’s about finding a new path — the right one — that takes the individual forward in line with new values, beliefs, and dreams (Neenan, 2018).

While resilience is a psychological term for getting back on track, mental toughness is more focused on the “ability to cope with the demands of training, competition, and lifestyle, whilst remaining more consistent, attention focused and controlled under pressure” (Sutton, 2019, p. 24).

Top athletic performers must have self-belief, desire, and motivation, along with the capacity to deal with pressure and anxiety, and these are shaped by early environmental factors, parenting, the competitor’s mindset, and sporting experiences (Sutton, 2019).

Building on the work of earlier researchers such as Jim Loehr (1986), researchers Lee Crust and Peter Clough (2005) defined “mental toughness as a trait-like dimension of personality, made up of four psychological attributes, control, commitment, challenge and confidence” (Sutton, 2019, p. 96).

The 4 C's of mental toughness

(modified from Strycharczyk et al., 2021)

The four Cs model defines them as (Strycharczyk et al., 2021):

  • Control
    This element comprises “extent to which the individual believes that they have sufficient control of themselves, their lives and their circumstances” to allow them to achieve what is essential to them and others (Strycharczyk et al., 2021, p. 51).

This is further divided into emotional control, meaning managing and revealing our emotions, and life control, where we recognize success or failure is up to us.

  • Commitment
    This element comprises the promises we make to ourselves and others and our capacity to follow through and work toward them.

We sometimes break down commitment into goal orientation, where we visualize and target our activities in the direction of goals, and achievement orientation, where we work toward them.

  • Challenge
    How do we respond to challenges? Are they exciting opportunities or something to be feared and avoided?

We can break down challenges into risk orientation, meaning our attitude toward change, and learning orientation, which is how we handle outcomes and respond to stretching ourselves.

  • Confidence
    Confidence is our degree of self-belief in completing an activity, even a difficult one.

Self-confidence can be considered confidence in abilities, meaning we are sure we have the resources required to deal with a situation, and interpersonal confidence, or our openness to engaging with others to support a successful outcome.

Most researchers would agree that while there are conceptual challenges regarding the exact nature and definition of mental toughness, it is vital to our young athletes, as it combines an unshakeable self-belief, the ability to rebound after failures, a refusal to quit, and the concentration needed for their best performances (Liew et al., 2019).

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4 Inspiring Real-Life Examples of Mentally Tough Athletes

There are countless examples of mentally tough athletes overcoming seemingly impossible odds in sports. Here is a sample of four of our favorites (Resilience Institute, 2023):

  1. Bethany Hamilton
    After a shark attack in 2003, in which Bethany Hamilton lost her arm, it seemed unthinkable that she would return to surfing. Yet, she got back on the board just 26 days after the attack and returned to competition as a professional surfer.
  2. Peyton Manning
    Painful neck surgery briefly placed NFL quarterback Peyton Manning’s career on hold. Yet, following a hard-fought recovery, he returned to the game and led the Denver Broncos to a 2016 Super Bowl victory.
  3. Niki Lauda
    Formula One racing legend Niki Lauda suffered extreme burns to the face following a crash in the 1976 German Grand Prix. Six weeks later, he was back on track, winning the World Championships in 1977 and then again in 1984.
  4. Michael Jordan
    Despite being cut from his school basketball team, Michael Jordan fought back to ultimately become a six-time NBA champion and five-time MVP (most valuable player).

Mentally tough athletes know they can’t control everything that happens to them but can take charge of how they respond to different events (Gucciardi, 2013).

The Role of Coaches and Parents in Developing Mental Toughness

Mentally StrongSupport from coaches and parents is vital to developing and maintaining mental toughness in young athletes (Strycharczyk et al., 2021).

While no one should feel required to change their level of mental toughness, there appears to be a good reason for people to do so, depending on what they want to achieve.

Mental toughness is not fixed; it is neuroplastic. With the proper support and environment, our children can develop the cognitive resources needed to excel in all they do (Strycharczyk et al., 2021).

As mentors and role models, parents and coaches can focus on helping athletes improve their performance, wellbeing, and positive behavior. The potential benefits include (Strycharczyk et al., 2021):

  • Attainment of goals and objectives
  • Making the most out of opportunities
  • Managing transition and change (for example, between teams)
  • Improving attendance and time keeping
  • Completing tasks (e.g., skills training, academic study, etc.)
  • Applying skills, inside and outside sports and academia
  • Becoming better leaders
  • Improving readiness for next-level sports, education, or employability
  • Better social skills

Research confirms that a supportive environment (or motivational climate) and the experiences inside and outside sports impact mental toughness (Stamatis et al., 2020b).

16 Ways to Promote Self-Confidence in Young Athletes

Young athletes should be supported and feel a sense of ownership and control over their situation. They should see challenges as opportunities rather than threats, be helped to recover from setbacks, and celebrate successes (Strycharczyk et al., 2021).

The following activities provide opportunities to promote self-confidence in young athletes.

General guidance (Stamatis et al., 2020b):

  1. Implement psychological skills training, mentoring, and peer support.
  2. Encourage exposure to challenging situations, little by little, over time.
  3. Be aware of cultural and contextual nuances that influence the understanding and implementation of interventions.
  4. Use a consistent approach involving coaches, parents, and players.
  5. Measure mental toughness and identify changes over time in relation to interventions and support.

Specific approaches (Liew et al., 2019):

  1. Set realistic and achievable training goals, measure them, and track them to see progress.
  2. Celebrate achievements, big and small.
  3. Implement self-care awareness and practices that promote mental and physical wellbeing.
  4. Surround individuals and teams with positive influences and role models.
  5. Encourage athletes to step out of their comfort zone.
  6. Seek out supportive professionals — coaches, mental health practitioners, and other athletes.
  7. Assist in developing healthy coping mechanisms for stress.
  8. Model resilience by showing how to bounce back from adversity.
  9. Support athletes outside of their sport, for example, helping with college applications or handling a problematic coach or teammate.
  10. Create support networks, including coaches, teammates, and family members.
  11. Build a positive, supportive environment where communication is open and honest.

4 Techniques for Building a Mentally Resilient Young Athlete

Mentally ResilientThe literature identifies many techniques that build mental toughness and resilience in young athletes. Here are four (Strycharczyk et al., 2021):

Goal setting

Goals can motivate and energize, but most importantly, they boost confidence and commitment, particularly when combined with coaching (Strycharczyk et al., 2021).

The GROW model’s four stages are beneficial:

  • Goal – Early on, work together to set goals (sports training, skills development, and academic).
  • Reality – What is happening now, and what would you like to change?
  • Options – What are the options for moving forward and the barriers in the way?
  • Way forward – What is the commitment to move forward?


“Creating positive pictures can have a positive impact on the mind and body” (Strycharczyk et al., 2021, p. 264). Along with other positive-thinking techniques, picturing overcoming an obstacle or achieving a successful outcome can dramatically boost self-belief.

These visualization techniques offer several approaches for improving awareness, coping, reducing anxiety, and improving physical and mental wellbeing.

Anxiety control and relaxation

Stress and anxiety can damage our confidence and stop us from committing to and doing what is needed (Strycharczyk et al., 2021).

Meditation and breathing techniques can restore our sense of control and boost our sense of self-efficacy.

In The Power of Deep Breathing: 7 Techniques and Exercises, we discuss the benefits of breathing for reducing stress and anxiety and several breathing exercises. In What Is Mindfulness? Definition, Benefits & Psychology, we explore using intention, attention, and attitude to boost our wellness.

Positive thinking

Positive thinking techniques are valuable for encouraging ideas, words, and images into our heads to support the confidence necessary for achievement (Strycharczyk et al., 2021).

Affirmations are widely used in sports and beyond for managing stress, pressure, and challenge. For example:

“I can do this.”
“I’ve done this before; I can do it again.”
“I’m unstoppable.”

We explore these and other techniques in our article What Is Positive Thinking? +9 Examples of Positive Thoughts.

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Promoting Mental Health in Youth

Supporting the growth and maintenance of mental toughness is a powerful way of promoting mental health in young people (Strycharczyk et al., 2021).

Mental toughness has been associated with factors related to psychological wellbeing, and related interventions — particularly when combined with teaching self-compassion — appear effective in managing stressors related to sports (and beyond) in college students (Stamatis et al., 2020a).

Other approaches that promote mental wellness include providing mental health literacy classes, workshops, educational videos, and incorporating mental wellbeing assessments into routine screenings. Providing caregivers, parents, teachers, and coaches with education and training to support recognizing the signs of worsening mental health is also vital (Stamatis et al., 2020a; Cheng et al., 2023).

4 Mental Toughness Books & Videos

The following are two of our favorite books on mental toughness and focus on education, sports, and young people.

Developing Mental Toughness: Strategies to Improve Performance, Resilience, and Wellbeing in Individuals and Organizations – Doug Strycharczyk, Peter Clough, and John Perry

Developing Mental Toughness

The authors draw upon research and theory in mental toughness developed in sports and the workplace to explore the concept, its history, and techniques for supporting individuals in building confidence, commitment, control, and challenge.

The book has specific chapters on mental toughness in the workplace, education, and sports.

Find the book on Amazon.

Mental Toughness for Young Athletes: Eight Proven 5-Minute Mindset Exercises for Kids and Teens Who Play Competitive Sports – Troy Horne and Moses Horne

Mental Toughness For Young Athletes

This is a popular book for parents wishing to support young athletes experiencing stress and performance anxiety.

The authors (parents of young athletes themselves) have created a plan to perform better, reengage with their love for the game, and increase their sports confidence.

Find the book on Amazon.


We’ve also included two popular videos highlighting the importance of the right mindset for mental toughness.

What gives Elite Athletes the Edge?

In the fascinating talk ‘What gives Elite Athletes the Edge?’ coach to national teams and world-class athletes, Janne Mortensen shares how to create the mind of a winner.

David Goggins Demonstrates How to Build Mental Toughness

David Goggins quickly became a household name as a retired US Navy SEAL and an ultra-endurance athlete. In ‘David Goggins Demonstrates How to Build Mental Toughness,’ we see him at his best, using the power of a strong mindset to push physical limits.

Useful Resources From

We have many resources available for coaches and parents working with young athletes to boost their resilience and mental toughness.

Our free resources include:

  • It Could Be Worse
    Reframing difficult situations can help us challenge our negative thoughts.
  • Exploring Past Resilience
    Reflecting on our past experiences with adversity can help us appreciate the resilience skills we already possess.
  • What Is Hope?
    Hope is vital to resilience because it can help us bounce back more effectively from life’s difficulties.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • A Letter From Your Best Days to Your Worst

When things go wrong, we forget how good it feels when everything is working out. Writing a letter from your best days to your worst can support us through our darkest times.

Try the following steps:

    • Step one – On a good day, sit down and take some time to write yourself a letter to read when things go wrong.


Advice for coping
Things to bear in mind
Helpful things to remember

    • Step two – When it feels like everything is going wrong, take out the letter and read it through several times, reflecting on how you felt when you wrote it and how it makes you feel now that you are reading it.
  • The Best Possible Resilient Self

We can boost our hope and sense of optimism by taking time to picture our most resilient selves, able to cope with the tough times ahead.

Try out the following four steps:

    • Step one – Think of a difficult time that lies in front of you.
    • Step two – Take time to reflect on what it would be like to overcome this difficulty. How could you bounce back from the situation?
    • Step three – Interview your most resilient self. What would you ask yourself? And how would you answer?
    • Step four – Having interviewed your most resilient self, how did you feel about your challenges?

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others overcome adversity, check out this collection of 17 validated resilience and coping exercises. Use them to help others recover from personal challenges and turn setbacks into opportunities for growth.

A Take-Home Message

As parents, coaches, caregivers, or youth workers, we want our young people to perform at their best most of the time.

While resilience — getting back on track following an upset or knockback — is vital, mental toughness gives us more. It helps us define a valued goal and drives us toward it, overcoming obstacles, facing tough times, and driving toward success.

Psychologists recognize mental toughness as consisting of four vital factors: confidence (being able to believe in our ability to deliver what’s needed), challenge (identifying obstacles and setbacks as opportunities), commitment (pushing forward despite everything), and control (believing what we do makes a difference to the outcome).

By giving young athletes a more supportive environment where they have an additional say in what they do and how and providing them with appropriate mental skills and strategies, we offer them the opportunity to build and maintain mental toughness.

If you are a parent or coach, or work with children and want to see them at their best, teaching them awareness and understanding of mental toughness could provide their best chance of maximizing their potential.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Resilience Exercises for free.

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  • Bird, M. D., Simons, E. E., & Jackman, P. C. (2021). Mental toughness, sport-related wellbeing, and mental health stigma among National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I student-athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 15(4), 306–322.
  • Cheng, M., van Niekerk, M., & Biviano, G. (2023). Student-athletes’ deteriorating mental health during COVID-19: Recommendations on proactive strategies for addressing unique mental health needs. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 49(1), 27–34.
  • Crust, L., & Clough, P. J. (2005). Relationship between mental toughness and physical endurance. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 100(1), 192–194.
  • Gucciardi, D. F. (2013). Mental toughness in sport: Developments in theory and research. Routledge.
  • Kremer, J., Moran, A. P., & Kearney, C. J. (2019). Pure sport: Practical sport psychology. Routledge.
  • Liew, G. C., Kuan, G., Chin, N. S., & Hashim, H. A. (2019). Mental toughness in sport. German Journal of Exercise and Sport Research, 49(4), 381–394.
  • Loehr, J. E. (1986). Mental toughness training for sports: Achieving athletic excellence. Stephen Greene Press.
  • Neenan, M. (2018). Developing resilience: A cognitive-behavioural approach. Routledge.
  • Resilience Institute. (2023, May 9). 10 inspiring examples of highly resilient sportspeople.
  • Rigoni, J. B. (2013). Toughness predicts performance In college football [Doctoral dissertation, The University of Nebraska]. DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska.
  • Stamatis, A., Deal, P. J., Morgan, G. B., Forsse, J. S., Papadakis, Z., McKinley-Barnard, S., Scudamore, E. M., & Koutakis, P. (2020a). Can athletes be tough yet compassionate to themselves? Practical implications for NCAA mental health best practice no. 4. PLOS ONE, 15(12).
  • Stamatis, A., Grandjean, P., Morgan, G., Padgett, R. N., Cowden, R., & Koutakis, P. (2020b). Developing and training mental toughness in sport: A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies and pre-test and post-test experiments. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 6(1).
  • Strycharczyk, D., Clough, P., & Perry, J. L. (2021). Developing mental toughness: Strategies to improve performance, resilience and wellbeing in individuals and organizations. Kogan Page.
  • Sutton, J. (2019). Psychological and physiological factors that affect success in ultra-marathoners [Doctoral thesis, Ulster University].

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