Can Mental Toughness be Learnt


Welcome to the last in our series of 3 articles discussing the concept of ‘Mental Toughness’ from one of our partners Joanne Turley at Ark Academy.


Can Mental Toughness be Learnt?


In short, the answer is yes. Which is good, because if you are hiring someone to come in to run a programme then you want to know if they are going to make difference and grow within the role. Ideally, you would also want some way of being able to prove it too.


For a longer answer it is worth looking at it both from the psychologist’s perspective and then from a practitioner viewpoint.


The Psychologist’s View


Research (Horsburgh et al 2009) has shown that Mental Toughness does have a genetic component to it along with environmental factors. So, it is a case of nature and nurture. Some people are born with Mental Toughness and some may develop it.


Various researchers have been able to identify that critical life events can improve Mental Toughness (Coulter et al, 2010). They’ve also shown that parental behaviour and upbringing plays a key role in the Mental Toughness development of children, whether this is deliberate or accidental. Researchers like Thelwell et al 2010, advocate educational programmes aimed at parents to help them develop the right kind of environment to develop mental development.


As well as life events three other factors have been identified by psychologists that contribute to developing Mental Toughness:


  1. Providing a challenging yet supportive environment.
  2. Having an effective social support mechanism.
  3. Encouraging self-reflection and experimental learning.


Sheard and Golby, 2006 and Gucciardi et al, 2009 have also shown that mental skills training programmes do contribute to improved Mental Toughness. Other researchers such as Crust and Azadi 2010, found that mentally tough people consciously use more psychological tools and techniques. While, Nicholls et al 2008, found that Mental Toughness was significantly correlated with problem solving and various coping strategies such as mental imagery, thought control, logical analysis and more.


The Practitioner’s View


I’ve been studying and working with mental toughness for over seven years now and some of the questions I needed to get answers to when I was starting out were:


  • Can I actually help my client be more mentally tough?
  • If I can, will it last?
  • Am I actually changing their mental toughness or showing them how to behave like someone who is mentally tough?
  • Which tools and techniques work and is any of down to how I deliver it?


What I’ve learnt over my seven years or more is that there are a huge array of tools and techniques that do make a difference. Some are widely known and have their background in sports psychology, NLP, CBT, positive psychology, sports coaching.


Interestingly, some are practiced by major religions likes Buddhism and Hinduism. All techniques can be attributed to one of five areas:


  1. Positive thinking.
  2. Visualization.
  3. Anxiety control.
  4. Goal setting.
  5. Attentional control.


Many good managers, trainers, coaches etc will be aware of the first four. However, the fifth maybe new to some people and can produce some fantastic results when used.


The rule with all these techniques is that they all work, but not all work for everyone and not all of the time. You would be forgiven for thinking ‘that’s less then helpful’. What this means is that there is a need for practitioner and client to be aware of this and to monitor what does work and be willing to adapt and try new techniques if needed.


What’s key is self-awareness and that’s where the suite of Mental Toughness assessment tools (MTQ48, MTQPlus) we have available is helpful.


So, to summarise, yes Mental Toughness can be learnt but it takes time, practical application of a wide range of tools and a helpful dose of self-awareness and reflection.


If you would like to find out more, then Joanne can be contacted at ARK Academy:


For more information, please view the other articles in this series:


What is Mental Toughness


Why is Mental Toughness Important?



Gareth Snaith, Contract Performance Manager, 3SC