A 4-Step Plan for Building Mental Toughness

Develop bulletproof mental toughness with 4 strategies from STACK Expert Daniel Payseur.

Coaches preach it, scouts seek it, athletes strive for it: mental toughness. It involves having an impenetrable defense against distractions, recovering from mistakes quickly, and most of all, being a winner.

That's where game psychology comes in. No more mental lapses or breakdowns? Sign me up.


Coaches preach it, scouts seek it, athletes strive for it: mental toughness. It involves having an impenetrable defense against distractions, recovering from mistakes quickly, and most of all, being a winner.

That's where game psychology comes in. No more mental lapses or breakdowns? Sign me up.

Mental skills training aims to remove insecurities or lack of focus that disrupt an athlete's performance and doesn't allow effort and natural talent to shine.

This four-step system will help bulletproof your mental makeup and strengthen your mindset both in sports and life.

Step 1: Identify Your Path

Mental Toughness

Where do you want to end up? What is the pinnacle of your desires? What is your dream achievement? Those who know where they are going or what they are fighting for are much more successful than those who do not. So decide on a path.

A. On a sheet of paper write your dream achievement in sports—the thing you want more than all other things.

B. Identify at least 3 objective and tangible "stepping stone" achievements that directly lead to achievement of your dream. Detail a path that will get you where you want to go and that also fits with your personality, moral makeup, and abilities.

For example if you want to become a professional baseball Hall-of-Famer, some stepping stones you could choose are:

  • Sign a professional baseball contract.
  • Start for an MLB Team.
  • Win a World Series.
  • Win an MLB MVP Award

C. So you have your dream at the top of the sheet of paper. Below that, you have written the stepping stone goals that will take you from where you are now to where you want to end up. Now you need to break down what is necessary to achieve each stepping stone along your path. You must ask yourself, "what skills and attributes do I need to acquire to reach each stepping stone?"

Using the baseball example:

  • Run a 6.7-second 60-yard sprint.
  • Gain 20 pounds of muscle.
  • Increase fastball velocity to 93 mph.

This process may be extensive, yet it is imperative to fully complete it. It makes your dream more tangible, something worth fighting for.

Step 2: Develop a Process Orientation

Strong Athlete

Now that you have identified your path to greatness, it's time to develop the psychological skills that will enable you to achieve your goals. You must first develop a process orientation. Execution of singular tasks, when completed successfully in succession, lead to the accomplishment of great feats.

With a process orientation, instead of focusing on outcomes, numbers and stats, focus on your effort and attitude—the only two things you can fully control.

Work on setting and achieving no fewer than three process goals each day. Place sticky notes with your goals in places where you will easily see them: on bathroom mirrors, in your locker or even on your equipment.

These goals can be repetitive as long as you maintain the initial effort and attitude toward achieving them. If these conditions begin to erode, find other process goals that rekindle your focus and intensity.

Example of process goals:

  • Intense focus during hitting session.
  • Maintain nutrition plan.
  • Attack my workout today.

Step 3: Use Self-Talk to Promote Focus and Confidence

Tire Flip

Self-talk is any internal use of dialogue. Remember this, if nothing else: Your words dictate your thoughts; your thoughts control your actions; and your actions determine your success.

Self-talk needs to be almost continuous to improve your focus. Use cues to keep yourself from getting off track.

  1. Make it positive.
  2. Eliminate negative noise. Use cue word "stop" when self-talk goes negative. A rubber band snapped against the inside of the wrist works great as a physical stimulus to eliminate negative mental chatter.
  3. Maintain control of the message. Consider your words. Revise them if needed.
  4. Talk to yourself. Use "you." You will listen.

Baseball examples of self-talk:

  • See ball, hit ball.
  • Ball to me. Going 3.
  • Smooth and fast. Attack the fastball.

If you steadily speak kindly to yourself, expect great things and avoid negative comments, I assure you that you will think positively of yourself and benefit from improved confidence.

Step 4: Have a Release/Reset Plan

Poor outcomes occur even to the most prepared and talented athletes. Having a bulletproof psychology does not ensure 100 percent success. With this in mind, it is important to be able to quickly release poor performances and reset your efforts.

Release/Reset Plans should be quick and simple, capable of being completed during stoppages or even, if necessary, during play.

The Release/Reset plan basically boils down to releasing past experiences and re-devoting your efforts toward relevant tasks in your immediate future (present) with a little positive encouragement for good measure. Recognition of past experiences that are impacting present play is of the utmost importance. Along with a release phrase, having a physical reminder of turning the page is important. Something as simple as moving a bracelet or rubber band from one arm to the other can do the trick.

  • Release: "Release the bad" and physical reminder cue (bracelet).
  • Encouragement: "you have succeeded against these odds before; remember to . . . "
  • Directive statement: "Stay loose and attack the fastball."

A bulletproof psychology will not ensure victory, but you will be invincible to trash talk, impervious to repeated errors, and have a plan and a method to achieve what you want so badly. By no means is this a comprehensive program, but it will help you get started and get thinking about the mental side of sports.


Co-Written by Nathan Berggrun

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock