2 Myths and 1 Fact About Mental Toughness

You hear the term "mental toughness" and immediately you get the gist of what it means. Just reading that probably had you thinking of some athlete overcoming the odds and becoming a legend. And while we all have some idea of what mental toughness means, research in the past decade may just challenge your assumptions, if they look anything like this:

  1. Mental toughness is an idea made up of several different components, not one big idea.
  2. Mental toughness is a stable trait that doesn't alter by circumstance.
  3. How a person copes with stress directly alters performance, achieving goals, and well-being.

At face value, the third fact may not surprise you all that much. But once we break it down, you'll get why that's interesting and valuable. In fact, you'll probably think that way about all 3 facts by the end of this blog. Before we go much further, it's time to establish some credibility in what you're about to read.

Hey MTNTOUGH, What's the Source?

In the least boring way possible, we'll try to share how this information came to be. It's hard to see it, but the term "mental toughness" has become increasingly popular in usage over the past few decades. Yet the concept had never been the subject of rigorous research and concepts around mental toughness had largely been blindly accepted. This is why everyone goes about defining it a bit differently - the truth is, the science was lacking to pin the concept down. That was until the past decade or so.

In 2014, a group of researchers released a paper titled "The Concept of Mental Toughness: Tests of Dimensionality, Nomological Network, and Traitness" - it just rolls off the tongue. Buried in the complicated language of the title, are three concepts they set out to test.

Before this study was conducted, the academic community accepted the assumptions you read earlier as truths - here they are again for reference:

  1. Mental toughness is an idea made up of several different components, not one big idea.
  2. Mental toughness is a stable trait that doesn't alter by circumstance.
  3. How a person copes with stress directly alters performance, achieving goals, and well-being.

Thousands of individuals took part in the study within one of the following segments: athletes, college students, military, workplace employees, and a control segment. Each segment was put under stressful situations relative to their role. For example, athletes need to make smart decisions while fatigued and still physically perform at a high level, college kids need to pass an exam while being independent for the first time in their lives, etc.

With the background out of the way, let's dig into each fact further, uncover why it's surprising, and ultimately why you should care.

1. Dimensionality of Mental Toughness

Reading the title of this blog, your brain probably did one of two things. First, it either tried to pull other words together to make better sense of the term "mental toughness" or it went with the second option where the term "mental toughness" was fully understood, not requiring further explanation.

If it chose the first path, motivation or "finishing the job" are common alternatives. Or even closer in, your brain may have hit words like grit, perseverance, resilience, or mental strength. Mental toughness goes by a lot of names, and that's part of the problem because while all of those words are correct, they're also incorrect. This is the premise of dimensionality.

What Is Dimensionality?

Dimensionality refers to the number of underlying factors (dimensions) relative to a situation. In the study of mental toughness, they set out to learn if it was a unidimensional measure(one underlying factor) or a multidimensional measure (two or more factors).

For example, if a researcher is measuring anxiety, a unidimensional measure would focus only on one aspect of anxiety (such as worry), while a multidimensional measure would look at multiple aspects of anxiety (such as worry, fear, and physical symptoms).

In the study of mental toughness, to test dimensionality, they conducted an experiment that looked at how people guard and protect their resources, while under stress.

Findings: Mental Toughness is Unidimensional, Not Multidimensional

This finding goes back to how you define the concept of mental toughness, concluding that mental toughness is its own thing - one single factor. It's not a bunch of different variables that map out to make someone more or less mentally tough.

In other words, it's not how a person measures things like grit, mindset, and resilience. It's simply mental toughness - one thing - it's capacity to stay focused on what needs to be done while under stress or difficult conditions. This means it's measured very simply on one scale - where on one end you have a high amount of mental toughness, and on the other, you have a low level of mental toughness.

Why Does This Matter?

As a mountain athlete, military service member, student, or whatever, overcoming obstacles just got a whole lot less complicated. Instead of working through a million different adjectives and phrases, the mental toughness to get through anything boils down to how you deal with stress.

It's a bit like having the answer to the test, whereas a multidimensional measure would be not having the answer but having to work out a solution. This knowledge doesn't make building mental toughness easier, rather, it unlocks the most important elements to achieve greater mental toughness.

2. Mental Toughness As a Trait

We all possess traits of some kind - the good and bad kinds. Some are inherited while others are acquired through experience. But one uncommon thing is possessing or acquiring a trait, but having it range in intensity based on context or circumstance. A second component that this test set out to prove (or disprove) was how stable the trait of mental toughness is.

What Is a Stable Trait?

A stable trait is a characteristic or quality of an individual that remains relatively consistent over time and across different situations. It is not easily influenced by external factors and tends to endure across the lifespan. An example would be personality traits like introversion and extroversion.

Typically, an introvert is always an introvert regardless of their age or where they happen to be. The same logic applies to the extrovert as well.

Mental toughness was long assumed to be a stable trait, where it was a relatively consistent characteristic. For example, if someone displays high levels of mental toughness in one situation, they would likely show similar mental toughness in another situation, even if the two situations are different. Put differently, someone with a high level of mental toughness would consistently take that across different tasks and challenges. 

Findings: Mental Toughness Is More Situational Than Stable

The study proved this wasn't the case though. The researchers found that there is slightly more variability across situations than between individuals, which means that mental toughness is better thought of as a "state-like" concept, changing its shape dependent on the situation and time.

Why Does This Matter?

This finding has massive implications for everyone, especially mountain athletes, because you can now build the most effective strategy knowing that your variables are situation and time.

  • Relative to Time: Time can change mental toughness. Strategically, this is the reason to constantly be training your mental toughness. This also unlocks the concept that mental toughness can be acquired and improved upon as it's a fluid concept with time.
  • Relative to Situation: You now know that just because you're tough in a PTA meeting doesn't automatically guarantee the same edge on the mountains. This is good news though because it also means you can improve your contextual toughness by training specifically for it. This is more ammunition for functional training and taking your prep for backcountry hunting to real or closely-simulated situations to make sure you're mental toughness transfers when it's needed most.

3. Mental Toughness Helps You Thrive

Perhaps the least surprising on the list while also the most important - mental toughness is directly related to thriving. This is what you've most likely expected and now you know that evidence supports the claims.

Within the study, researchers were able to show that the level of mental toughness a person possesses will have a tremendous impact on their overall performance, achieving goals, and overall well-being during stressful situations.

They found that:

  • Stress Management: People with higher levels of mental toughness were less likely to feel stressed and more likely to be able to cope with challenges.
  • Improved Performance: People with higher levels of mental toughness were also more likely to perform well in tasks, even in extremely stressful situations like a military selection test.
  • Achieving Goals: Plus, they discovered that mental toughness was related to academic and social goal progress - in this instance, they saw an increase in academic and social measures among university students.

These are massively compelling reasons to work on improving one's level of mental toughness. Whether it's backcountry related or fit for daily life, mental toughness essentially helps you create a more fulfilling life.


Mental Toughness Is a Mindset

We're big believers in the power of mental toughness because we see it every single day. Building mental toughness requires having a positive outlook, we call it the MTNTOUGH mindset, and our athletes learn and exemplify this way of thinking across the globe. While every workout we craft is testing their mental toughness, we also take it to the next level with courses to help them better understand the ins and outs of mental toughness.

Knowing how something works increases your likelihood of mastering it more quickly - that's why we don't keep secrets around the criminally misunderstood concept of mental toughness. We do this in several ways, a favorite being the 10-Day Mental Toughness Program. Although the following description doesn't do it justice, the course takes the scientific complexities behind mental toughness and presents them back as easy-to-understand areas of focus in a far more interesting manner.

This course is led by Phil Kornachuk who exudes mental toughness, thanks to his experience and training (retired US Army Ranger and Green Beret, licensed trainer, Master's Degree in mental toughness) you won't find a more qualified or inspiring individual to help you reach a greater level of mental toughness.

While the dimensions and stability of mental toughness may be of little consequence, there's no denying the importance and relevance of a more fulfilled life at the hands of greater mental toughness.