How to Have Mental Toughness

By: Jim Murphy


  • Mental toughness is the ability to be fully present–to fully present your skills–when the situation demands it. 
  • Mental toughness and love are intertwined–immense passion enables you to endure most any pain (or failure).
  • This article is excerpted from Chapter 10 of Inner Excellence: The hero and the goat.  

Share your heart, not your ego

Love, as I can see it, is the strongest energy on earth. I love hockey all the time, I’ve always loved it, and had no problem to sacrifice anything to it. That’s the most important thing.

– Jaromir Jagr, Voted Top 100 Greatest Hockey Players of All Time

Simon Sinek, author of the book Start With Why, shares how a musician can have mental toughness and grit:

“If your goal is to play the piece perfectly, I don’t believe you can have mental toughness. If your goal is to give the audience something beautiful to listen to, that’s when I think you have mental toughness. It’s always the passing on to someone else. Mental toughness comes from letting go of your own ego.”

If you’re focused on what you can get from your performance (a trophy or promotion), it’s hard to perform well when the pressure is on. However, if your goal is to share something you love with others, it’s very empowering, because you can always do that, even if you’re not at your best.

Dawn Staley, the Olympic gold medal-winning basketball player profiled in Chapter 4, played to win, but it’s not why she played. She played for the incredible experiences she had on the court. Her dreams were in the playing, performing with passion and joy—winning was secondary to fully engaging in her performance. She loved to play basketball, and she was most excited to do it with the best players in the world, because they offered her the most challenges and the best experiences. It was her love for basketball and desire to share it with other high-level performers, that seemed to propel her. 

It’s like Clara Hughes sending her Olympic medals to her mom in the introduction. Her medals are “not what provide the deep sense of accomplishment, which, she says, “fills my sense of self, in turn teaching me how to live.” 

Dawn and Clara both played to win but recognized that winning isn’t the reason they play—they played to feel alive and learn and grow, as a person and an athlete. This mindset helped them perform with poise under pressure, which then put them in a position to win. Winning is their goal, not their dream.

Dreams are feelings you can control; goals are outcomes you cannot (not completely). Living your dreams means experiencing the amazing feelings you get—such as passion and love and being caught up in the moment—while you pursue your goals. It’s not based on the outcome of your goal. Living your dreams means pursuing your biggest goals, embracing all the adversity that comes with it, and dancing along the way. It’s loving the journey more than the outcome.

Dr. Jim Bauman, U.S. Olympic team sport psychologist, talks about Bonnie Blair and other world-class athletes: 

“Their perspective about what they’re doing and why they do it is just different. [At] the Winter Games over in Torino [Italy], we had athletes over there that really didn’t necessarily compete for the gold medal and all the fame and fortune and da, da, da. They’re really in it to see what they can get out of their own system.”

A powerful perspective focuses on the experience more than the goal. The goal may be to win a gold medal or reach a certain sales number, but the focus is on the moment-to-moment experience and how you can learn and grow (and have more of these experiences in the future). Top performers who perform exceptionally and live balanced, fulfilling lives want challenges, and they want them to be meaningful. The results are simply feedback.

Rather than trying to beat the opponent, the best competitors are sharing their unconditional love for their sport with the world. They’re not performing to see what they can get out of it, they perform to see what they can share and who they can become in the midst of it. In doing this, they feel most alive. 

What does it take for you to feel most alive in your performance or life?

Love Jim

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