Mental Toughness - Who Dares Wins

This February, we're all about creating new habits, changing minds and changing lives. We'll be posting a blog from one of the team around this theme every week, first up is one of our business psychologists, Natalie Whitaker, talking about what we can learn about mental toughness.

These cold Sunday nights have definitely heated up with the start of Season 4, SAS Who Dares Wins. For anyone that hasn’t watched the show, there’s an interesting twist this year - we have women contestants. Whilst gender equality is a close passion of mine, I’m not about to encourage any ‘bra-burning’ today. What this has highlighted though, is that mental toughness can beat physical strength, regardless of gender. These men and women have been put through the same physically demanding exercises and yet, despite their physical strength differences, both men and women have reached the final. The impact of the mind on the body used to be an interesting dinner party discussion. Today, there is a substantial amount of evidence, across many areas of psychology, that brain power is real and it can affect the physical and chemical processes in our body, impacting performance.

Mental toughness refers to resilience, goal-focus and the ability to manage emotions and behaviour. The secret to developing this lies in the way you think. We know from research in sports psychology that performance can improve through our thoughts alone, from body builders increasing their lifting power, to runners improving their endurance. In work psychology, your thoughts can lessen the impact of negative feedback and a demanding workload. They can also improve your ability to have effective conversations, make better decisions and reach your goals. The good news from all this is that, despite the strengths we were born with, everyone has the power to improve performance by changing the way they think, and you can too.  

Firstly, we need to consider how your thoughts can hold you back from optimal performance. We all have a built-in evolutionary mechanism, designed to protect us from pain. Whilst this used to be physical pain, today we encounter many different forms of pain, including social pain. Your body detects warnings and just like the warning light on your petrol gauge, it’s designed to make you stop and pull over as soon as possible, rather than risk breaking down in the road. However, sometimes your internal warning gauge is thrown off kilter for many different reasons. Some of the most common are negative thinking habits and distorted conclusions, created through your own beliefs. If you’ve ever thought being late for a meeting means everyone will think badly of you or your manager’s lack of recognition for your good work means they don’t value you, you’ve most likely experienced some of these.

So how can you change the way you think to improve mental toughness? Just as skills are needed to improve physical strength, mental toughness is no different. Here are some to get you started:

  • Reframing –our ways of thinking can become distorted and problems arise through the negative and irrational lens we can apply to situations and interactions. One way we can overcome this is by challenging our own thoughts and beliefs, to discover other possible explanations and replacing negative thoughts with those which are more likely and realistic.
  • Acceptance – fighting against circumstances outside of our control and the thoughts and feelings arising from these, often leads to worry, stress and overthinking. Instead we can accept these circumstances and acknowledge the thoughts and feelings associated with them, without reacting. Allowing painful thoughts and feelings to come and go without avoiding them, can help lower our stress responses.
  • Mindfulness – concentrating on ‘being present’ has numerous benefits for well-being as well as developing and strengthening mental toughness. Take time to quiet the mind using focused breathing techniques and being mindful of the external space around you and your internal experiences. Doing this regularly will help to regulate your thoughts, emotions and behaviours.

As with all skills you’re looking to develop, success takes consistent practice. So for those of you thinking about a new challenge this year, who dares to strengthen their mental toughness?

If you're interested to learn more, get in touch with Natalie via email at or give her a call 01625 526979