Choose To Be Tougher: Your Path To Mental Toughness

posted on: June 12, 2020
author: Brian Lomax

Being a competitor requires a certain level of toughness and courage. You have to be willing to risk failure without letting it affect your self-esteem or self-identity. That’s hard. Sometimes you may feel like a bad player, especially after a poor performance. But if you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know that’s not true. A bad performance doesn’t make you a bad player.

Being a competitor also includes facing hard challenges and difficult moments. And how you respond to those challenges and moments is a function of your toughness. So here’s a question for you. The next time you’re in a difficult moment in a competition, can you choose to be tougher? Tougher than you’ve ever been?

Mental toughness

Believe it or not, mental toughness starts with that choice. You must choose to be tough. In fact, you must choose to be tougher every day. Of course, that’s easy to say, but not so easy to do. I get it. But it can be done. It takes awareness. It takes training. You have to learn how and when to choose to be tougher.

Build awareness

To begin, you must develop awareness of your current level of toughness. In order to do that, you  should reflect on past performances and take an “extreme ownership” approach. What is extreme ownership? It’s taking 100% responsibility for your performances, not blaming others for when you lose or play badly, and consistently learning how to be better. Extreme ownership is the path to elite performance.

So that match you lost because it was too windy, or maybe that one when the opponent cheated? OK, those are legitimate factors in performance, but I bet YOU could have handled those situations better. You can’t change the weather or the opponent’s behavior, but you can change YOU. You can be better. You can be tougher.


Awareness exercise

Consider some of your more disappointing performances – what could you have done better? What went wrong?

What patterns of thought and behavior have contributed to poor performances in the past? How can you change those?

Examples of problematic patterns are low confidence, lack of focus, lack of self-belief, too much anger or frustration, rushing on big points, overconfidence, etc.

When I have applied this type of thinking to my own performances, it has helped me to break problematic patterns of thinking that I might not have otherwise recognized. For example, several years ago I played a match in which I went in with an overconfident attitude, and I thought I could just wait for the opponent to make a mistake. It didn’t work. I lost in straight sets, and I wasn’t happy about that.

I could have just blown off that result and said it was a bad day. But instead, I applied the principles of extreme ownership and realized a couple of things. My overconfident attitude showed a lack of respect for my opponent. I needed to correct that by ensuring that I took every opponent seriously.

Second, waiting for my opponent to make a mistake was a passive approach to trying to win a high-level tennis match. I needed to be more intentional with how I wanted to play and win points. Based on those realizations, I made some adjustments to my mental approach that led to one of the best summers of my tennis career. I chose to be better, different, and tougher. You can do that too.

Train your toughness

Are you familiar with the Finnish concept of sisu? There’s a lot to the concept, but a big part of it is related to courage and practicing toughness. For example, Finns like cold water swimming, even if it’s just for 30 seconds. They also like to commute to work via bicycle. As a people, they are famous for not giving up. Practicing toughness has helped them as a society to endure difficult conditions. We want to use the same concept to become tougher.

Choosing to be tougher takes practice and training. As with many things, it’s best to start small so you can get used to the concept. Here are some starter ideas:

  • Take the stairs even when an elevator is accessible
  • When you drive somewhere, park far away and walk
  • Do extra reps in workouts even if it’s not required
  • Go to bed 15 minutes earlier

You can probably come up with dozens more ideas. Of course, you don’t always have to do things the hard way, but you also don’t always need to take the easy way out either. Doing these little “toughness” reps will help you build the awareness you need in order to choose to be tougher when you need it. You’re building confidence in your toughness muscles. And in case you didn’t know this, the better you become at your sport, the more you are going to need your toughness.


Make it practical

The next level of toughness training is to incorporate it into your practices and competitions. What are the moments and conditions that require toughness? Playing in the wind? Finishing a set with the score tied at 5-all? Dealing with a slow start? Whatever those moments are, you want to have a plan for how you are going to choose to be tougher in those moments. And then you practice those plans.

That practice will make it easier to recognize these moments when you compete, and you will know it is your time to choose to step up and be tougher. You can do it! You can be tougher!


By the way, I am conducting on court mental toughness lessons this summer with a limited set of students. If you are interested in working on this aspect of your game on the court, email me at

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About the Author

Brian Lomax founded PerformanceXtra™ in 2009 with a mission of helping athletes achieve their goals and their top performances more consistently through a progression of mental skills that enables them to focus on what is truly important.

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