Ways to Increase Your Mental Toughness

Learn how to increase your resilience and maintain focus in a competition.


By Erica Green


Perhaps you can relate to this. You begin your competition. It can be a 5k or a sprint, a game or even a match against yourself. In the beginning you feel ready, pumped, with enough energy reserves, confidence, and motivation to secure a victory. Suddenly, your muscles start tightening, you take in too much oxygen and begin to gasp. You become aware of specific voices shouting from the crowd. Your legs feel weighed down. It feels like you are moving in slow motion as though a 500 lbs upright piano is placed on your shoulders. The piano-effect is the athletes’ rigamortis. The piano is a metaphor used in some running circles to describe the visual presentation of a specific choke in a race performance. Any gains you made are lost. The completion gets past you. Essentially, you choked.

This video clip from a Good Morning America segment shows an example. Watch the lead runner at the beginning of her leg of the 400 meters. Then watch what happens toward the end. She might as well have been carrying a huge weight or piano as all of the other runners passed her effortlessly at the end.

But what happened? She had a great start. She seemed to be feeling good, holding the pack at bay with somewhat of a comfortable lead.

Then, in the back turn, when she could literally see the finish line, the piano sets in. Was it that she didn't want the victory or did others want it more? This blog will offer three handy tips to fight against the piano to maintain mental toughness in your performance.

When we dissect the ill-fated performance, we have a few suspects. Could it be starting off too hard early in the competition? Maybe the competition came on stronger than anticipated? For some, they might have lost focus, and for others, their head just was not in it and could not achieve the zone. No matter how one looks at it, there was an unanticipated element that threw off the momentum. Training techniques to increase mental toughness are:


We are creatures of comfort that often gravitate to the familiar feel-good situations. However, this could become a weakness in competition.

If we do not, as the cliché goes, venture outside our comfort zone, the smallest ripples will throw us off focus come game time. So if we push ourselves to train in the elements, incorporate runs in the sand, train in high altitudes, we will be better able to adjust to the unexpected.

The Military Daily News describes the benefits of adding adversity to training regimen for troops. In the Navy SEAL Hell Week, which includes a total of 3 hours of sleep in 5 days among other grueling things, a commander states” can't learn the confidence adversity teaches you in a classroom or from a book -- you can't fake it -- you learn it from experience -- there's no shortcut -- period.”


Another way to prepare for the intensity of competition is to practice with intensity. I had a soccer coach who said that game time focus and pacing is a reflection of your practice. If you do not go hard with intensity in the practice setting, your body will not have the stamina to maintain it in the competition setting. Adrenaline can only take you so far. Of course, one cannot go hard all the time; that would lead to injuries and mental fatigue. However, incorporating pace intervals will build stamina in a safer way.


I define this in two ways. The first is being able to picture every aspect of your race. Every turn. Every hill. Each accompanied with a rehearsed mental strategy on how to tackle every angle, incline, and descent -preparing for every possible inclimate scenario so that no external force comes between you and your victory.

The second visualization involves self-confidence. If we cannot imagine ourselves winning, beating incredible odds, or staying strong to the finish, then we will be unprepared when such opportunities arise. To cope with the foreign terrain, or simply the unknown, some individuals panic, take in too much oxygen, and lose their winning momentum. So, this is where the positive thinking comes in. We train with the idea that we can absolutely crush our realistic, but progressively more difficult, goals.

I am sure many can relate to a time when we lost our focus in a competition for one reason or another. These are just a few tools to incorporate in your training to make you more resilient when precious seconds and points count the most.

Be Tenacious!

Erica is a psychotherapist and humanitarian aid coordinator who has a background in health psychology, global health, and addictions. She has over 16 years of counseling, teaching, and coaching experience. Erica has several masters degrees, is a licensed counselor, and has an addiction certification. She has worked with all ages in the US and abroad. Follow Erica on Twitter. Se habla español.

Main Photo Credit: msgrafixx/; Second Photo Credit: matimix/; Third Photo Credit: Poprotskiy Alexey/; Fourth Photo Credit: Dudarev Mikhail/