Mental Toughness More Than Just “HTFU”


The area that I most get asked to address from athletes and coaches is how to be “mentally tough” or how to build” mental toughness.” It’s a word we use all the time in sports and every person under the sun has their own definition of it it. When I view social media and see athletes struggling to have the motivation to execute a workout or to overcome a difficult situation I often see the hashtag “HTFU.” Honestly, I work with athletes all the time that think mental toughness is just a matter of “just trying harder”, “be tougher”, or “stop being soft or weak and get to it!” aka HTFU. Hate to break it to ya but mental toughness is a skill and NOT an attitude.

“Jim Loehr* is a distinguished sport psychologist who has worked with many top athletes over the last twenty years. He suggests the following definition for toughness: “Toughness is the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances”. Toughness is not about having a “killer instinct” or being mean or cold. Loehr describes four emotional markers of mental toughness.”**

  • Emotional Flexibility – The ability to handle different situations in a balanced or non-mental-muscle1defensive manner. Emotional flexibility also speaks to the skill of drawing on a wide range of positive emotions – grit, humor, fighting spirit, pleasure.
  • Emotional Responsiveness – You are emotionally engaged in the competitive situation, not withdrawn.
  • Emotional Strength – The ability to handle great emotional force and sustain your fighting spirit no matter what the circumstances.
  • Emotional Resiliency – Being able to handle setbacks and recovering quickly from them.

Yep you read it, mental toughness means dealing with your EMOTIONS! You must learn how to manage you emotions in order to be mentally tough. Too many times I encounter athletes that  suppress, invalidate or judge their emotions. It’s like they forgot that they are human. However, most athletes don’t like to be vulnerable. Addressing emotions, talking about them, and being open to new ways of dealing with them often elicit  a feeling of vulnerability. But that’s the key – to be mentally tough you must be willing to be vulnerable, which is the opposite of the emotionally invalidating “HTFU” message. I could go on for pages on the topic of mental toughness and its relationship to vulnerability but I think you get the point.

Developing your mental toughness mindset is a great off season goal because you have time to explore what your feeling and work on it consistently low risk situations i.e. off-season training or practices. By the time the season rolls around you have enough mastery in the lower risk situations which fuel your confidence in being mentally tough for the larger risk i.e. competitive situations.

As to how to become “mentally tough” stay tuned…BUT start with meditation! Get to it and sit…

-Dr. G



*Loehr, James (1994). The New Toughness Training for Sports. New York, New York: Penguin Books.



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Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli

Dr. Petruzzelli is a clinical sport psychologist, triathlete, and certified mindfulness meditation teacher located in Sacramento, California. She works with elite athletes and sports teams across the country. She is a competitive athlete and enjoys practicing yoga, spending time with her family, and traveling.

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