It seems as if we all have training partners that don’t ever get tired, always fight through injury, win very tough matches regardless of circumstance. We typically classify this type of athlete as being mentally tough. There is a preconception of what it is to be mentally tough, but admittedly, it is very difficult to accurately define it. Researchers in the field of sports psychology have defined the term as an “ability to cope with the demands of training and competition, increased determination, focus and confidence, and maintaining control under pressure” (Jones, et al., 2002). Clough, Earl and Sewell, (2002) maintain mentally tough athletes have an “unshakable faith” that allows the athlete to “remain relatively unaffected by competition and adversity.”

The manner in which an athlete “copes” with adversity is noted as a parameter of measuring mental toughness. Coping is essentially defined as how we react to stress: “fight” or “flight”. On a more complex, cognitive-behavioral level with regard to athletes, the approach (i.e.: willingness to take on a task) or avoidance (i.e.: distracting or resigning yourself from a task). Additionally, another parameter associated with mental toughness is outlook (i.e.: optimist vs. pessimist).

Nicholls et al., (2007) sought to explore the relationship between mental toughness and different cognitive behavioral constructs. His study consisted of 667 different athletes of all levels (amateur, professional, etc., ) and measured the three-way relationship between mental toughness, optimism and coping. All athletes received questionnaires in order to identify correlations between the three constructs.The authors were unable to find any specific information regarding coping strategies among athletes scoring higher in mental toughness. They did, however, find that mentally tough athletes were more likely to implement approach oriented strategies as opposed to avoidance strategies. Moreover, with regard to the relationship between mental toughness and optimism, the findings demonstrate optimism positively correlated with mental toughness whereas pessimism correlated negatively. Lastly the authors also showed a significant association between coping strategies and an athlete’s outlook. The details of this relationship are that optimism results in higher task-approach orientation whereas pessimistic athletes engage in more avoidance strategies. The results of this study are helpful because they give us an idea on how to develop mental toughness. For one, we can teach ourselves to be optimistic and always maintain a positive attitude despite the circumstances and learn to approach tasks as opposed to avoiding them.

In Jiu-Jitsu, we experience adversity in many forms. Some people choose to fight through it and others choose to run away from it. This research teaches us that mentally tough athletes are not tough because of some inherent and random factor. Smith (2006) suggests that mentally tough athletes that they are able to cope with difficult situations and furthermore, maintain positive expectancies despite stressful situations. In order to develop mental toughness on and off the mats, we can use these studies as a framework to implement cognitive and behavioral strategies. We can treat each training session as an opportunity to learn and overcome adversity on smaller levels leading us to the bigger stage (high-level competition). We can be optimistic about the issues we are confronted with and approach obstacles as “challenges” and not “problems.” In Jiu-Jitsu, it is important that we learn to develop mental toughness to handle the rigors of training and competition. We can approach these challenges and not take the day off because we are just in the right mindset –You are in control of your mindset. There are no easy roads in this art.

Earlier this year, I serendipitously had a chance to attend a seminar by professor Draculino. At the end, he spoke some words that resonated very deeply with me. He said that the road to black belt is “very hard… It is one of the hardest things to do, and I hope that for the rest of my life, it never gets any easier.” It will never get easier, be positive and embrace the chaos.


Clough, P., Earle, K., & Sewell, D. (2002). Mental toughness: The concept and its measurement. In I. Cockerill (Ed.),Solutions in sport psychology (pp. 32–45). London: Thomson.
Nicholls, A.R., Polman, R.C.J., Levy, A.R., Backhouse, S.H., (2008) Mental Toughness, optimism, pessimism, and coping among athletes. Personality and Individual Differences 44:1182-1192
Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2002). What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite performers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 205–218.
Smith, R. E. (2006). Understanding sport behaviour: A cognitive-affective processing system. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 18, 1–27.

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