Mastering Mental Toughness, as Told by Olympic Athletes

Our mindset has a tremendous impact on our performance. Even if we are the best gymnast in the world, if we have a negative mindset, our performance will be affected. Mastering mental toughness is key to success and wellness. So what does it mean to master “mental toughness?” This year’s Tokyo Olympic Games showed how athletes can conquer mental toughness and develop resilience. The following three techniques are skills this year’s Olympians utilized that can be applied to anyone struggling to overcome a negative mindset or situation.


1. Resist Counterproductive Thoughts 

Studies show that we average 300 to 1,000 words a minute of self-talk, and the vast majority are negative thoughts. In addition, 62 percent of the words in the dictionary that describe emotion are geared toward a negative perspective.

Simone Biles, an American gymnast, made a decision to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympic Games after citing mental health concerns.

“It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head,” Biles told reporters. “Whenever you get in a high stress situation, you kind of freak out. I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being.”

Most pressure is internal. How you allow yourself to handle counterproductive thoughts following a negative circumstance is crucial to how you’ll bounce back from difficult situations. A simple way to help reframe negative messages is by practicing Realistic Optimism, a component of TRACOM’s Resilient Mindset Model. Realistic Optimism is an individuals’ tendency to see the world in a positive way, but also remain grounded in reality.


2. Keep Moving Forward with Resilience

At the 2016 Rio games, Katie Ledecky, an American swimmer, crushed the 400 freestyle event, winning by almost five seconds. This year however, Australian Ariarne Titmus showed up. When the swimmers hit the wall, Ledecky was in second place by .67 seconds.

Even though this was not the result Ledecky was looking for, she didn’t let it consume her. Two days later, Ledecky won gold in the 1500 freestyle. She kept her winning streak going by adding another gold from the 800 freestyle. This is a great example of how an Olympian responded to disappointment and adversity with resilience. Instead of letting the past control her, she focused on the next race and kept herself moving forward.

Likewise, Simone Biles, who had originally withdrawn from the Olympic Games, showed incredible resilience by returning to the competition and placing bronze on the beam.

“I wasn’t expecting to medal,” Biles told reporters after receiving bronze. “I just came out here and just tried to do a good beam set…so just to have one more opportunity to compete at the Olympics meant the world to me.”

Another way we can keep moving forward is by using another component of TRACOM’s Resilient Mindset Model, Goal Orientation. TRACOM’s Goal Orientation is when individuals set appropriate goals and monitor their progress on those goals. This means goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. It is important to set goals to reach a desired outcome, rather than focusing solely on the end-goal.


3. Get Help from Others

Having a social support system means having people in your life you can discuss problems with and depend on during good and bad times. Whether it’s your coach, your boss or your best friend, people with a high level of social support feel that they have close confidants who can be a helping hand and voice of reason in their lives.

“Being Olympians it’s something that we all have to watch out for each other and help each other through and in times of need,” Ledecky said after winning gold in the 1,500 meter swimming event.


It’s important for individuals at all levels to work at building mental toughness and a resilient mindset. TRACOM’s Adaptive Mindset for Resiliency program teaches people how to adjust how they perceive challenges. While our natural tendencies might be to run away from challenges, we can rewire our brains to be more mentally tough, open and accepting, and possibly even excited for new challenges.