Mental Toughness in Elite Athletes

michaeljordan
Superstar Programs

“Nothing on earth can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”

– Thomas Jefferson

In my book, “Raising Youth Champions, I examined the careers of a number of high-profile young athletes. In almost every case, the ones who found long-term success were the one with the greatest mental resiliency, while those who lacked mental toughness or discipline were often victims of burnout or careers that were perceived to be failures.

As if one needed more evidence of the importance of mental toughness in sports, you need only to look at players considered to be the best to ever play their chosen sport and see great examples. Athletes like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Muhamad Ali were all superstar sports competitors who married physical excellence with mental dominance to achieve a peak level of performance. Here is a look at how each used mental toughness to take their impressive physical abilities to a world-class level.

Michael Jordan

“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

– Michael Jordan

Some consider Michael Jordan the greatest player to ever play basketball. With six NBA championships, five Most Valuable Player awards, two Olympic Gold Medals, and numerous other personal accolades to his name, a case can definitely be made to support his claim to greatness. Standing a towering 6’6” tall with impeccable quickness and a reputed 48-inch vertical leap, there is little doubt that even amongst elite athletes, Jordan possessed rare physical gifts that few if any have ever matched. Despite all of this, what probably set Jordan apart from any other player of his generation was his legendary mental toughness.

Looking at his career, numerous examples of mental toughness stand out. In one of the most infamous stories from his youth, it has been said that Jordan was cut from his own high school team as a sophomore at Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina. This was not technically true. While he was cut from the Varsity team, he did play on the Junior Varsity squad. For many players though, this would have been a devastating blow. Some would probably even consider giving up the game. Not Jordan. He used this so-called “slight” to fuel his training and prove that he did belong. Jordan would go on to dominate on the Varsity level in his junior and senior years and earn a scholarship to the University of North Carolina, one of the most prestigious basketball programs in the country.

Certainly, you can’t accomplish all that Michael Jordan accomplished in his career without a high measure of mental toughness. This is an athlete, who as a freshman in college in 1982, made the game-winning shot in the National Championship game against a favored Georgetown squad. This is also a player who would go onto to dominate the NBA, winning the Rookie of Year award in 1985 and eventually lifting the lowly Chicago Bulls franchise to six NBA championships. He was a player who never lost a championship series. Quite simply, Michael Jordan was a competitor who never was overwhelmed by the biggest moments and was able to succeed under immense pressure, where others would mentally crumble.

Near the end of his legendary career, Jordan played one of the most iconic games of his career in the 1997 NBA Finals versus the Utah Jazz in what is referred to as “The Flu Game”. With the series tied 2-2, game five would prove to be a pivotal match that would give one team the upper hand in claiming the championship. Unfortunately for the Bulls, Jordan was suffering from a stomach virus and severe dehydration. For an ordinary player this would be debilitating and a reason to skip the game entirely. As we all know though, Jordan was no ordinary player and his iron will would not let him even consider skipping such a monumental game.  While many players might be able to “tough it out” and play under such adverse conditions, they certainly would not be at 100% and likely would not be able to significantly impact such a big game. Jordan not only played but dominated the game. He scored 38 points, including a critical three pointer with 25 seconds remaining to lift the Bulls to an improbable 90-88 win. The team would go on to win the series in game six and allow Jordan to celebrate the fifth of his six championships. Truly, Jordan enjoyed a mental edge that separated him from anyone else in the game and it showed.

Tiger Woods

My mind is my biggest asset. I expect to win every tournament I play.”
-Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods is another example of an athlete who dominated his chosen sport, Golf, by displaying unshakable mental toughness. From the time he turned pro in 1996 through 2008, Woods was a virtual force of nature on the Green and the most dominant player in the world. In that span he captured 14 major championships and seemed destined to shatter the record of 18 held by Jack Nicklaus. Standing at a chiseled 6’2 with an athletic build unmatched by any player on the tour, many might attribute his success to his impressive physical gifts. However, they are severely underestimating the mental strength and toughness possessed by Tiger.

As anyone who knows the sport can attest, it is a mentally demanding game requiring concentration, focus, and the ability to perform well under pressure. So imagine playing on the biggest stages, before the largest crowds and consider how much more the difficulty would be notched up. Woods’ mental resiliency is a huge reason why he was able to excel for an extended period of time in such a stressful sport. David Wells, a writer for the New York Times, observed “In a period that has brought us instant messaging, multitasking, wireless distractions and attention deficit disorder, Woods has become the exemplar of mental discipline. It is his ability to enter the cocoon of concentration that is written about and admired most.” Professional golfer Bob Mays added “Tiger is the most mentally tough guy in sports, from race car drivers to football players to anyone. You can never get him down, and he will never let himself get down. That’s where he really beats up on people.”

So how did he develop that famed mental acuity? Credit goes to his parents Earl and Kultida Woods. It is said that from an early age in his training, Earl would insert special tricks and challenges to keep Tiger focused, like dropping golf bags in the background as he would swing. By helping to learn to channel out distractions, Earl was able to keep Tiger singularly focused on his goals. Likewise, his mother Kultida was noted as the disciplinarian in the family and ran a tight household when Tiger was young instilling discipline and control in him from an early age. Obviously all of the mental training paid off, since Woods dominated his sport as much as any other athlete has in any sport ever.

In one of the most challenging moments of his career, Tiger again proved his mental toughness. In 2008, after being sidelined for much of the season recovering from knee surgery, Woods returned in time to compete in the US Open. It proved to be one of his most stirring victories as he defeated Rocco Mediate and captured the championship by winning a sudden death playoff on the final hole. In victory, Woods discussed the pressure he was under to make big shots down the stretch that allowed him to overcome Mediate. Well, it’s pressure, there’s no doubt. I was nervous and that’s a good thing. That means you care. You can try and use that energy as best you can to heighten your focus and then get into the right situation and it worked out great for me this week.” Truly, being able to handle pressure can help to elevate you to the top of any profession.

Muhammad Ali

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are.”

– Muhammad Ali

When it comes to supreme confidence, no athlete possessed that in greater abundance than Muhammad Ali. Aptly nicknamed “The Greatest”, Ali had an illustrious career that began when he captured the Olympic Gold Medal in Boxing in 1960 in Rome, Italy. As a professional, Ali compiled a record of 56-5 and was a three-time Heavyweight Champion of the World with incredible wins over a collection of legendary fighters including Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sonny Liston, and Ken Norton. Standing at 6’3” tall with fast hands, impeccable boxing skills, and an incredible chin, he had all the physical tools to be a champion, but it was his unwavering bravado and mental acumen that made him the best of all time.

Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, took up boxing at the age of 12. Though he possessed immense natural talent, he wasn’t content to rely upon that. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, commended Ali for not only his relentless drive to outwork his opponents, but also his curiosity to learn everything he could regarding the “Sweet Science”. From an early age, Ali had set a goal for himself to be a world champion and trained with that singular focus. So he not only developed the physical abilities he would need, but developed his mind as well. Ali sought out the legendary Dundee, because he wanted to know everything when it came to champions such as how they prepared, what they ate, how they thought, etc. No matter what obstacles were put in his path, Ali focused on his training, weeding out distractions and overcoming obstacles to accomplish what he set out to do. Ali expected so much of himself, he trained in a way that reflected that, not cutting corners, but instead putting in more work than anyone else thought necessary. The results were nothing short of extraordinary.

As a pro, he faced many challenging moments in his illustrious career. The first came when he battled the reigning Heavyweight Champion, Sonny Liston, in 1964. Liston was a powerful and intimidating fighter who had destroyed the previous champion Floyd Patterson and entered the bout as an 8-1 favorite.  Few expected Clay (Ali) to survive, let alone win, but such was his mental toughness that he relished the challenge. Using his blazing hand speed and elusiveness, Clay thoroughly frustrated and dominated Liston, forcing him to retire on his stool after six rounds. Later in his career in 1974, Ali would face even more daunting odds when he met George Foreman, considered one of the most devastating punchers of all time. Foreman was fresh over destructive second round knockouts of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, who had both proved stiff challenges for Ali.  Plus, given the fact that Ali was no longer in his physical prime and notably slowed down, he would not be able to fight in the same manner he had used to overwhelm Liston. Again, the challenge was daunting and the chances for victory seemed nonexistent. Ali, however, would once more reach into his bag of tricks by employing an innovative and highly-questionable strategy called the “Rope-a-Dope”. Using this technique, Ali waited against the ropes as a stationary target and invited Foreman to wail away with his vaunted power shots. This strategy confounded all the experts who felt he was setting himself up to be massacred. However, Ali used effective defense to cover-up and clinch the bigger, stronger man, and counter-punch when opening arose. By the eighth round, an exhausted Foreman had essentially punched himself out, and Ali seized the opportunity to score an amazing knockout win. The mental toughness Ali displayed by having the fortitude to absorb Foreman’s punishing power shots and to stick to what many considered an ill-fated tactic was what set him apart from the rest of the pack.

Further proof of his extraordinary mental toughness came in 1967, when Ali refused to be drafted by the armed services to participate in the Vietnam War. As a result of his stance, Ali was fined and sentenced to five years in prison. While he never actually served any prison time, because the decision was eventually overturned, Ali would lose more than three years of his athletic prime in exile, for his decision. No matter what one’s stance is on his decision, Ali must be commended for fighting for what he believed in and refusing to cave in to the various forces pressuring him in the government, media, and throughout the world. Having the courage to stand up for what you believe in is definitely an important component of mental toughness.

These are only a few examples of athletes who possessed remarkable mental toughness.