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Mental Toughness and Resilience

Mental toughness and resilience are two qualities that are often on my mind when I think of the kind of attributes I would like my children to develop. So when personal life coach, Clive Leach, came to GIS to talk about Mental Toughness, I knew I couldn’t miss this one…

Mental Toughness – What is it? Do you need it? Have you got it?

Flourish [verb]

  • to thrive; grow well; be healthy
  • to prosper; be successful; do well

Before we can talk about mental toughness, we need to know how well our children doing. In science, the term for that is “flourish”. If we aren’t flourishing, we don’t have what we need to be mentally tough. It’s a little like needing to meet the basic needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy before we can tend to our higher aspirations.

What do we need to flourish?


  • Positive Emotion
    • the ability to be optimistic and view the past, present, and future in a positive perspective.
    • joy, inspiration, gratitude, hope, pride, serenity, amusement, curiosity, awe, love.
  • Engagement – the ability to participate in a project that entirely absorbs us in the present moment.
  • Relationships – the need for connection, love, intimacy, and a strong emotional and physical interaction with others.
  • Meaning – having purpose in life.
  • Accomplishment – having goals and ambition that give us a sense of satisfaction when we achieve them.
Source: Pinterest

Learn more about the PERMA model here.

Predictors for Flourishing Across the Lifespan:

What do children need for future well-being and success? It isn’t IQ, academic scores or money. They need:

Positive Education

IPEN – International Positive Education Network:

The goal of IPEN is to promote positive education – where the focus of education is not only academic achievement but also the development of character and overall student well-being.

Positive education is defined as education for both traditional skills and for happiness. The high prevalence worldwide of depression among young people, the small rise in life satisfaction, and the synergy between learning and positive emotion all argue that the skills for happiness should be taught in school. There is substantial evidence from well controlled studies that skills that increase resilience, positive emotion, engagement and meaning can be taught to schoolchildren. – Oxford Review of Education

Positive education in schools helps to teach children not only the skills to be successful but what they need to flourish in life.

Mental Toughness

Mental toughness has often been associated with performance in sports. Recent research suggests that mental toughness may also have some bearing on academic performance in school.

See: Mental toughness in education: exploring relationships with attainment, attendance, behaviour and peer relationships – Educational Psychology

How can we measure mental toughness? The MTQ48 Mental Toughness Questionaire measures the following outcomes which can provide a good gauge:

  • Academic performance
  • Positive behaviours
  • Student well-being
  • Completion/Drop out
  • Career aspirations
  • Employability
  • Staff well-being

Mental Toughness vs Resilience

Mental toughness and resilience are often used interchangeably but there is a difference:

  • Resilience is having the ability to persevere when obstacles are thrown at you.
  • Mental Toughness is choosing to take the path with the obstacles even when we know an easier path exists.

Mental toughness, therefore, is one step ahead of resilience. We want our children to be resilient in the face of adversity but we also want them to have the mental toughness to take the road less travelled.

Building Mental Toughness

How do we build mental toughness? Start with the 4 C’s of mental toughness:

  • Control – feeling in control of your life and your circumstances.
  • Commitment – goal orientation, willingness to stick to it and see it through.
  • Challenge – willingness to change, tackle obstacles, and take risks.
  • Confidence – the belief in your own abilities to handle conflict and challenges.
Mental Toughness - 4Cs
Image Source: AQR International

Looking After Ourselves

As parents we often forget ourselves but we cannot help our children if we don’t take care of ourselves first. It is exactly like the emergency aeroplane scenario – if we don’t put on our oxygen mask first, we may be unconscious before we can help our children with theirs.

Are you seaworthy?

Similarly, our children also need to be seaworthy before their mental toughness can be at optimum.

Area of Control

In our lives there are things that we can control and those that we can’t. It is pointless to worry about the things beyond our control since we do not have any influence over them. What we can do is focus on the things we can control.

Circle of Concern vs Circle of Influence

Image Source: Slideshare
Image Source: Slideshare

What we can control (Circle of Influence):

  • Health care
  • Diet and nutrition
  • Exercise and fitness
  • How we plan and prepare
  • Sleep, relaxation and recovery
  • Our perspective
  • Emotional regulation

Emotional Control – Develop a Reality Mindset

I’ve had many catatrophes in my life. Most of which never actually happen.” – Mark Twain

Develop emotional control by watching the A.N.T.s (Automatic Negative Thoughts) and replacing them with P.E.T.s (Performance Enhancing Thoughts)! Here are some ways to do that:

Learned Optimism – PRESENT

  • Notice negative thinking and consequences
  • Challenge them, get a perspective and take action

Best Self Exercise – PAST

  • Consider your achievements to date
  • Create affirmations and reminders

Best Possible Self Exercise – FUTURE

  • Write a letter to the future using mental imagery / visualisation of what you aspire your future to be like.
  • Identify what would you require to have lived a “good life”?

Gratitude Exercises – PRESENT / PAST

  • Regular practice of recognising 3 good things in your life – What’s working well and why?
  • Gratitude visit – express your gratitude to someone in your life.


Relationships are one of the most powerful things we can have. They have a “Butterfly Effect” on our lives. We need to cultivate our relationships and teach our children to do the same.

  • The 3:1 positivity to negativity ratio
  • Self-focused / Other-focused
  • Asking / Telling
  • Kindness and altruism
  • Gratitude and Forgiveness
  • Humour and Playfulness
  • Amplifies flourishing and trust
  • Buffers against adversity

GROW Coaching Conversations

The GROW Model is another great way to help children flourish. Here’s how you can use the GROW Coaching model:

Image Source: Discovery in Action

More about the Grow Model:

Key Coaching Skills:

  • Asking powerful questions
  • Listening for potential
  • Looking for strengths
  • Being present, challenging and encouraging

Provide opportunities for coaching and growing experiences, like these:

  • The Helmsman Project – combining coaching and adventure education to bring about lasting, positive changes in the lives of adolescents.
  • Flying Fish – adventure training and experiences in water and mountain sports.

For example, in navigating a boat, the children learn how a slight change in the direction of their course can have a significant impact on their final destination. It links back to how even small changes in their lives can have a big impact in their future.

I have long felt that adventure education and sports offer powerful learning experiences. I know I learned many of my most important lessons in life through hiking, rock climbing and skiing.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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