Health & Psychology

Building Mental Toughness – Learning how to boldly go

You may recall the famous phrase at the beginning of Star Trek where the mission of the USS Enterprise is loudly proclaimed ‘”to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before!”

I often use this theme when I talk to international school students and parents as I am introducing the idea Mental Toughness. I ask them what it means to go boldly? They tell me it is about being brave, confident, unique, proactive, energetic and sometimes, fearless. 

I always challenge this and ask “Do you think people who are bold are unafraid?” And of course when they think about it the answer is no. They agree that the idea of ‘going boldly’ often means being stretched, challenged and venturing way outside our usual comfort zone which can often be painful, very stressful and downright scary! Going boldly therefore means we feel the fear, but manage it and go there anyway!

Defining Mental Toughness

We hear so much today about the need to be resilient. That capacity we all have to some degree to help navigate and overcome life’s inevitable setbacks. Be they big, small, regular or rare. To bounce-back from adversity. There are many programmes in schools and workplaces that focus on building resilience. However I see resilience as a reactive concept. Life will throw difficult things at us and of course we need to have the resources to help overcome them.

Mental Toughness on the other hand is a much more pro-active approach. It is about looking for, stepping into and embracing challenge and opportunity. It is about thriving in life, not just surviving whatever it throws at us.  

But Mental Toughness isn’t about being macho or uncaring or self-centred. Mental sensitivity is very important and has a place too. But it is about being tough in the sense of not giving up. Being confident that you can prevail in reaching your aspirations, even in hard times. 

In my work in International Schools I always think a great example of Mental Toughness is the students’ aspirations to get to a good University, often in a different country from where their family is living. Will that be easy I ask? No they say! Will it be daunting? Yes! But in the same way their parents often choose to live and work internationally, the students choose to go for it anyway! They are not simply waiting for a challenge to overcome, they are seeking opportunities that they know are likely to be challenging.

Mental Toughness 4 C Model


Developed by Peter Clough this Model identifies the 4 key components – the 4Cs required for Mental Toughness. They are: 

Control – Control means having a sense of self-worth and describes the extent to which a young person feels in control of their life and their circumstances. Importantly it also describes the extent to which they can control or regulate their emotions and associated behaviours.

Commitment – Commitment is about being able to set goals and make promises along with ‘stickability’ which is about the extent to which a young person is prepared to manage setbacks and distractions and deliver on their commitments whatever gets in the way.

Challenge – Challenge describes the extent to which a young person will expand their boundaries, embrace change and take risks. But it’s also about the ability to learn from their mistakes, pick themselves up if it goes wrong and try again. Mentally Tough people view challenges, change and adversity as opportunities rather than threats and will relish the chance to learn and grow 

Confidence – Confidence describes the self-belief an individual has in their own strengths and abilities along with the interpersonal confidence they have to influence others and deal with conflict and challenge. They stand their ground but importantly being mindful of their strengths and weaknesses they can also ask for help when it is needed.

As you can see from the model Control and Commitment are more in line with  bounce back and resilience and the capacity to survive. Challenge and Confidence on the other hand are more proactive and relate to the idea of seizing opportunity and thriving. All together they make a powerful force for being successful whatever the circumstances

Measuring & Building Mental Toughness

The Mental Toughness Questionnaire (MTQ48) is a validated assessment available for both young people and adults that measures Mental Toughness in line with the 4 C model. It provides a base-line report from which individual and group interventions can be delivered and designed. It is used as a measure of mindset and change in mindset. This can be an outcome as well as an enabler in terms of improving performance, wellbeing and positive behaviour.

For example the MTQ 48 was used by the UK Independent Schools Council (ISC) in 2017 to examine life skills development in 10,000 pupils in 58 schools across the UK. Overall the study showed higher levels of mental toughness in students than in the state sector but a similar significant dip at years 8 & 9 sometimes called the ‘lost years’ as students enter adolescence. A challenge therefore is how do schools prepare for and minimise this dip and to determine what interventions work best to build mental toughness.

Following on from this study, in 2018 Austin Friars School were able to evidence across all year groups that their existing life skills programmes were successful in both preventing the dip and increasing Mental Toughness year on year as students progressed through school. This means they were better prepared for and equipped to manage the stressors and pressure of examination times. This correlates with their high academic results. By then aligning further their life skills programme with the 4Cs they are seeking to improve on the initial baseline assessment and evidence building Mental Toughness further within their school community.

Why Build Mental Toughness?

With levels of anxiety, stress and depression on the increase in schools, universities and workplaces, equipping young people with the knowledge and understanding of what Mental Toughness is and the skills to build and sustain it has never been more crucial.

Building Mental Toughness in schools should be an important aim of any life skills programme. It equips young people not just to do better at school but beyond into the worlds of higher education and work. Research and case studies are showing Mental Toughness is strongly correlated with:

  • Hardiness – Proactively seeking and embracing challenge & opportunity
  • Performance – Improved academic attainment
  • Positive Pro-social Behaviours – ‘Can do’ approach, perspective, engagement & altruism
  • Aspirations – Life & career goal setting, striving & achievement
  • Transitions – Supports transition in to higher education and work resulting in higher retention and reduced risk of drop-out
  • Employability – Competitive edge, strengths awareness & emotional intelligence
  • Well-being – Improved physical, mental & social health

Go Boldly!

Going forwards as parents here are some things you might be able to do:

  1. Talk to your children’s school about what they are doing to build mental toughness in students and staff as part of their wellbeing or Positive Education programmes
  1. Access the MTQPlus (Adult) Mental Toughness assessment yourselves and through coaching better understand it and what it means for you and your family (link 
  1. Learn more about how interventions that focus on attention training, visualisation, goal setting, strengths awareness, emotional regulation and coaching can help build mental toughness and have a go yourselves  Link to book here:

Used well and developed properly Mental Toughness is a great attribute for parents and children alike. Without doubt it contributes to our capacity to flourish. To feel good and function well in a world of change, challenge and above all opportunity.

Go boldly and reach for the stars!

Clive Leach link.

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