Mental toughness is a popular buzzword not just among athletes, coaches, and sport psychologists, but in the popular media as well. From Men’s Fitness to Forbes to NPR, many are talking about the benefits of mental toughness.

In a 1987 study of college wrestling for instance, 82% of the coaches involved rated mental toughness as the most important psychological attribute of successful wrestlers.

Consider that for all of Tiger Woods’s physical skills, he is lauded more for his mental toughness than anything else.

Remember Michael Jordan’s performance against the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals (a.k.a. “the flu game” – click here for a 5-minute reminder)?

Then there is what some have called the most dramatic moment in Ironman history, where triathletes Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham crawl to the finish line in a race for 4th and 5th place. Take a moment to watch their story below.

It’s easy to see the value of mental toughness in sports, and even business. But what about in music? Could mental toughness be a valuable asset for musicians?

What is mental toughness anyway?

Is it optimism? Confidence? Believing in oneself? Consistency? Desire? Determination? Focus and concentration? Willpower? Motivation? Courage? Here are 12 key characteristics of mental toughness, ranked in reverse order of importance, as voted on by a collection of elite international-level athletes (source).

#12. The ability to switch one’s focus on and off as needed

There are times when we need to be fully focused, and times where we can benefit more from relaxing our focus a bit (e.g. on during a performance, off during intermission).

#11. The ability to remain fully focused in the face of personal life distractions

Ongoing conflict with family members or a spouse, unpaid bills, the dirty fish tank that needs to be cleaned, all have to be blocked out in the moment of a performance.

#9-tie. The ability to thrive on performance pressure

As one of the study participants noted, “If you are going to achieve anything worthwhile, there is bound to be pressure. Mental toughness is being resilient and using the competition pressure to get the best out of yourself.”

#9-tie. The ability to focus on one’s own performance and not allow other competitors’ good or bad performances to negatively affect your own

Whether a competitor plays great or poorly, the focus should remain on your own performance as this is the only performance you have control over. The person right before you may have the audition of their life and sound amazing – but who’s to say you couldn’t go out and have the audition of your life and sound amazing too? Rather than saying “Wow, I can’t play like that” the mentally tough performer says “That has nothing to do with me. I’ve done the work, I’m as deserving of this as anybody, it’s my time to shine. I’m going to go out and play an awesome audition.”

#8. The ability to accept that competition anxiety is inevitable, but know that you can cope with it

Anxiety’s no picnic, but it certainly doesn’t have to keep us from doing our best.

#7. The ability to push past physical and emotional pain, while still maintaining technique and effort – even under adverse circumstances in training and competition

Musicians deal with physical, mental, and emotional limits too – how do we push past these when necessary? And no, I don’t mean pushing through pain, which I’m pretty sure is never a good idea for musicians.

#6. The ability to bounce back from unexpected or uncontrollable events

Staying focused and remaining in control of your mind even when the cab driver got lost on the way to the audition, the airlines lost your luggage and you’re wearing 2-day old clothes, the warm-up room was freezing, the construction next door is making a huge racket, and you just threw up in the bathroom because of some sort of stomach bug. And no, I’m not making these up – these are things that have actually happened to people in auditions.

#4-tie. Complete focus on the task at hand in the face of distractions

Staying focused on your performance, and not letting the cold hands, abnormally chatty proctor, and the sub-par lighting distract you.

#4-tie. Deep inner desire and overpowering desire to succeed

Wanting it bad. Not for the money, the recognition, or the acceptance of one’s family, friends, or peers, but for yourself. You can’t imagine doing anything else, because this is who you are.

#3. Unshakable belief in yourself, and the belief that you have unique qualities or abilities that make you better than your competition

Believing that you have something unique to offer, something that sets you apart from others. Believing that the orchestra would benefit from your being in it, and knowing what value you add.

#2. Increased determination and resilience in the face of setbacks

Knowing that there are always potholes and detours on the road to success, but using these setbacks as a way to recommit to your goal, reaffirm your determination, and keep forging ahead.

#1. Unshakable belief in your ability to achieve your goals

As another study participant noted, “If you want to be the best…you have to be strong enough to believe you are capable of that.”

The verdict

So what do you think? The term “mental toughness” sounds out of place in the context of music, but wouldn’t it be a valuable attribute for musicians to have? You can probably guess where I stand, and I’ll revisit the issue in future posts, with ideas on how to develop various aspects of mental toughness.

The one-sentence summary

“Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory.” ~Bill Russell (5-time NBA MVP and 12-time All-Star)

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

NOTE: Version 3.0 is coming soon! A whole new format, completely redone from the ground up, with new research-based strategies on practice and performance preparation, 25 step-by-step practice challenges, unlockable bonus content, and more. There will be a price increase when version 3.0 arrives, but if you enroll in the “Lifetime” edition before then, you’ll get all the latest updates for free.