Mental Toughness and Non-cognitive Skills in Learning.

I’ve spent a good few years now investigating the tricky subject of ‘resilience’ in all its guises and with its myriad of definitions. What I’ve found difficult is the marrying of related concepts; those concepts that are like resilience but remain conceptually different. Even with my decision to adopt the term ‘academic buoyancy’ there remains the frustration of not being able to reconcile the concept with attributes such as ‘grit’ (which to me remains ill-defined and somewhat woolly).

In the past I’ve attempted to compare students with athletes, in the hope of making the connection between the success of top sportspeople and the favourable outcomes experienced by our best students. As it turns out others have also been attempting to draw these threads together in the form of Mental Toughness.

Originally a term used within sports psychology, Mental Toughness has gradually entered the sphere of teaching and learning, providing a useful umbrella under which to study related concepts including resilience, buoyancy and grit, all of which align in some way with the Mental Toughness (McGeown et al., 2015). Certainly, when we look at the four main components of Mental Toughness (the 4 C’s): Commitment, Challenge, Control and Confidence, we immediately begin to recognise these components and key principles as being associated with other non-cognitive skills.


A major strength of the model is the wealth of evidence to support it; originally from sport psychology and latterly from educational psychology. The components of Mental Toughness appear to be positively related to certain favourable educational outcomes, including attainment, attendance, behaviour and peer relations (St Clair-Thompson et al., 2015). Studies involving athletes indicates that Mental Toughness can also be enhanced through psychological skills training. Interventions consisting of goal setting, visualisation, relaxation, concentration and thought stopping skills have been found to be beneficial within sports settings. Although it does not logically follow that these skills could aid learners, there is certainly a strong indication that they could. Another study found that an emphasis on coping and optimism also impacts positively on performance (Nicholls et al., 2008).

The main attraction of Mental Toughness appears to be its ability to consolidate a number of other concepts and to investigate them beneath a single umbrella. There will always remain a problem with the extent to which non-cognitive skills can be explicitly taught (I have argued elsewhere that they cannot), nevertheless, nurturing specific positive qualities in a whole school way could ensure that at least some pupils begin to develop these qualities and flourish because of them.


McGeown, S.P., St Clair-Thompson, H. & Clough, P. (2015). The study of non-cognitive attributes in education: proposing the mental toughness framework. Educational Review. [Online] (September). p.pp. 1–18. Available from:

Nicholls, A.R., Polman, R.C.J., Levy, A.R. & Backhouse, S.H. (2008). Mental toughness, optimism, pessimism, and coping among athletes. Personality and Individual Differences. 44 (5). p.pp. 1182–1192.

St Clair-Thompson, H., Bugler, M., Robinson, J., Clough, P., McGeown, S.P. & Perry, J. (2015). Mental toughness in education: exploring relationships with attainment, attendance, behaviour and peer relationships. Educational Psychology. [Online]. 35 (7). p.pp. 886–907. Available from:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s