Defining Mental Toughness

We recently released a whitepaper on mental toughness and how it differentiates top NCAA Division 1 and professional athletes.

To start, the chances of athletes making it to the “big leagues” is slim to none. In fact, a high school football player’s chances of playing Division 1 is only 2.7%, baseball is at 2.1%, men’s soccer is at 1.3%, and similarly 1.0% for basketball. Those numbers dip even lower when it comes to athletes being drafted to a professional team. With numbers being so low, athletic ability can’t be the only factor that scouts are looking for. So what are the skills, traits, and other factors they are seeking?

Scouts historically have analyzed prospects’ athletic potential in such physical areas as “explosiveness” and versatility in action. Now, these are important to the success of the team, but they aren’t the only factors that they consider. Scouts are also looking for non-physical aspects of a player’s game like instincts, court awareness, work ethic, coachability, leadership, and other psychological factors believed to contribute to success. Scouts refer to these as “intangibles.”

Recently, intangibles, like mental toughness, have received quite a lot of attention from the scientific community, although they have struggled with conceptualizing it. There have been many studies that have worked on testing, proving, and providing a guide or outline of how to measure these non-physical aspects.

In 2012, Kaiseler, Polman, and Nicholls found that athletes higher in neuroticism (one of the Big Five higher-order personality traits in the study of psychology) reacted more intensely to on-the-field stress factors while showing signs of lower control over them. They were also able to find that higher neuroticism was associated with greater avoidance when it came to coping with the stress factors, instead of problem-focused coping. Similarly, in 2013, Yeatts and Lochbaum found that temperament or disposition predicts the preferred coping strategy.

Back in 2002, Jones, Hanton, and Connaughton brought together 10 world-class athletes in a series of focus groups and interviews to define the nature of mental toughness.

By working with these athletes, they looked to define mental toughness and to better understand what unique abilities mental toughness can bring athletes. They came up with the following:

“Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sports places on a performer. And be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, confident, and in control under pressure.”

What we can take away from the study conducted by Jones, Hanton, and Connaughton is a better way of describing what mental toughness allows athletes to do rather than what the construct really is.

Now, we must look to test the theory that mental toughness is not a single trait, but instead a multidimensional construct that reflects a combination of the following personality traits:

  • Level-headedness
  • Stress tolerance
  • Resiliency/ Ego-strength
  • Energy/ Persistence
  • Self-structure
  • Thoroughness

These personality traits have been used extensively in assessing an individuals’ potential for success across a wide range of professional, academic, and athletic contexts. These traits have been proven to be related to performance measures such as shooting percentage, rebounds, turnovers, 3-point percentage, and more.

We start with a hypothesis stating that athletes with at least one year of professional experience will score higher than NCAA Division 1 athlete in mental toughness, as measured by a combination of level-headedness, stress-tolerance, resiliency/ego-strength, self-structure, and energy/persistence. We conducted our study with 2 samples, one being NCAA Division 1 athletes and the other professional athletes. We measured both groups of athletes against each other by analyzing their Caliper Profile personality assessment results.

6 Traits of Mental Toughness & Why It’s Good for Sales


Our scientists define level-headedness as the ability to stay composed in challenging interpersonal situations. In the context of the sales profession, that means dealing with difficult sales, indecisive prospects, competition from other organizations, etc.

Sales professionals who exhibit mental toughness are able to take these agitators and deal with them in a calm, composed manner. They have a good handle on their emotions and have the ability to express them at the appropriate times in the appropriate ways. Such behavior facilitates more productive conversations, even-keeled relationships with prospects and clients, and proper responses with their teammates.

Where it’s critical

The sales profession is full of challenging moments, whether they be from transactions, contract agreements, competition, or relationship management. An important part of making the sale is to manage your emotions properly. Things can get heated, discouraging, or even exciting, but you can’t always prepare for what’s going to hit you next. Level-headedness is a significant driver of performance in competencies focused on decision making, conflict management, and composure and resiliency — all of which you’ll encounter frequently in the sales field.


Our scientists define stress-tolerance as the ability to remain resolute under stress. Sales is a stressful field. There are targets, high rejection rates, persistent negativity, and, usually, money at stake. In a smaller company, a lot of the weight of the business rests on the shoulders of salespeople. Additionally, the work hours are often unstructured or erratic — things can stop or go on a dime. Those sales professionals who have mental toughness know how to manage the volatile nature of the job and keep the stress from overwhelming them.

How to Manage Stress

Stress can make or break a deal. It can cause tunnel vision, making obstacles seem catastrophic. It leads to frustration and causes employees to feel discouraged and disengaged. It can scramble their communication skills, turning small misunderstandings into irreconcilable differences. So how does someone with mental toughness manage their stress?

  • When they feel overwhelmed, they take a moment to examine the core issue. They may ask themselves, ‘What are the goals I’m trying to accomplish, what are the roadblocks, and how can I address them in a productive way?’ These individuals are able to identify the negative and frame it as an opportunity to achieve something positive.
  • They set the tone. Stress often begets stress. By managing their own stressors and remaining strong and composed, their prospects and team members are likely to mirror their emotions back to them. By staying calm, they encourage everyone else to remain calm, too. This keeps stress from spiraling out of control and keeps everyone communicating effectively so things don’t go off the rails.
  • They look for new opportunities that recurring issues reveal. What did they learn from this stressful period, and how can they apply their problem-solving skills to future issues? Everything is a learning opportunity and a mechanism for productivity improvements.

Often stress management and level-headedness work together. Sales professionals with mental toughness are able to manage their stress levels because they are able to keep their emotions in check and  work through both with a cool, calm demeanor to maintain their vision of the bigger picture and the situation at hand.


The Caliper scientists define Resiliency/Ego-strength as the ability to handle setbacks, criticism, and rejection. With sales in mind, those who score high in this trait bounce back quickly from rejection and do not let failures control their self-confidence. This is one of the must-have ingredients of mental toughness, and within a sales framework is a key component for success; rejection is a prevalent theme throughout a career in sales.

Sales professionals who exhibit resiliency and ego-strength can take a “no” and turn it into something meaningful. They can learn something new, find insight, or uncover an underlying issue that helps them move forward with better understanding. They don’t let the “no” hold them back, and can continue their work with confidence and drive to complete the task at hand. Sales professionals with this trait are emotionally proactive when faced with difficult situations, and as such, they’re able to establish action-oriented goals, be optimistic, and always follow through.

How to Develop Resiliency/Ego-strength

The overall process of sales is challenging — maintaining a large workload, consistent client communication, and constant rejection all haunt the job of a sales professional. These challenges can be discouraging and stressful, but the key to success is an ability to manage them in a calm manner. Resiliency means an individual can accept and power through hardships while remaining positive and motivated. Here are a few tips for developing and maintaining Resiliency/Ego-strength:

  • Security is key. When employees feel more secure in their role, it improves resilience, and they recognize and respond to stress better. Make sure they have the resources they need, a manager to support them, and access to proper training and coaching.
  • Offer skills training. This includes communication courses, technical skills development, and soft skills classes. Learning new tools and skills to help them carry out their daily role shows your employees you care and support their overall well-being while improving their abilities and confidence to tackle challenges head on.
  • Use a coaching mindset. Form a relationship with individuals in which you serve as mentor and coach. This builds meaningful relationships where they can come to you during challenging times, knowing they’ll be heard and have someone to help them get work through tough problems.


The Caliper scientists define Energy/Persistence as the ability to sustain a high level of activity over extended periods. Those who score high in this trait relate well to being active and persistent in overcoming obstacles. In sales, obstacles, objections, and hesitations occur frequently — and a lot of money is on the line. Sales professionals are at the mercy of their client schedules, have to get buy-in from multiple stakeholders, and need to anticipate all the hoops they’ll need to jump through before closing a deal. It’s a demanding job, and to be successful, a sustained energy level is needed.

What Makes Up Energy/Persistence?

Maintaining stamina and motivation in a fast-paced, highly demanding role is a unique skill — more so when it’s often coupled with a long roll of red tape. What does it look like to have energy and persistence? Here are four key indicators:

  • You take ownership of your work. High levels of persistence fuel those who show a strong drive towards goals. They’ll persist in accomplishing tasks to their best abilities, regardless of outlook.
  • You can adjust and adapt. Those who are highly persistent won’t keep hammering the same tactics at a task when they aren’t working. They seek to understand the issue, find a better way to do it, and adjust their action plan. Even in the face of obstacles, they will achieve their goals.
  • Your skills and self-discipline are highly developed. High-energy salespeople know how difficult it is to stay motivated, especially when they think they’ve hit a dead end. Nevertheless, they rely on their self-discipline and the skills they’ve learned over the years to always drive towards their goal. While the work may not have an immediate impact, they know their hard work will pay off in the end.
  • You never stop learning. Persistent sales professionals know their goals will take time. They constantly seek to learn, because they understand the dynamic nature of their job. Tools, technology, and processes advance with the market, and they need to keep up. To be the best they can be, they know they must welcome and embrace change, and know there’s no such thing as too much expertise.


Someone who has self-structure is defined by our scientists as an individual who prefers to develop their methods of work — they’re motivated by their own workflow, organization, and pace to set their own structure rather than rely on someone else’s way of doing things, or doing things the way they were first told. They look for new efficiencies to improve upon, and they set their own goals to accomplish their objectives.

Self-structure is an important part of mental toughness. When things get stressful or busy, an individual who is unable to set their own structure can feel overwhelmed and lost. Their manager or teammates would have to stop their work to help them manage their workload, and it creates a ripple effect of people taking on work from others in order to accommodate. An individual who possesses self-structure, however, has the mental toughness to re-examine their priorities, adapt to the busier workload, and manage their work, with little oversight from a supervisor.

In a sales profession, this self-structure is critical. Most sales professionals have to manage many clients at the same time, all at different stages of the funnel, across time zones, with multiple stakeholders — there are a lot of moving parts. Additionally, many sales people work remotely, travel frequently, take meetings out of the office, and are generally away from their supervisor for a large portion of their time. To be successful in this role, self-structure is a must.

How Can The Tools You Have Help Develop Self-Structure?

Time management and prioritization are skills that can easily be bolstered by tools we already have at our disposal in the workplace. Platforms and apps made for efficiency, project management, file sharing, and time tracking are easy ways to build out self-structure skills. Calendars that sync across multiple devices and platforms, CRM integrations, and other automations are created with the express intention of making it easier for people to communicate, organize their days, and collaborate better — and they extend beyond just internal organization. They can help the salesperson stay in better touch with their prospects, too, sharing files easily, remaining easy to get in contact with, and connecting calendars to see when all stakeholders are available for important meetings.


A person with thoroughness is described by our scientists as someone who has a tendency to be concerned with details and to take full ownership of tasks, jobs, and roles. This person is conscientious, takes pride in their work, and often a perfectionist. A mentally tough person is in constant pursuit of perfection — their work is a reflection of themselves — and to be perfect, it has to be thorough.

A detail-oriented individual doesn’t just focus on the big picture. They understand that the smaller details of an assignment are critical components of the larger piece. A machine cannot fire on all cylinders unless every cog is perfectly in place. And an individual with thoroughness will tinker with each cog until it’s performing its function correctly.

What Makes Up Thoroughness?

What key behaviors does a person with thoroughness exhibit? Here are four indicators that your employee is thorough:

  • Organization. Understanding task hierarchies and ranking major and minor tasks helps individuals manage their work piece by piece. Knowing what minor tasks serve the major tasks can help the entire workload be completed more efficiently and effectively.
  • Consistency. Thoroughness doesn’t just happen when it’s easy or convenient. An individual who is truly thorough, will always be thorough, regardless of whether it’s a big, important project, or a smaller, routine task. They think through every aspect of everything they work on, every time.
  • Follow-Through. When thorough individuals make a promise, they keep it. They remember all of the things they said they would do, things the client asked to see, resources they promised to provide — and they follow through. A thorough person never leaves a person hanging. They set deadlines, and they meet them.
  • Routine. Those who are thorough often find a technique that works for them — and do it the same way every time. Maybe they always clean their house front to back because they know the nooks and crannies better that way. Maybe they always send the same follow up emails at the same time. They take what works, and they implement it every time — because they know it works.

In the sales profession, any missed detail could mean a deal doesn’t go through. A mentally tough salesperson will meticulously record every detail, review their notes often, check up on every question, and address every comment. Someone who skins over the details during a shaky deal may miss something they think is small, but turns out to be the sticking point. Thoroughness ensures that everything is anticipated, researched, and ready for rebuttal. It could be the difference between a yes and a no.

Applying mental toughness to the workplace

Before approaching a strategy for mental toughness, you should consider what it means to value mental toughness in the workplace. Why should you prioritize building these skills in your team if they aren’t naturally inclined to do so on their own? If these are skills typically associated with athletics, how can they apply to the workplace?

As it turns out, there’s a lot of commonality between the traits that make a successful athlete and a successful employee. Just as successful athletes excel at balancing the demands of training, travel, and competition while still maintaining focus and confidence, mentally tough employees will be better at coping with a stressful work environment, i.e., deadlines, demanding clients, cross-departmental responsibilities, etc. The result is a teammate who is reliable and whose work remains consistent, regardless of circumstance.

Additionally, these employees are more likely to bounce back from rejection. How often have you heard an athlete speak about their failure as motivation for improvement? Michael Jordan famously cited his failure to make his high school basketball team as the impetus for becoming the greatest basketball player in the world. The more willing and able an employee is to accept his or her failures and learn from them, the more they will take ownership of improvement and maintain the confidence and energy required to improve and overcome.

How do you develop mental toughness?

It’s a misconception that these skills exist innately and that you either have it or you don’t. There’s a number of tactics you can employ that can develop these skills and help you coach resilience and confidence into your employees, even if they don’t believe they have it within themselves. So, how do you do that? There are a few easy places to start:

Reframe the context

The struggle doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. A good athlete knows that every obstacle helps them get stronger and better at what they do. The same goes in the workplace. Is someone on your team struggling in their role or up against a particularly difficult project? Make sure they know that these aren’t roadblocks, they’re opportunities. They can work through the problem, learn from the challenges, and apply it moving forward. There’s a lesson in everything.

Communicate Often

Make sure your team knows there is an open line of communication. When they come across obstacles, encourage them to talk it through. Maybe that involves getting advice from their manager or brainstorming with a colleague who can coach them. Conversely, if you spot a team member in the weeds, make it clear to them that you’re available to help. Communication is a two-way street.

Set Goals

Give your employees something to strive for. Often, when people are presented with a challenge, they can rise to the occasion. By encouraging them to reach just beyond their comfort zone and watching them achieve their goals one-by-one, you’re instilling a sense of confidence, ownership, and autonomy. You don’t always have to incentivize growth with a bonus or title, sometimes just demonstrating trust in their skills is incentive enough.

Build Trust

Creating a supportive relationship between management and employees is critical to building mental toughness. When your employees know that you have their back, they won’t get discouraged when the going gets rough. Having a support system helps maintain unfaltering confidence in their abilities that will carry them through to the finish line without negatively impacting their quality of work.

By fostering a supportive, communicative environment that rewards employees for putting in the hard work rather than punishing them when things get difficult, you’ll soon start to see the evidence of mental toughness growing from within your team, and you won’t need to hire the entire Duke basketball team to do so.

It’s Good for Small Business

Boost Their Confidence

Have you noticed your salespeople struggling in their role lately? They might be struggling to believe in their own potential. To change that, remind them that the obstacles they face are actually opportunities for them to learn and become better at what they do. There is a lesson in everything.

Force Them Out of Their Comfort Zone

Examine each salesperson’s weaknesses and hesitations and present them with challenges that address those things head-on. Encouraging them to step outside of their comfort zone allows them to practice what they lack. Once they achieve the end-goal, they’ll be filled with a feeling of autonomy.

Be Their Support System

Your employees should never fear you. You are there to help them grow and succeed in their position. Make it known by offering your salespeople constant support — put in the work to earn their trust. This positive energy will encourage them to reach the finish line.

Applying Mental Toughness to Small Business Sales Teams

Small business means smaller teams, fewer resources, and less cash flow than large corporations. It also means that if you’re hiring, you can’t afford to make a mistake. So it’s absolutely critical to get it right when it comes to hiring those who are charged with bringing revenue into your business.

More than any other business model, small businesses heavily rely on their sales — especially in their beginning stages — to fuel their business and keep it afloat. If your business loses a sale, the results could be catastrophic. Your sales team is small and each salesperson carries a heavy burden on their shoulders. They will face a plethora of stressful situations and must be able to think clearly and effectively under pressure. With that in mind, you should invest time into coaching your current employees and seeking out coachable new hires that demonstrate signs of mental toughness.

Coaching mental toughness gives salespeople new skills, a strong understanding of their role, and provides them with the support they need to leap towards challenges, cross the finish line, and win the gold medal — significantly reducing the major risks that small businesses face.

Mental Toughness in Team-Building

Mental toughness is an important factor in team-building, and one you should be looking for as you select your team members. A group of individuals who not only work well together, but who leverage each other’s strengths make for a highly engaged and productive team. Mentally tough teams are ones who are not only productive, but can overcome stress. But how do you build a team around mental toughness? Not all teammates are likely to have mental toughness individually, but when teams are built around key members who are mentally tough, the entire team stands stronger and more powerful.

The Caliper 4-Box and Mental Toughness

There are four key roles on a team that keep the engine running, and by filling them with individuals who exhibit mental toughness, you’ll ensure a high-functioning, high-performing team that’s strong from within. The four roles are:

Caliper 4-Box Mental Toughness

The Champion

Champions promote ideas, energize teammates, and drive the team through challenges. They’re focused on big-picture goals, and steer the team in the direction of its vision through motivation.

A Champion with mental toughness has the resiliency and ego-strength necessary to keep the team in high spirits. They know when to rally the team during down times, and they have the energy to do it.

The Implementer

The Implementer is the team member focused on follow-through. These individuals are highly self-disciplined, and they are the ones to roll up their sleeves and do what’s needed to bring the vision to life. They have a close attention to detail, a great deal of patience, and they remain focused on the task at hand.

Mentally tough Implementers have the thoroughness and self-structure to accomplish even the mundane tasks necessary to reach the end goal. They are highly efficient, meticulously organized, and take pride in addressing even the smallest detail.

The Creator

Creators thrive on challenge. They are action-oriented problem-solvers, and think in big-picture terms. This person works closely with Champions; Creators come up with a plan, Champions push it forward.

The Creator is task-oriented and takes the lead. A Creator with mental toughness is persistent, and their energy to drive the work helps garner enthusiasm from their teammates to keep moving full steam ahead.

The Facilitator

Facilitators are the glue that holds the group together. They communicate well, manage relationships, and provide support amongst the team.

The Facilitator wants to create an environment where the team works harmoniously toward a common goal. A mentally tough Facilitator has level-headedness and stress tolerance to remain calm under pressure and keep the peace when tempers run high. They’re able to keep work moving forward — even in times of stress — by easing the tension between teammates.

Discover Mentally Tough Candidates with Caliper

Building your team is vital to the performance of your company. You need to be certain you’re hiring the right person. They need to have the skills to fill the role, fit within the company culture, have the motivation to perform in the role, and deliver results. With the Caliper Profile, we can make this as seamless as possible. Want to take a look at how these products can help your company? Contact us and we can get you on the right path to developing more successful employees.