Mental Toughness: Unlocking Behavior Analysis in Sport

By Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

My niece and nephew recently moved in with me, my husband, and our son. In addition to quickly learning how to parent teenagers, we are trying to help them succeed in athletic endeavors. 16-year-old Gavin is on his high school’s junior varsity football team, and 13-year-old Annalise plays volleyball. While both teens are new to their respective sports, my husband played football in high school and I was a collegiate volleyball player. As we attempt to help our niece and nephew succeed as athletes, I find myself paying more attention to the behaviors in which top performers engage.

“In the literature, when it comes to sports, you’ll hear the term ‘mental toughness’ a lot,” explains Dr. Emily Leeming, a recent Ph.D. graduate whose dissertation investigated aspects of sports psychology from a behavior analytic perspective. “In the military, it’s called ‘resiliency,’ but it’s the exact same thing… For us [behavior scientists], we would see ‘mental toughness’ as an umbrella term that describes a whole bunch of behaviors, a functional class of behavior, which is what makes it tricky because they’re defining a function by topography.”

Indeed, my own observations match Leeming’s statement. In the run-up to this year’s Olympic summer games, I read several articles which used the phrase “mental toughness,” among others, without accompanying operational definitions of the terms. Scientific American MIND dedicated a feature article to the concept in its July edition. In the publication, author Rachel Nuwer detailed work investigating potential genetic influences of top athletes then she dived into the “mental traits” that contribute to elite athletic performance. Nuwer explained that world-class athletes report experiencing “flow” at a much higher rate than amateurs.

According to Nuwer, flow is described as a “state of deep absorption in an activity during which performance seems to happen effortlessly and automatically” (Nuwer, 2016, p. 42). In my experience as an athlete, I described this state as being “in the zone,” something I also experience when painting and sketching. My musician friends also identify the descriptions of flow from their experiences with successful musical practices and performances.

Translating the idea of flow into behavior analytic terms can be difficult says Leeming, “It’s almost like it is a dominant behavioral contingency. It’s like the ideal fluency state. You’re just doing it.”

So which behaviors contribute to achieving flow? According to sports researchers in Australia, several personality traits correlate with flow, including “confidence, competitiveness, adaptive perfectionism (a form that relishes achievement while tolerating mistakes and avoiding self-criticism), optimism, and mental toughness…” (Nuwer, 2016, p. 42). Given this long list of potential research topics, and I couldn’t help but wonder how behavior analysis could contribute to the body of research. That is a question Leeming has asked as well.

“You have fields like tech and physiology that are so refined, and we can’t keep up with that with single-subject design. We need to connect with some of these other fields to make up that gap.” At the very least, sports psychology appears ripe for an influx of objective definitions of “mental” states, something at which behavior analysts are very proficient. As for my niece and nephew, we will be happy if they simply enjoy themselves and get through the season injury-free.


Nuwer, R. (2016). The right stuff: What psychological and physical traits separate the world’s best athletes from the rest of us?. Scientific American MIND, 3, 38-44.


Chelsea Wilhite, M.A. chelsea.wilhite@gmail.comChelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA has always wanted to better understand the world around us. As a television journalist, Chelsea worked her way up the ranks to produce the number one rated television news broadcast in the Fresno television market, an area covering five California counties. Along the way, she won two regional news Emmys and a Radio and Television News Directors Award for best news producer. In an effort to further her understanding of natural phenomena, Chelsea left television after more than a decade, turning to Behavior Analysis. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Reno. While behavior science research and instruction is now her primary interest, Chelsea never lost her passion for journalism and regularly contributes to behavior science oriented blogs, magazines, and newsletters. You can contact her at [email protected].

1 Comment on "Mental Toughness: Unlocking Behavior Analysis in Sport"

  1. Great article! I’d love to see behavior analysts more involved in the sports world. It may start with us current behavior analyst (former collegiate athletes) giving back to our sports to grow the game through behavior analysis. We can help young athletes build behavioral fluency and help them learn to pinpoint where/when those interlocking contingencies influence how the ball travels to the other side of the net. I’d think volleyball would be a great study for behavior analysts as the anecdotes for success are often aligned with mental states rather than observable and measurable behaviors. In turn, I’d think those athletes would also make great behavior analysts!!

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