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How Olympic Athletes Get Mentally Tough

Training and personal adversity make tougher competitors, but toughness can also be learned.

Mental toughness isn't just about sucking it up. Athletes who have it can handle failure better, bounce back from injuries and even deal with rain delays, bad judges or malfunctioning equipment.

"It's an athlete's ability to stay focused, motivated, committed in the pursuit of their goals, especially in the face of adversity and failure," said Daniel Gould, a sports psychologist at Michigan State University who coaches Olympic and collegiate athletes. "It's not like you show up on game day and have it."

This month, Olympians in Rio have shown toughness in many ways in order to perform on the world stage, some of them bringing home medals or personal bests. Examples include the American 5,000-meter runner Abbey D'Agostino who helped a British competitor who fell, then seriously injured herself but still finished the race. Or the American divers who brushed off high winds this week on the springboard to qualify for the finals while other top-level divers got rattled.

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There's also the American female wrestler Helen Maroulis who studied the moves of the sport's Japanese champion for two years, and then came out on top in Thursday's gold-medal bout. And Great Britain's Mo Farah overcame a fall during the 10,000 meter to surge ahead and win the gold.

Experts say mental toughness is about figuring out how to achieve goals without making any excuses.

Cory Middleton, an Australian sports psychologist who has interviewed many elite athletes about what makes them tough, says self-discipline comes in four areas: being motivated even when you don't feel like it; rehearsing the activity or sport until you gain confidence; managing your emotions to turn them up or down as needed; and concentrating to stay connected to the present moment without dwelling on the past or getting too far ahead of yourself.

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So how do athletes get to be mentally tough? Many of them have survived tough times either at home or during their training.

"Adversity is a necessary pre-condition," Middleon said in an e-mail to Discovery News. "Without adversity in your life, mental toughness does not exist. Without adversity in your life growing up, how does one develop the self-disciplines and the know-how to overcome future adversities."

TV viewers have probably seen examples of this phenomenon, such as the athletes who come from troubled homes, for example, or return from devastating injuries to greater success.

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Gould says that overcoming adversity doesn't mean you have to abuse or hurt young athletes to make them tough.

Obviously we don't want something terrible to happen," Gould said. "But sometimes we put athletes in situation that are over their head once in a while."

That may mean training swimmers to practice with water-filled goggles, or putting young tennis phenoms in matches they probably won't win so they can learn, instead of cleaning up against weaker opponents.

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"Good coaches do simulations," Gould said. "You are not making kids fail, but putting them in situations where they fail sometimes."

Mental toughness also comes into play during competitions when things don't always go as planned and the athlete has to manage distractions that are out of his or her control.

"Part of being mentally tough is do you have a plan A where everything goes perfectly, plan B something has gone wrong, plan C is all heck breaks loose," Gould said. "You have some strategies to go to in these events."