Mental toughness takes hard work


We have all heard it before: You need mental toughness to reach peak performance.

Before we get into that, it’s important to ask yourself how much of the game is mental. If you haven’t accepted that most of the game is mental, then don’t read on because it is and that’s where you can get an edge. You can know the math but you can’t control the math; you can understand and read your opponent, but you can’t control their actions; you may not be able control your thoughts or feelings, but you can control or at least regulate the behavior they cause.

Mental toughness is the psychological edge you can use to be more consistent and a better player than your opponent.

Mental toughness is being determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure. All of these skills are learnable.

As with much in poker, developing mental toughness is a process. It’s not attaining perfection but instead reaching for excellence. The difference between perfection and excellence is your attitude toward mistakes. If you want to be perfect or are a perfectionist, a mistake is disaster. If you’re striving for excellence, a mistake is an opportunity to learn. You have to play to your standard of excellence, accept mistakes and utilize them to change.

What happens when a perfectionist makes a mistake? They tilt. If instead they understand the process of attaining excellence, they might get upset, but then fix it and forget it. You don’t really forget it, but you move it out of the circle of conscious thought.

Excellence involves focus and refocusing. There are three levels of concentration. The inner-core level is focusing on what is important now. In poker, that’s playing the hand, understanding your opponent and knowing the math. But it’s hard to stay centered all of the time, so when you find yourself wandering to the outer layers (the areas of concern for example), you need to refocus. You need to be confident, but not overconfident. To be confident, you have to prepare. Confidence is a direct outgrowth of learning and preparation.

Finally, you have to know how to control yourself under pressure. You need to be able to center yourself. You need to be able to move on; you need techniques.

With this in mind, mental toughness deserves as much attention as the study of odds, the study of tells or reading hand ranges. Be determined, focused, confident and control yourself under pressure and you’ll have the mental edge to play more consistently and better than opponents. Forget perfection and focus on playing to your level of excellence.

Keep your head in the game.

— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. Email him at