Comparing “Toughness” in Sport


This topic comes up quite often in daily discussions between athletes and coaches. It has always interested me to hear different viewpoints on the subject because there are so many. Of course there will be biases toward whatever type of sport that person is involved.

Psychological vs. Physical

We examine separate qualities of toughness instead of an overall toughness, too. Take mental vs. physical as an example. Some people view chess as a sport. While there is absolutely no physical training or toughness involved (unless you count picking up the pieces to move :)), there is certainly a great deal of psychological toughness/strategy involved. Whether you believe chess is a sport or not is for another time. I’m just using this as one extreme example on one side of the spectrum.

On the other side of the spectrum, where we have complete physical toughness present, we have….well, if you’ve trained for anything than you know you can’t have physical toughness without some form of psychological toughness as well. How can you push yourself to your maximum physical limits without being psychologically tough? You can’t…enough said.

Similar Sports

It is much harder to debate sports that are very similar because of the qualities they share. Take football and rugby for example. Both very physically and psychologically demanding in their own right. I know there will be two, very distinctive camps on either side of the fence. I’m not going to voice my opinion on this one, but suffice it to say that whatever side you are on, there will be valid points for either sport as the “tougher” of the two.

Breaking Down Qualities

I think a unique way of examining these types of arguments is to break down the required physical qualities of each sport. We can now examine two very opposite sports, marathon running and weightlifting, and develop arguments for which requires more toughness. Again, I’m not taking sides because if anyone reading knows my background, you know that I am very biased towards weightlifting.

Marathon running involves a great deal of cardiovascular fitness, patience, skill/technique work and much resolve to power through hours of activity. Cardiovascular fitness is a given, but what do I mean, exactly, by patience? Well, I can just imagine how boring running would be; having to train day-in and day-out with the same movement. I’m sure some runners would argue with that point and that is totally fine. Lastly, runners need to work on technique so that they can refrain from injury. At some point, most runners will have injuries because of the same, repetitive movement and reoccurring impact forces. If technique is not up-to-par with proper ground contact and such, you will see injuries occur sooner. At any rate, there is no doubt that there is psychological toughness involved in training for marathons.

Weightlifting, on the other hand, involves a great deal of strength and power development, which are opposite on the spectrum of physical fitness (“physical fitness” encompasses much more than people think…another topic for discussion in another post). There is also the technical development required to lift proficiently and avoid injury. To train at a very high level, a weightlifter must train very frequently (e.g., 8-10 or more sessions per week), which some might say becomes monotonous just like running. I will not argue that point because I know first-hand that an overreaching period in weightlifting becomes quite monotonous at times. The psychological toughness required here deals with being able to be comfortable putting extremely heavy weight over your head or on your shoulders/back, and to do so at a fast rate of movement (classical lifts) or grind it out (squats).

I Digress

What are your thoughts on this subject? I always try to be objective when considering which sports have more toughness, whether that is physical, psychological, or both.

To each, his/her own.


The ideas, comments and materials presented herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion or otherwise.

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