Mental Toughness: 4 Things We Can Learn From Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods. We’ve heard the name, we know about the scandals, the injuries and the pressure he’s faced in his golfing career. But what is it about mental toughness that gives him the ability to come back from such great adversity?


Photo by Edwin Compton on Unsplash


Mental toughness is taking control of your thoughts and emotions, using them to get what you want out of life and facing all positive and negative impacts that come your way. With Tiger; it’s being World Number 1, breaking records, dealing with injuries, divorce, scandals and coming back from a world ranking of 1,142.

Tiger won the 2019 Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. One of the four majors in the golfing schedule, in what’s considered as one of the greatest sporting comebacks ever. Tigers’ last major title win before 2019 was in 2008 at the US Open. He’s battled injuries, scandals, an image rebuild and a significant drop in rankings. Fast forward over 10+ years later and he’s regained his form and has overcome some serious setbacks that would debilitate most high-performance athletes. So what has Tiger faced since his inception into the golfing world?


Tigers Timeline


1996: Turns Pro.

1997: Wins Masters Golf Major, his first and becomes the youngest at 21 years old to ever win at Augusta, Georgia. Becomes world number 1

2000: Wins the US Open and British Open in the same year, becoming the 5th Player in history to win all four majors.

2001: Completes “The Tiger Slam”, becomes the reigning champion of all four golfing majors simultaneously.

2002: Becomes the youngest golfer to win 7 majors.

2004: Loses world number one spot.

2006: Tigers father passes away.

2008: Has knee surgery. Two months later wins his 14th major. After winning, announces the need for further surgery and takes the rest of the season off.

2009: Returns to golf 9 months later in February. Has a car accident outside his home in November, bringing to light claims of “infidelities”, which ruins his marriage. Takes an indefinite absence from golf.

2010: His season is plagued with further injuries and his ranking starts to fall.

2013: Regains form and wins an invitational challenge, putting him back at the number 1 spot.

2014: Injures himself at the Honda Classic and undergoes back surgery.

2015: Takes further time off. Needs to undergo more surgery and have disc fragments removed that was pinching a nerve.

2017: Missed the Masters’ tournament and announces further back surgery. Arrested on driving under the influence in May 2017. Checks himself into rehab for painkiller addiction.

2018: Returns to golf and finishes 23rd at the Farmers Insurance Open. Finishes second at the PGA Championship in August, reclaiming his form. In September, Tiger is named in the US Ryder Cup. Follows this up with a tournament win in Atlanta.

2019: In April, Tiger wins his fifth Masters Major, breaking an 11-year Championship drought and a 14 year Masters drought.


Tigers Mental Toughness 


Think about all the distractions that prohibits great performance in golf and how any slight change in the technique of the golf club can impact your shot. Golf is mentally fragile. One negative thought that comes into your mind has the ability to send your ball into the water.

Now imagine someone who can perform at the highest level, be faced with adversity and overcome every negative impact that’s been thrown at them. The injuries, the self-induced scandals, the self-image.  That’s Tiger Woods.

Here are 4 ways that have made Tiger Woods mentally tough:


1) Tiger Broke His Habit Loop


A habit loop forms around three steps. A trigger, a response, and a reward. In the case of Tiger, he was addicted to painkillers in 2017 which caused him to miss some golf and attend a stint in rehab. Tiger would experience pain or stress (the trigger), then take painkillers (the response) and this would have a negative effect and essentially numb him, not to feel any reward. It’s a negative habit loop that Tiger eventually broke. He would still feel triggers of pain and stress, but chose to respond in a more beneficial way and replaced his response to his triggers in the form of getting help and leaning on his support system.


2) Tigers’ Support System


We all need a support system. Family, friends and peers, even if we are not an athlete. We all need a network that provides emotional and practical support. Tiger Woods’ support system has helped him get back on top. His network develops and maintains his mental toughness. In Michael Sheard’s book ‘Mental Toughness: The Mindset Behind Sporting Achievement’, it’s acknowledged that mental skills of the elite are developed over extended periods of time and are influenced by a wide range of individuals (friends, family, teachers, coaches, etc.). Mental toughness in sport is promoted by these support system concepts:


    • Sport Process (training, competition)
    • Sport Personnel (relationship with coaches, other competitors, teammates)
    • Non Sport Personnel (the encouragement and emotional support of family, friends and beliefs of significant others)
    • Environment (positive training and family environments, motivation from other athletes’ performance)


These concepts are what makes Tiger one of the greatest golfers of all time and certainly the most mentally toughest. In 2018, Tiger had to thank his teammates for their support over 2017 through all the injuries and dramas that led him to a career-low ranking of 1,142.

Referring to his teammates, Tiger said in December 2018 at the Royal Melbourne, Australia “They just wanted to make me part of the game again because I didn’t know if I could do it or not.” Four months later in April 2019, he won the Masters Major and cemented his legacy around the world as one of the most mentally toughest athletes, fighting through setback after setback.


3) Tigers’ Father


Although Earl was part of Tigers’ support system, there is the greater significance of what his father did that has made Tiger who he is. When Earl Woods passed away, Tiger referred to him as his “best friend and role model”. Earl gave his son the psychological training that instilled Tigers resilience to overcome his setbacks. He used his military background to create a training environment, where Tiger would develop skills to respond to high levels of pressure and stress.

Each day of training, Earl threw something new at Tiger. In the middle of a swing, Earl would swear, kick Tigers’ clubs over and shout out anything he could think of to distract him. It was a case of Mind and Body Connection. ‘The mind moves the body. The body moves the club and the club moves the ball’. With each level of stress Tiger was under, he would learn to adapt and overcome. Although this can be considered ‘old school’ psychological training, Tiger credits this type of training to his success. The success that’s triggered by his mental toughness.


4) Adversity Tiger Faces


Everyone faces adversity in their lives, whether we’re athletes or not. We can either utilise challenges to push ourselves to greater heights or let challenges weigh us down and let it impact our performance negatively. After fellow golfer Jordan Spieth won rookie of the year in 2013, Tiger Woods complimented him on his mindset and ability to overcome adversity. The advice Tiger gave is consistent with any of us overcoming adversity;

    • Build Momentum: Find our performance successes and bring them to competition. There will be more unsuccessful attempts than successful attempts, so it’s important to define ourselves by our successes.
    • Confidence: We can never outperform our belief. Work hard in preparation and trust in our abilities.
    • Live in the Now: The ability to stay present and in the ‘now’. When we are distracted, it’s important to focus on what we need to do “now”, which will increase the chances of success.


Be Tiger Tough


What we can learn from Tiger is mental toughness is not only an attitude, it’s a habit and not something we’re born with. He could have retired at the lowest point of his career but chose to rise above and find his way through adversity. Through Tigers’ habits that made him successful and his support network, he was able to win the 2019 Masters, with the world praising his efforts as the biggest comeback in history.

“I said Tiger, I promise you. You’ll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life. And he hasn’t. And he never will” – Earl Woods



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