Mental toughness is such a nebulous term. Any coach wants players who are
mentally tough. We want kids that will perform at their best regardless
of pressures and circumstances. So much has been said about what mental
toughness is, but very little has been mentioned about how to develop
ESPN basketball analyst and former All-American basketball player at Duke University, Jay Bilas in his book Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court asserts:
Toughness comes from how you handle your
experiences, what you learn from them, and how you are guided through
them by others in your life” (p. 5)
That’s a great thought on toughness. However, how can we develop this
characteristic in our Christian school athletes? That’s what today’s
post is going to attempt to help you with.
Here are five P’s to help develop mental toughness in your athletes.
Most are looking for the secret to mental toughness. There is no
“secret.” You acquire the skill of mental toughness the same way you do
any other skill: through preparation.
Think about when you’ve performed your best at any skill. It’s
probably when you weren’t thinking about it. It was when you just knew
what needed to be done.
Now think about what how you best responded to difficulties,
discouragement, or obstacles. More than likely you responded correctly
when you were best prepared.
John Wooden said,
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
Nothing will hinder the development in of mental toughness in an athlete faster than failure. Therefore preparation is key.
So speaking practically, how do we prepare athletes to the point of mental toughness in adversity?
Many think that repetition of block skills (shooting in basketball,
throwing in baseball, catching in football) is the key to developing
mental toughness. However, in a block skill there is no opposition.
Repetition of block skills is necessary to mastery of a skill. But all
of the skills we just mentioned are different in game performance.
Therefore we must practice through exposure just as much as we
practice through repetition. Playing small sided games in basketball and
soccer or competing against a clock in other sports will train decision
making and proper response to mental and physical obstacles in a game
Expose your athletes to adversity in practice in order to develop mental toughness.
Training this way will help develop the mental toughness and resilience needed in games.
So have your coaches evaluate their practice plans. Do they actively
work to train mental toughness through practicing open skills and
The most successful athletes usually practice with creativity and
visualize game situations. They visualize themselves performing
successfully. There is power in positive visualization.
Pre-program your athletes to see themselves performing successfully.
If they are pre-programmed to do this, then they will practice it in
games and not be rattled as easily because their brain has already been
Sports psychologist at Penn State University, David Yukelson, Ph.D, says in his article What is Mental Toughness and How to Develop It?
Confident goal oriented statements starting with ‘I
will, I can, I am going to…’” [will program your mind for success ahead
You are mentally tough when you know how to respond to adversity.
Those who have already told themselves “I can,” “I will,” and “I am
going to” are less likely to quit. Those who enter athletic competition
with no pre-programmed determinations will not handle adversity.
This may be the most practical point for the coach or athletic director because it is the most that they can control.
You need to develop your culture and preach perseverance.
Perseverance simply means to continue in a course of action despite difficulty, failure, and obstacles.
When preaching perseverance, focus on the athlete’s view of and
response to failure. How the athlete views failure will greatly
determine their mental toughness.
Mentally tough inventor, Thomas Edison, viewed failure as progress when trying to develop the incandescent light bulb:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Teach your athletes to view failure as an opportunity to improve
their performance. The greatest athletes and winners in life have been
exposed to failure often. This exposure to disappointment cemented their
will to succeed and developed their mental toughness to a high level.
Mental toughness is inhibited when there is fear of failure. Many
athletes quit when things get tough because the can’t handle the idea of
persevering as hard as possible if failure is still a likely option.
These athletes will check out of a game mentally when failure looks
to be possible. Mentally tough athletes will still give it their best
shot in spite of possible failure if they have made peace with failure.
Preach perseverance through failure to help develop mental toughness
in athletes. In most cases we’re dealing with high-schoolers who need to
be reminded of the bigger picture.
When seeking to develop mental toughness in athletes you must
maintain a positive outlook. This doesn’t mean overlook negative or poor
performance. It just means to simply find the silver linings when
things don’t go as planned.
Mentally tough athletes will maintain a positive outlook on their situations throughout competition.
To help illustrate the connection between positivity and mental
toughness here is an example of positive inner dialogue of a mentally
tough soccer player:
The opponents just scored to tie the game because
of a mistake I made. We still have fifteen minutes to score and win this
game. I will play better defense and help my team create opportunities
to score the winner.”
No where in that inner dialogue did you see the mentally tough
athlete dwell on the mistake. He acknowledged it, immediately looked for
the positive outlook, and made pre-programming statements to help him
keep playing positively.
Coaches must also seek to help maintain positivity in competition.
Many coaches are not mentally tough because they choose to spend game
time dwelling on mistakes that were made. Some coaches even decide that a
game is incapable of winning when things don’t go their way early.
Find the silver lining to every situation and stay mentally tough.
You weren’t expecting that one were you? Whether or not you were,
think about it. Do we as Christian athletic directors and coaches teach
our athletes to respond to adversity through prayer?
Christians are capable of possessing the ultimate form of mental
toughness through reliance on the finished work of Jesus Christ.
Nothing will cause a mental toughness or spiritual confidence more than trusting in Him.
Teach your athletes to pray for the mental toughness that is needed
to respond to obstacles that they face. Teach them to rely on Him not
just in athletic competition, but in how they respond to problems in
There are so many verses in the Bible that illustrate the principle of mental toughness through trusting God.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from
whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven
and earth.” – Psalm 121:1-2
God is glorified when we rely on
His strength in our weakness. He will help us and our athletes to be
mentally tough in all areas of life.
So there you have it. Five areas in which you can train mental
toughness in your athletes. It’s not the perfect and most comprehensive
answer out there. But hopefully it is a practical help as you seek to
develop resilient, mentally tough athletes.