Mental Toughness: Do Coaches Understand What it Means?

I have spent time with several programs that preach mental toughness to their players. Often times, I felt this was a general term and the concept was a rather fluid one. Sometimes it was in regard to attention to detail, uniformity and proper execution. Other times it was putting athletes through rigorous workouts in order to toughen them up. Sometimes it was a group discussion that focused on mindset (the brain’s reticular activating system is a powerful tool).

Bottom line, when you ask someone what mental toughness is, I feel it’s a very vague concept that’s thrown around a lot and is often correlated with winning. Losing teams often attribute failure to a lack of mental toughness. However, I feel this is misguided.

Before tackling the bastardization of mental toughness, let’s be clear. Ultimately, talent is the X-factor. Sadly, the hardest workers or the most prepared teams don’t always win. Of course the process is important for breeding athletes of high character, but it doesn’t always translate on the scoreboard.

This doesn’t mean a team blessed with otherworldly talent shouldn’t subscribe to a disciplined, focused approach. Practicing good qualities daily usually means they will carry over into competition. All teams should strive for perfection. Being mentally prepared is a great thing.

However, when that approach spills over into unnecessary physical hardship in training (aka mental toughness) is when problems arise. And unfortunately, this mindset is adopted far too often by so many coaches.

Mike Robertson had an outstanding podcast with Rob Oshinskie last week, which touched on the lack of thought that is put into mental toughness training. Coach Oshinskie made some terrific points about punishment that is transmitted in a physical nature can be extremely debilitating to performance in competition.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say running 25 gassers or endless hill sprints at the end of practice is just downright lazy coaching that displays a disturbing lack of knowledge and a disregard for the sound scientific principles that our programs MUST be rooted in.

Strength coaches and sport coaches are responsible for athletes being physically ready to compete. In what world does a high dosage of “punishment” style exercise leave athletes able to perform at a high level? Yet this has happened countless times at places I have worked. Coaches jeopardize success to make a point and have their Herb Brooks moment.

As a personal example, one school I worked at had a sport coach upset with his team’s effort in practice. So the following day in a walk-through to prepare for a game less than 24 hours away, he ran his girls ragged. Not shockingly, they lost the following day, complaining of fatigue.

Another prime example is Oregon’s football team and their recent scandal. The strength coach put his players through the wringer with almost an hour straight of bodyweight exercises and several players ended up with rhabdomyolysis – all because the previous strength coach hadn’t made the players “tough” enough to meet the standards of the new head man.

This isn’t the movies and such bravado will get you nowhere when dealing with the average athlete. Yes, we want our players to be tough. Yet has it occurred to us that maybe some of them are, but couldn’t show it in a game because we broke them?

Like the Oregon strength coach, maybe we were dealt a bad hand, but instead of exacerbating the issue, how about restructure the program and put into place a natural progression for success (i.e. build up work capacity and a foundation of strength and movement instead of “drop and gimme 50”)?

I’ll be the first to say today’s generation of athletes aren’t predisposed to working hard. However, running them into the ground doesn’t solve our problem and in fact makes it worse (i.e. burnout, injury, decreased performance). Instead how about we do our job by programming wisely, communicating openly, and instilling a true understanding of the mission at hand.

This in my mind gives us mental toughness. It comes when we give our athletes the tools to compete at the highest level. These include structured practice, weight room training that follows a logical progression, and constant evaluation of ourselves as coaches. When we prepare to the best of our ability and give our players what they truly need, we end up with the right kind of mental toughness.

And that kind doesn’t involve burpees.

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