Mental Toughness is _______________

Mental toughness, as I mentioned in the Win Now post, is of great interest to me. Coaches are always talking about it.  "We've got to be tougher!"  "The other team was just tougher than us today," or "That kid is just tough.  You can't teach that," are a few of the ways I've heard toughness talked about by coaches.  Just the other day, a football coach I spoke with was talking about a player "who just isn't mentally tough."  As an athlete, you have probably been labeled as tough or not tough by coaches in the past.  Maybe it even happened to your face.  At the very least, you have gotten an unofficial rating from a coach.

Okay, so what is mental toughness then?  If you were to ask athletes if they have heard their coaches talk about mental toughness, an overwhelming majority would say they have.  Ask them to tell you what their coach thinks mental toughness is, however, and the same majority are unable to give a concrete answer.  I've given you what I think mental toughness is, and a search on Twitter or Google would yield an infinite number of "expert" opinions.  Even within sport psychology, there has been a lack of a widely accepted definition until fairly recently.  There is a study of elite athletes from 2002 that came up with the following definition:

"Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to:
1. generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands that sports places on a performer
2. be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure"

Simple enough?  Yeah right!  While the study is accepted by many in the sport psych community, it is created from interviews with athletes.  In other words, the definition and characteristics are created from opinions.

For me, there are two keys to mental toughness.  The first is to understand that mental toughness is learned, not inherited.  Therefore, you shouldn't write yourself or players you may coach off as "just not mentally tough."  If a baseball player has a weak arm, what does he do to get better?  He throws.  If a basketball player has a bad jump shot, he/she shoots.  There are specific things to do to improve.  How helpless is an athlete if a coach says they are not mentally tough and then does not give specific ways to improve?  That can be demoralizing for a kid!  That is like telling him he can't hit and just walking away.  In other words, you work with what you have and work to improve.

So if a study of opinions can create a definition of mental toughness, why can't you or your program do the same?  Which do you think would be more powerful to the athletes you coach?  Would it be reading the academic definition above or a definition they have created as a group?

Jay Bilas wrote an outstanding article on what makes mentally tough basketball players.  The article actually led to a book that is pretty good as well.  What I love about the article is Bilas gives a list of specific actions that mentally tough basketball players do and descriptions to go along with them.  The actions, for the most part, are concrete and measurable.  For example, one of the behaviors is "talk on defense."  If I were observing a basketball practice, I could track how many times a player or team talks to other players while they are playing defense.  Therefore, I can visibly see improvement as this number increases over time.

The Bilas article gave me the idea of creating a list with baseball players.  I've used the Bilas article twice with teams I've coached and had them work through the article to create a list for themselves.  What the activity did was get the players to think through what they picture mental toughness to be.  By giving specific behaviors or characteristics, athletes are then able to measurably become tougher.  I'll admit the activity was not perfect, but I have no doubt that our teams and players were a little bit tougher as a result of having the conversation and creating a list than they were prior to doing so.

So in summary, mental toughness can be whatever you, your team, or your program decides that it is.  The important points to consider are that you should make your definition measurable (be able to list examples, keep track), and everyone has the ability to improve!  Challenge yourself to become a little tougher today than you were yesterday.  Do this on a consistent basis, and you will become a mentally tougher player, coach, and/or person!

Later this week I will walk coaches through the activity so it becomes something that can benefit your program!  What do you think mental toughness is?  Let me know @Coach_Ehrlich or ehrlichb1@gmail.com

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