Walkthrough of Mental Toughness Activity

Earlier in the week I told you some of my thoughts on mental toughness.  There were two major points.  The first is that mental toughness is learned, not inherited.  It can be taught and improved upon.  This isn't to say every athlete would be equal.  There are a lot of environmental factors to consider.  The second major point is that to improve mental toughness in yourself or on your team you need to define what it is to you and make it measurable.  For today's post, I want to walk you through an activity I've done with the high school baseball team I help coach and have given to a couple of other programs at the high school and college level.  Afterwards, I will tell you my rationale for how the activity is designed.  It's not perfect, but I do think it can be a valuable tool for you as an athlete or for your team if you are a coach.

1. Read the poem.

While not anything Maya Angelou would write, I do feel like the poem describes Mental Toughness.  My hope is that it gets athletes to think and that they each can relate to some aspect of the poem afterwards.  It is something to lead into the main activity.

I am something all coaches want their players to have,
I am something all players want,
People talk about me all the time,
You know me when you see me,
You know me when you don't,
I am not easily defined,
I am action, attitudes, inactions, and gratitude,
What am I?

2. Ask athletes what they think is being described in the poem.  If nobody gets it, tell them after a few guesses.

Self-explanatory here...They need to know the topic is Mental Toughness.

3. Introduce them to Mental Toughness, how it's hard to define, and why it's hard to define.  What do you do when a coach says you are physically weak, you need to get faster, or you need to work on a specific part of your game?  Follow lifting program, running program, or plan to work on skill.  What do you do if you are told you are not tough enough? No answers here probably.  The goal of the activity is to create the team's plan for getting Mentally Tougher by creating a list of behaviors/characteristics of Mentally Tough ________ (insert athlete type here).  MENTAL TOUGHNESS IS A SKILL NOT A TRAIT!  You can get better.

The whole point of this is to introduce the topic again and to discuss the purpose of the activity.  It give the direction of where we are going.

4. Talk about the Jay Bilas article as you hand it out.  While you could just hand out the list, I think there is a lot of value in the athletes being able to read the descriptions following each behavior or characteristic.  Have players look over the list silently and by themselves.  You can have them mark which behaviors relate to their sport or that could if adjusted.

This gives athletes specific examples of behaviors and/or characteristics of toughness.  It also gives athletes a chance to reflect individually before they may be influenced by a group.

5. Split the team into groups.  The job of the groups is to come up with a list of specific behaviors and characteristics they think Mentally Tough _______ (insert athlete type here) should have.  The goal is to come up with a list for OUR team.  Give them a larger sheet of paper to write the lists down on.  As they discuss, walk around and ask how it is going and what they are coming up with.  Ask questions like, "Why did you include this?" or "Is there a time when you reacted this way in a game (or the opposite)?"  I would strongly suggest not trying to influence the list.  The questions are designed to help understand your players better.

It is going to be hard not to give your opinion, but this is a great activity for players to have autonomy and ownership.  I would keep groups at no more than 5 and pick leaders of each group beforehand.  Talk with group leaders about what you are going to do and what you would like their roles to be as discussion leaders.  One idea I had the other day is to have a coaches group as well.  Treat them exactly the same as the other groups.  This would get the input of coaches and stress to the team that we are all together.  Just an idea!

6. As groups begin to wrap up their list, tell them to pick 2-3 they feel really strongly about.  They can have one backup if they want.  Then, have each group present their 2-3 to the team.  The teacher in me thinks it is important to make sure the team understands how presenting is difficult for some people, and this is not the time to joke around or make fun of people.  Remember the reason for the activity.  This is to create a list for our team to live by with Mental Toughness and to create a way to improve.  The team will vote on what makes the final list and what does not.  Have a group present and explain the items on the list.  Review the behaviors/characteristics, and have the team vote.  We did an approximate 2/3 vote was needed for the behavior to make it on the final list.

I like this part for a couple of reasons.  Many of the athletes will end up with jobs where they make presentations and talk in front of groups.  This is great practice in a safe, team environment.  It also helps work on leadership qualities.  The vote makes it a team process and again stresses ownership of the list.  YOU ARE GOING TO WANT TO GIVE YOUR OPINION HERE.  DON'T DO IT!  A player will say something like "swag" that will make you want to puke!  Let it go!  Understand that you get to have your input an overwhelming majority of the time with the team as a coach.  Give the players some autonomy, and trust them to come up with a solid list.  It does not matter if you don't like every single item on there!

7. Upon the completion of the presentations, I like the idea of anybody on the team having the opportunity to give a behavior/characteristic they feel was not addressed that needs to be on there.  Have them explain from their seat, and have a vote.  It was really cool to see a few guys I would not have thought would speak up do so when we did this as a team.

You want to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard.  Maybe 1-2 guys ended up dominating a small group discussion, but that fourth or fifth group member feels comfortable telling the team something now.  It is just one more opportunity for someone to speak up.

8. Wrap up the activity.  Discuss how this is only the start of the conversation.  The list is the workout program, the throwing program, etc.  It will only work if the athletes commit to the program.  Accountability among all is huge!

This includes coaches here.  Commit to what you are doing just like you expect your players to commit.  The more you do, the better the players will feel about what they created together as a team.

9. Continue to make the list a priority.  Point out examples of  athletes doing things on the list and getting a little bit tougher mentally.  Have athletes point out examples of teammates.  In addition, I would pick 1-2 behaviors a week to be a major point of emphasis.  Just like you may work on a specific defense in basketball for a couple of practices or first and third defenses in baseball, make the list part of the practice plan.  Example: This week we are going to work on "Picking up teammates when they make a mistake."  Look for examples of players picking up teammates.  Reward them with praise, and the behavior will increase!


Can I prove with large amounts of statistical data that this list and process will increase Mental Toughness?  No!  I think what the activity does is define Mental Toughness is to your program and ultimately makes a vague term measurable.  There are also the other benefits discussed within the steps above.  Would you like me to help you with the activity?  Get in touch.  I'd love to facilitate the activity for your team!  Have feedback?  Send that too.  If you try the activity, please send me the list your team creates.  I'd love to see it and possibly use it for something in the future.  Thanks again for reading.  


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