Mental Toughness

Mental Toughness

Coaches in all sports talk frequently about mental toughness.  Ask a group of coaches what it is and how to get it and you might get many different answers.  As a coach I’m currently enjoying the book “Grit” by Angela Duckworth and learning a few things myself.  I think most of us have known coaches that believe they’re making kids tougher when in fact they are not. Some believe that mental toughness comes through forms of physical punishment, long, grueling hours and treating them as if they are in the military. I can’t say I know for sure what the answer is to achieve mental toughness, although I’ll offer some ideas.  Here are a couple of examples of how not to do it:

  • Recently their were a couple of instances, one can be read about here, where a AAU basketball coach took his players off of the court and forfeited the game because he didn’t like how it was being officiated.  They literally “took their ball and went home” in the middle of the game.
  • In January, several University of Nike Oregon football players were hospitalized after what some sources said were workouts “akin to military basic training, with one said to include up to an hour of continuous push-ups and up-downs.”  Mind you this was in January, eight months from the start of the season and only about 1 month removed from the previous.
  • Just this month a high school football player died after a log that he and teammates were carrying fell and hit him in the head while the team was in preseason camp.

In the basketball example this was the perfect time to teach these kids what mental toughness is all about. Win or lose, despite the belief that the refs are doing you wrong, you stay in the game and you finish. As a coach, during the game you keep your mouth shut so as not to entice the refs any further and afterward you teach the kids about how life is sometimes not fair.  They need to understand that in the grand scheme of things one game in a summer recruiting tournament is not all that important.  Instead these coaches failed their players and taught them how to be mentally weak, quit and walk away when things aren’t going how you perceive they should.

At Oregon, if there are no games for 8 months, players don’t need to be in game shape (as if ridiculous workouts made players game ready).  If there are discipline problems on the team or performance isn’t meeting expectations, I believe the coaches can find a reasonable way to iron those out without sending players to the hospital.  Hours and hours of trudging around will not not make you better at football and most certainly not win games in November.

As far as high school kids carrying logs, children aren’t Navy SEALS.  Those soldiers may be some of the best and brightest but it’s simply irresponsible to rely on young kids to carry these logs in what I have to assume is was a fatigued state.  This was preseason camp after all.  This was tragic.  And for what? I don’t think much more needs to be said.

For these kids, since most in all of the stories are in their teens and under adult supervision, being mentally tough is about making the right decisions on and off the field.  Mental toughness is having great character. It’s about coaches teaching athletes how to play the game with discipline, precision, and speed.  It’s about educating players through experience and guiding them to bounce back after tough situations.  It’s about giving them the tools to make the right decisions like taking care of their body, going to school and being a decent human being.

  • Mike Baltren