Every coach wants their athletes to be mentally tough. However, when I ask a coach to define what being mentally tough is, I find most coaches do not have a definition, or their definition has something to do with playing through pain. Although an athlete who can stay focused on their role when uncomfortable because of injury is considered a mentally tough action, is does not define what it means.
My definition of a mentally tough athlete is one who is:
Able to access their talent at the highest level they are capable on a consistent basis regardless of the situation.
Here is how I break that down:
“Able to access their talent…” You can have all the talent and strength you need to be competitive, but you must be able to unleash all the hours of training you put in to make it to game day. An example of being able to access your talent, despite a tragic situation in one’s personal life is Brett Favre, who played a football game the day after his father passed away. That day he passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns…he was able to access his talent. He was mentally tough.
“…at the highest level…” Whitey Bimstein, a long time boxer and trainer once said, “Show me an undefeated fighter and I’ll show a guy who’s never fought anybody.” His point was to show that an athlete should seek out the best competition even if that means losing once in a while. As a society, we place too much emphasis on having no losses on our record. Defeat can be the seed of discontent you need to motivate you to improve your game.
“…they are capable…” Your level effort has nothing to do with the competition. There is an old adage: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” You can only control three things as an athlete – your effort, your attitude and your preparation. Get in the habit of always playing at the height of your ability and you will see that ability continue to grow.
“…on a consistent basis…” Anyone can be great in a random chance moment. History is rife with championships being won on the last ditch effort of some one-hit wonder that only has that one situation to their name, then fades shortly after. Today’s headlines are tomorrow’s fish wrappings, so to be great you need to be consistent.
“…regardless of the situation.” A mentally tough athlete treats practice and pre-season competitions with the same intensity as a league or post-season game. In most sports, the next play or the next move is the same no matter if it’s at practice or in the last few minutes of the championship game. The only difference is the audience.
Mental toughness is developed through hard work and dedication. Help your athletes to take ownership of their athletic endeavors by letting them learn from their failures. If you put a pillow under their knee every time they fall, they will never learn the important lesson of learning from mistakes.
James Leath is a mental conditioning coach and speaker for changingthegameproject.com. As an athlete, James played multiple sports in high school and received varsity letters in football, basketball, wrestling, baseball, and volleyball. He accepted a partial scholarship to play football in college but an injury made him change course. James eventually made his way back to football at the semi-pro level, but his passion was coaching and mentoring athletes. He has been coaching and teaching for over 15 years. His website, jamesleath.com, is used to educate athletes, coaches, and parents in sport psychology and personal development. He is currently working on a graduate degree in Performance Psychology.