This is a breathing technique you can use not just in sport, but in life, as in preparing for a test, walking into a big presentation, or calming yourself before engaging in an uncomfortable conversation.
“Sometimes when you win, you actually lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win, and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic mechanism, from which one extracts what one needs.” -Gloria Clemente, White Men Can’t Jump
Every season, no matter the level of the sport, a different team shows up. Though the athlete could be coming from the same school as the year before, every season has its own culture and feeling. 6th graders are now 7th graders, juniors are now seniors, so on and so forth. A lot changes in a young athlete’s life between seasons, and as coaches we should not assume fundamentals are as sharp as they were the year before, or that the athletes are coming with prior knowledge.
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.
Here are two examples on the importance of getting your head in the game from Sunday's game. The first is the Cal Poly pitcher who started the game for the Mustangs fresh off rehabbing from surgery. As I watched him pitch I knew right away he was not ready to be on the mound. It had nothing to do with his form; in fact, he looked very strong as he sauntered up to the mound. He had heat on the ball, so it wasn't his pitching speed.
How does one develop mental toughness? As a sport and performance consultant I get asked this often. To answer, let's start with defining what it means. The short definition is: One's ability to perform at a high level under adversity. However, it isn't that simple.
A short list of books on mental toughness. Sport Psychology is the study of concentration, imagery, goal setting, relaxation, and rituals. These five topics are what separate good athletes from great athletes and the successful from the unsuccessful. Here is list of my top 10 non-fiction Mental Strength books.
I am addicted to ideas on mental toughness. My addiction is so strong that I am currently finishing up my masters in Sport Psychology. In 15+ years of coaching youth sports I have found that a confident, prepared player can beat a more athletically gifted player 1/2 of the time just by being in the right spot at the right time. I also can tell when that "gifted" player is having a fit because they have never had to deal with that kind of adversity. As a coach, I capitalize on that moment, not out of ego to beat a team with superior players, but because I know the lesson that athlete is learning will be valuable later in their athletic career, that is if they don't quit, because according to The National Alliance for Sports, 70% of youth athletes quit sports before they turn 13.
Mental training is important for athletes to master. Knowing how to deal with things like pre-competition stress, injuries, a superior opponent, and a host of other things is many times pushed to the side in exchange for lifting more weights or playing another scrimmage.
Be the athlete that soars above the competition because you can handle the high-pressure situations. Be the coach that teaches the mental game, not just the physical, tactical, and technical game.
- As a Man Thinketh, James Allen (1903)
- The Inner Game of Tennis, W. Timothy Gallwey (1974)
- The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training, Jim Taylor PH.D and Terri Schneider (2005)
- The Way of the Champion: Lessons from Sun Tzu’s The art of War and other Tao Wisdom for Sports & life, Dr. Jerry Lynch (2006)
- Mindset: The New Rules of Success, Carol Dweck (2006)
- "The way we communicate with others and ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives." -Tony Robbins
- "As he thinks, so he is; as he continues to think, so he remains." -James Allen
- We must "be" before we can "do" and we can "do" only to the extent that we "are," and what we "are" depends upon what we “think” - Charles Haanel, The Master Key System
- As a Man Thinketh, James Allen
What do you say to yourself that beats you up?
Remember when you were a kid and your favorite thing to ask was why? As we get older, we stop asking that question. In return for our ignorance, we do things that make us less productive and waste energy.