1st March 2018

mental toughness blog feature image

One of the most popular topics these days in the human performance realm is mental toughness. Sport and strength and conditioning coaches around the world chase this quality in prospective athletes and it seems everyone is trying to figure out how to quantify and develop mental toughness within training. As a strength and conditioning coach, it is easy to quantify the speed, strength and conditioning level of an athlete through testing and comparative data, and sport coaches can do the same with sport skill and execution. While this will tell you a lot about an athlete physically and tactically, what it doesn’t do is tell you how an athlete is going to respond when time is winding down and they have the opportunity to win the game for their team.  Mental toughness is defined as:

“Having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer; specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.” (Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2002, p. 209).

So, how do you identify, coach and reinforce mental toughness? This article covers some factors that influence this trait and ways that you, as a coach, can help your athletes further develop mental toughness.

Fill the Right Bucket

Every decision an athlete makes is an opportunity to become tougher or weaker mentally. Go to the library and study or watch one more episode on Netflix? Wake up 30 minutes early to eat breakfast or show up to the workout on an empty stomach? These are two easy examples of daily decisions athletes must make.

Does the athlete choose to fill the right bucket with things that make them better, or do they load up the wrong bucket with excuses?  As a strength coach or sport coach, the key is to preach the little things everyday to your athletes.  Regularly reminding, educating, and holding athletes accountable will guide them into making the right decisions that will lead to mental toughness. To help identify opportunities to build mental toughness, look for signs. If an athlete struggles to get through morning practice because they skipped breakfast, or is struggling in a course because they aren’t putting the time in at the library, point out to them that their poor decisions are negatively impacting their performance.

A great quote from Ryan Horn, Director of Sports Performance for Men’s Basketball at Wake Forest is: “Do you want to build toughness? Start by getting 8+hours of sleep, eating breakfast, being on time, being coachable, not skipping workouts, and going to class.” All of the little things in the short term add up to big things in the long term.


“You are either coaching it to happen, or allowing it to happen” is a great quote for coaches to remember.  If we are concerned about something our athletes are doing wrong, we need to look no further than ourselves to assess whether we have influenced this behavior with our instruction or by not holding athletes accountable for their actions.

It is important to have your standards and to not waiver away from enforcing them. If an athlete is supposed to touch their chest when they bench press and they don’t do it—make them do it again. Simple minor details like this add up to help build personal accountability.

Having policies in place for coming late to a workout, missing study hall, missing treatment or breaking team rules help to guide athletes towards being stronger mentally and becoming better people. This is an easy one to address and reinforce. If an athlete comes late to one practice, serves the punishment and comes late the following week the athlete has not yet grown from the consequences. Conversely, if after coming late to practice the athlete is the first one to arrive at workouts every day, they are moving in the right direction towards mental toughness.

Highlight the Small Victories

Often athletes do not realize when they are improving their mental toughness. How many times during testing have you seen an athlete miss a max attempt only to make the same weight a few minutes later after gathering themselves and refocusing? This is not only a time to point out that the athlete improved physically but also a time to highlight the fact that the athlete broke a fear barrier and improved mentally. The same concept can be applied on the field or court. An easy improvement in mental toughness to highlight in basketball is the athlete’s approach and execution during high-pressure free throws. A player with the game on the line and the opposing crowd screaming for them to miss might let the heat of the moment get the best of them and end up clanking one off the back rim. If that same situation is simulated and coached during practice, later in the season when they knock the free throws in when under the same pressure, there is an opportunity to praise and emphasize the growth they’ve made mentally to encourage continued growth in mental toughness.

Maturity and Past Experiences

The maturity of an athlete and their past experiences will help shape their level of mental toughness. Athletes who have faced and overcome adversity both in their personal life as well as on the field or court are likely going to have a different level of maturity and mental toughness than an athlete who is managing the stress of competition at the collegiate level for the first time.  

Coulter, Mallett and Gucciardi (2010) found that experiencing stressful events inside and outside of sport aids with mental toughness development.  Bulls et al., (2005) found that environmental factors such as parental influences and childhood upbringing are key for mental toughness.  Other research has also supported this, showing that coaches, parents, and athletes play a significant role in the development of mental toughness (Crust & Clough, 2011).  Van Yperen (2009) looked at success in soccer players over a 15 year time period and found that players who had more siblings and had parents who were divorced experienced more successful transitions than athletes with fewer siblings and married parents.

The implication of this research is that when players are able to experience and overcome stressful events prior to collegiate athletics, they are able to develop coping strategies that allow them to deal with the high pressures they will inevitably face in their sport.  

This is important to take into consideration, especially as you are integrating freshmen or transfers into your program. A valid question to ask your players is ‘what was the most adverse situation you’ve ever faced?’ In doing so you will 1) learn more about your athletes, and 2) better understand what they have faced and how they may respond in certain situations. You will have some athletes tell you the most challenging situation they’ve faced is playing for the state championship in high school. Others might have had a best friend killed, a parent in jail, or uncertainty about when the next meal might come in. These are all real challenges that can serve to shape an athlete’s thoughts and emotions as they step onto the field or court and can help you, as the coach to best meet them where they are at.

The importance of evaluating mental toughness by looking at an athletes’ past challenges is comparable to how you evaluate the physical potential of an incoming freshman. If Athlete A comes in with a squat of 200 lbs and Athlete B comes in with a squat of 400 lbs, your strength potential expectations for these athletes’ first year would be different. Similarly, if you have an athlete who has been exposed to challenging situations throughout their life and another who has never faced much adversity, their mental toughness potential is likely to be different as well.

Developing Mental Toughness in the Weight Room

The strength and conditioning community has received a bad reputation over the past couple of years by prescribing workouts that were designed to “improve” mental toughness yet ended with athletes injured and in the hospital. The biggest misconception with making improvements in mental toughness is that it can occur through a workout session. A 100-rep squat workout, a navy seal session, or 1000 push-ups is not going to make you mentally tougher. So, what will?

1) Consistent progressive training with pre-and post-testing: Carolina Panthers Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, Joe Kenn, has stated the most transferable quality from the weight room onto the field or court is confidence. Every off-season you get a tremendous opportunity to help build a bigger, stronger, faster, and more resilient athlete. What you can’t measure is the confidence that athlete will then have as they begin practice the following season. A defensive back who shaved two-tenths of a second off his 40 yard dash time, or a basketball player who gained 3 inches on their vertical jump is going to walk into that season knowing they are  more prepared to compete. Confidence and mental toughness go hand in hand.

2) Accountability: This is worth mentioning again. With certain sports, the strength and conditioning coach spends more time with the team than their sport coaches do. Therefore, it is imperative the strength coach does more than just aim to develop the physical qualities in the weight room. It’s important to have simple rules that you hold athletes accountable for every single day and develop an understanding that there are punishments for breaking these rules.  Whether the rule is broken by a team captain or a walk-on player, the key to encouraging accountability is in your consistency and in holding everyone to the same standard.

3) Competition: At the end of the day, games, meets, and matches are what we are training our athletes for. A great way to enhance athletes’ mental toughness is to include competitive situations in the weight room. One way to do this is to have a point system where athletes compete semester-long against their teammates and other teams in various exercises.  You can make categories such as Silver (30 points), Gold (40 points), Iron (50 points), and Alpha (highest point total) and display names in the weight room to ignite competition among the athletes. This pushes athletes to go outside of their comfort zone and compete at a higher level daily. Additionally, building team and individual competitions into your training plan can be effective. One way to do this is through call outs. For this type of competition, the coach would “call out” two athletes from the team for a one on one challenge. The rest of the team picks who they feel will be the winner and stands on their side to cheer them on. This type of challenge will help athletes overcome adversity and work under pressure with their teammates relying on them. Team competitions that involve critical thinking are also a great way to build mental toughness and also tend to bring out the leaders of the team.

Athlete Goal Setting

When it comes to building mental toughness it is important to find out the athlete’s’ “why” for what drives them to be successful. Having a meeting at the start of the year to discuss the athletes’ long and short-term goals can help you understand what motivates them and helps you hold them accountable to those goals when they start to drift away from them. If an athlete tells you their goal is to be an all-conference player and you catch them skipping a set during a workout, it is easy to call them on it and remind them what they told you. If another athlete says their long-term goal is to play professionally and then they skip treatment for an injury, it is easy to reinforce that that is not “pro” behavior.

Quantifying Mental Toughness

As an athletic performance coach you are always looking for ways in which you can provide testing numbers to your sport coach to help them better understand where each athlete compares to the rest of the team. In a squat or 40-yard dash it is easy to do, but what about mental toughness? Through the Kinduct platform you can now utilize Angela Duckworth’s Grit score to answer the sought-after question “how tough is he/she?” The simple 10 question survey auto-calculates the score for you and can be done hand in hand with performance testing to give you a complete picture of each athlete on your roster.

Tying it all Together

Mental toughness is such a critical part of the training process for athletes and as sports performance coaches we need to do our part to prepare them for the adverse situations they face in their sport.

To recap:

  1. Coach athletes to “Fill the right bucket” and make great decisions
  2. Hold them accountable
  3. Highlight the small victories and positively reinforce progress towards mental toughness
  4. Do not overlook past experiences and maturity
  5. Use the weight room as a place to develop mental toughness and confidence the right way
  6. Use goal setting to hold your athletes accountable

Follow these steps and you will be on your way to improving the mental toughness of your athletes.

This blog post was co-authored with George Greene.


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