Mental toughness might be the most cliché term used in sports today. There is no way to the top if you don’t have “it.” When a team loses, coaches most commonly point to mental toughness for where things fell short. While it is easy to point a finger at mental toughness, it is harder to actually understand what all these coaches are talking about. Let’s take a minute to unwrap this idea. If mental toughness is so crucial to success, why do so many coaches struggle to define it or share a common definition, yet time and time again know it when they see it?
What is mental toughness?
I always struggle with broad vague terms. I have a background in strength and conditioning, but I also have experience in psychology and neuropsychology education. The field of psychology has precise definitions for each diagnosis and idea. Mental toughness, on the other hand, is hardly a precise definition.
Even if you break down the phrase and apply it to sports, you get some interesting results. We see so many high-profile athletes that make all the right plays on the field while having their personal life and mental health in shambles. Vise versa, I have had very “tough” athletes admirably handle some of life’s hardest challenges outside of sports while cracking under the pressure of a game tying free throw or drop a crucial third down pass. Why is this? Are they not mentally tough all the time? Only sometimes? This is the question we struggle with.
The best definition of mental toughness that I have come across did not come from the mouth of an elite coach or prestigious academic. It came from the mouth of Denzel Washington. His character John Creasy in the movie Man on Fire is what most would call a tough guy: a retired marine turned bodyguard. In the firm he explains:
“There’s no such thing as TOUGH . . . there’s trained and untrained.”
Step back and think about this, someone is either trained or untrained for a situation. This quote has become my definition of what mental toughness truly is in sports and life.
Training mental toughness
With that said, can you train mental toughness into your athletes? Many say yes while some say no.
Are you born mentally tough or is it cultivated over one’s lifetime?
Can in be done by using physical activity or circuits done till exhaustion? Team-building activities like Navy SEALS training or retreats to rope courses, etc.?
These are all part of conversations I have had with colleagues, sports coaches and even my athletes I train. I believe wholeheartedly that mental toughness is trainable as a skill, but none of these above activities actually prepare you for situations in sport that you need to be mentally tough for! As many things we discuss in strength and conditioning, context is king when talking about this taboo topic.
As a strength and conditioning professional that thinks from a holistic perspective on training athletes, I believe mental toughness is built on the premise of one’s development of “skills” for situations they will encounter in competition. This isn’t just the physical, psychological or personal skills, but the technical and tactical skills for the sport. We have all seen the weight room warriors who can’t transfer their testing numbers from the weight room to the real test, their sport. They are one of the fastest on the team yet don’t know where to run. They are one of the strongest on the team yet cannot catch the pass and need more “grip strength” to hold onto the ball. Mental toughness is the same. It needs to be trained in a way that the athlete can actually use it when it counts.
General vs. specific mental toughness
Specific skills must be developed to succeed in specific environments. Just as Dr. Bondarchuk talks about general and specific exercises for physical training. General training prepares the athlete’s body to handle the demands of training, and specific training prepares them to compete. There is also general and specific mental training. In both cases, the specific training is often the domain of the skills coach. They will run players through specific exercises on the field, and also set up situational drills in practice to help prepare them mentally. In the weight room we can support general physical preparation along with general psychological preparation. These general training means will never trump the specific training but will help set a foundation for the specific training to continue to be progressed and transfer for the benefit of the athlete.
Strength and conditioning coaches might not always be out on the field, but they can have a big impact on building mental toughness in athletes by laying the right foundation. In the area of mental training, this means helping athletes develop strong routines and healthy habits. It is found in the consistency day in and day out of doing the right things at the right time with the right attitude. This could be coming in early to stretch everyday, consistently being focused during warm-up activities, and having the same positive attitude in the repeated or “boring” exercises that are done daily. While a coach can make these environments as creative and stimulating as possible, it still will come a time that you have to do things you don’t feel like doing. The ability to focus on the task at hand and to repeat the same things over and over with quality indirectly transfers to the skills needed in ones sport.
These are the small victories that continue to push an athlete forward in their progress toward their goals. But in the foundation is also not enough. Bondarchuk says we need the general side of training, but at the top the difference makers that really transfer are on the the specific side. Same with the mental side of sport. There are lots of athletes who train consistency but can’t make the right decision under pressure. Once the foundation is laid, then more specific mental toughness is required to get to the next level. Here the whole coach staff needs to be involved to transfer the weight room skills to the field.
Are you tough or are you trained?
As Denzel said, it comes down to training. Some of the biggest scandals in strength and conditioning have come from coaches that don’t understand this is the path to true mental toughness. Training means creating habits, developing skills and giving athletes exposure to game-like situations are the process to successful performances. This allows an athlete to choose the right response from their tool box of skills for each situation that comes before them.
Remember, we are here to prepare people for performance in their sport, both physically and mentally. Just random physically training will not prepare athletes, random mental games don’t do the trick either. So, are you tough or are you trained?