The 5 P’s of Developing Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is such a nebulous term. Any coach wants players who are mentally tough. We want kids that will perform at their best regardless of pressures and circumstances. So much has been said about what mental toughness is, but very little has been mentioned about how to develop it.

ESPN basketball analyst and former All-American basketball player at Duke University, Jay Bilas in his book Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court asserts:

Toughness comes from how you handle your experiences, what you learn from them, and how you are guided through them by others in your life” (p. 5)

That’s a great thought on toughness. However, how can we develop this characteristic in our Christian school athletes? That’s what today’s post is going to attempt to help you with.

Here are five P’s to help develop mental toughness in your athletes.

 

Preparation

Most are looking for the secret to mental toughness. There is no “secret.” You acquire the skill of mental toughness the same way you do any other skill: through preparation.

Think about when you’ve performed your best at any skill. It’s probably when you weren’t thinking about it. It was when you just knew what needed to be done.

Now think about what how you best responded to difficulties, discouragement, or obstacles. More than likely you responded correctly when you were best prepared.

John Wooden said,

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

Nothing will hinder the development in of mental toughness in an athlete faster than failure. Therefore preparation is key.

So speaking practically, how do we prepare athletes to the point of mental toughness in adversity?

Many think that repetition of block skills (shooting in basketball, throwing in baseball, catching in football) is the key to developing mental toughness. However, in a block skill there is no opposition. Repetition of block skills is necessary to mastery of a skill. But all of the skills we just mentioned are different in game performance. 

Therefore we must practice through exposure just as much as we practice through repetition. Playing small sided games in basketball and soccer or competing against a clock in other sports will train decision making and proper response to mental and physical obstacles in a game situation.

 Expose your athletes to adversity in practice in order to develop mental toughness.

Training this way will help develop the mental toughness and resilience needed in games.

So have your coaches evaluate their practice plans. Do they actively work to train mental toughness through practicing open skills and drills?

 

Pre-programming

The most successful athletes usually practice with creativity and visualize game situations. They visualize themselves performing successfully. There is power in positive visualization.

Pre-program your athletes to see themselves performing successfully. If they are pre-programmed to do this, then they will practice it in games and not be rattled as easily because their brain has already been there.

Sports psychologist at Penn State University, David Yukelson, Ph.D, says in his article What is Mental Toughness and How to Develop It?

Confident goal oriented statements starting with ‘I will, I can, I am going to…’” [will program your mind for success ahead of time]

You are mentally tough when you know how to respond to adversity.

Those who have already told themselves “I can,” “I will,” and “I am going to” are less likely to quit. Those who enter athletic competition with no pre-programmed determinations will not handle adversity.

 

Preach Perseverance

This may be the most practical point for the coach or athletic director because it is the most that they can control.

You need to develop your culture and preach perseverance.

Perseverance simply means to continue in a course of action despite difficulty, failure, and obstacles. 

When preaching perseverance, focus on the athlete’s view of and response to failure. How the athlete views failure will greatly determine their mental toughness.

Mentally tough inventor, Thomas Edison, viewed failure as progress when trying to develop the incandescent lightbulb:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Teach your athletes to view failure as an opportunity to improve their performance. The greatest athletes and winners in life have been exposed to failure often. This exposure to disappointment cemented their will to succeed and developed their mental toughness to a high level.

Mental toughness is inhibited when there is fear of failure. Many athletes quit when things get tough because the can’t handle the idea of persevering as hard as possible if failure is still a likely option.

These athletes will check out of a game mentally when failure looks to be possible. Mentally tough athletes will still give it their best shot in spite of possible failure if they have made peace with failure.

Preach perseverance through failure to help develop mental toughness in athletes. In most cases we’re dealing with high-schoolers who need to be reminded of the bigger picture.

 

Positivity

When seeking to develop mental toughness in athletes you must maintain a positive outlook. This doesn’t mean overlook negative or poor performance. It just means to simply find the silver linings when things don’t go as planned.

Mentally tough athletes will maintain a positive outlook on their situations throughout competition.

To help illustrate the connection between positivity and mental toughness here is an example of positive inner dialogue of a mentally tough soccer player:

The opponents just scored to tie the game because of a mistake I made. We still have fifteen minutes to score and win this game. I will play better defense and help my team create opportunities to score the winner.”

No where in that inner dialogue did you see the mentally tough athlete dwell on the mistake. He acknowledged it, immediately looked for the positive outlook, and made pre-programming statements to help him keep playing positively. 

Coaches must also seek to help maintain positivity in competition. Many coaches are not mentally tough because they choose to spend game time dwelling on mistakes that were made. Some coaches even decide that a game is incapable of winning when things don’t go their way early.

Find the silver lining to every situation and stay mentally tough.

 

Prayer

You weren’t expecting that one were you? Whether or not you were, think about it. Do we as Christian athletic directors and coaches teach our athletes to respond to adversity through prayer?

Christians are capable of possessing the ultimate form of mental toughness through reliance on the finished work of Jesus Christ.

Nothing will cause a mental toughness or spiritual confidence more than trusting in Him.

Teach your athletes to pray for the mental toughness that is needed to respond to obstacles that they face. Teach them to rely on Him not just in athletic competition, but in how they respond to problems in life.

There are so many verses in the Bible that illustrate the principle of mental toughness through trusting God.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” – Psalm 121:1-2

 God is glorified when we rely on His strength in our weakness. He will help us and our athletes to be mentally tough in all areas of life.

So there you have it. Five areas in which you can train mental toughness in your athletes. It’s not the perfect and most comprehensive answer out there. But hopefully it is a practical help as you seek to develop resilient, mentally tough athletes.

 

Any other qualities that you would add?

Jeff is the athletic director at Victory Baptist Academy. He is also the founder and administrator of TheAthleticDirectors.com.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *