Discover more from 3 Points by Brian Sullivan
What is Mental Toughness?
Answers from NCAA coaches and how you can build yours
I don’t love the term mental toughness. Mostly because of the ambiguity around it. It’s a phrase that is used so often, but collectively, I’m not really sure we know what it means. If you ask ten people to define it, I suspect you’d get ten different answers. I’ve seen leaders demand it, lament the lack of it, even praise it, but I wonder if they’ve defined and outlined what exactly mental toughness is. How can we as coaches, or our teams, become more mentally tough if it isn’t clearly defined?
So in this week’s 3 Point’s, I’ll discuss mental toughness, how coaches define it, and how you, as a coach, can build yours.
1. Let’s start by defining it, the definition I am choosing to share is from Team Denmark. They define mental toughness (they call it mental strength) as:
“The ability to act in a way that is consistent with your values and game plan, even when you are under pressure and face difficult thoughts and emotions”
I like this definition because it works for all performers, and as we know, coaches are performers too. The study we’ll be looking at defined coaches performance as managing emotions and consistently modeling productive responses to stress and challenges.
2. So what do NCAA Division 1 coaches think it means to be a mentally tough coach in Division 1 sports today? A study done by a team of researchers from Miami University sought out to answer that exact question.
They found 3 major themes:
Emotional regulation & endurance
Participants described a mentally tough coach with words like poised, mature, self-controlled, thick-skinned, having endurance, and intense/disciplined. In other words, to be a mentally tough DI coach today, they thought that one had to be able to regulate and moderate her/his emotions, in particular, the expression or public display of the wide range of emotions.
Philosophy/way of thinking
I like to think of these as values. Participants stated that being a mentally tough DI coach also meant having a particular philosophy, mindset or way of thinking about collegiate sport and their role as coaches. For these coaches, ways of thinking central to mental toughness included the 6 sub-themes of be consistent, set high standards, commitment to student-athlete development, growth mindset, genuineness, and optimally demanding.
In discussing the behaviors of being mentally tough as a coach today at a DI school, specifically, one coach explained that, “[coaches] are constantly being evaluated and are under a microscope so that coaches now need to show their student athletes that they have control, they have poise, that external factors are not affecting them, that they are focused, and that they model focus and poise for the student-athletes because those student-athletes are under enormous pressure also.” Another coach explained, “How you handle that [mistake] with your body language, how you interact with players is crucial because they are looking at you, at how you stand, and how you are with a bad referee call.”
3. So how do we act (behavior) in a way that is consistent with your values and game plan (philosophy), even when you are under pressure and face difficult thoughts and emotions (emotional regulation)?
The authors of the study suggested, “coaches should plan and mentally rehearse strategies they can use in situations that tend to elicit emotional responses, such as bad calls by referees or poor play by their athletes”.
Here is a helpful framework and exercise to do just that, the values compass2 (also created by Henriksen from team Denmark). What I like about the values compass is that it shows we have a choice. Whether it be a bad call, a bad play, or tough finish before the handshake line - we get to choose if we want to act in accordance to our values, or our current emotions. I, as well as Team Denmark, suggest the tough thing to do would be to act in accordance to your values.
I used an example of responding to officiating to help understand the framework. We all have our values and/or game plan (1), our choice comes after a difficult situation occurs (2) and the thoughts and feelings that arise from it (3). We can either choose what feels good based on our emotions (4-6) or what aligns with our values and game plan (7).