Thursday, February 16, 2012

Developing a Mentally Tough Athlete




The amount of work that an athlete puts in not only directly relates to how strong and conditioned they will be for their respective sport, but also to how mentally tough they will be. Countless hours of hard training in the gym will show an athlete the success they can have by setting long and short term goals which require focus and dedication to accomplish.

Mental toughness is doing whatever is necessary to get the job done, including handling the demands of a tough workout and withstanding pain. If an athlete knows they have fought through a painstaking training session, this success will create the self-belief that they can fight through the physical pain in the fourth quarter or third period.

In Mind Gym (2001), Gary Mack has listed seven components of mental toughness: competitiveness, confidence, control, committed, composure, courage, and consistency. Many of these can be integrated by the strength & conditioning coach when training their athletes.

Strength & conditioning coaches should look for ways of integrating these seven components into the training regimes of their athletes with the purpose of further preparing them for the mental rigors of their respective sport.

Competitiveness can be enhanced by having the athlete train alongside an athlete of similar athletic ability. By adding competition to the mix, you are developing the athlete’s coping skills, perseverance, and exposing them to their ‘next gear’ by increasing their effort expenditure. Competition can be created by training in groups and by enforcing a benchmark performance goal that they must meet.

Confidence that one can withstand the physical pain associated with sports is possibly of utmost importance. By putting an athlete through an intense training session, you are simply enhancing their mental self-concept. This is an unshakeable belief that they possess unique qualities and abilities that make them better than their opponents (Crust, 2007). Search Prowler challenges on YouTube for some great ideas to create intense pain!

Commitment is developed by putting in hours of hard training. By setting a goal in the off-season and putting in the time and effort to accomplish these goals, the athlete will develop a work ethic and learn of the sacrifice necessary to accomplish their hopes and dreams. This translates directly into how they will approach goal setting in their sport. Other than being in top physical shape for training camp, the gruelling process of dedicated off-season training will have the athlete confident that they are prepared, and aware of the commitment and dedication required for success. If an athlete is committed to completing tough off-season goals, they are more likely to have the courage required to become great (think Kobe Bryant).



An athlete with courage is an athlete who is willing to take a risk without fear of failure. Many athletes make it to the elite level, however, they don’t have the courage to take their game to the next level (think Vince Carter). They are content with what they’ve achieved or are afraid of the potentially gruelling process of becoming great. An athlete without courage will not take off-season training seriously, put in the optional workouts, or commit themselves to a strict diet, for example. “It takes courage to grow up and reach your full potential” – Paul Stoltz. The role of the strength & conditioning coach is to find a way to spark motivation within the athlete to become as passionate about the field as you are. Ensure they see results in some facet of their physical performance that can be directly translated to their performance in their respective sport. If the athlete sees themselves making strides in their performance as a result of putting in the work to improve their physical capabilities, they will have less fear of failure and will be driven for greater results.

Composure is having the ability to handle pressure and deal with adversity. Composure is required when experiencing high levels of pressure, physical pain, falling behind in competition, and experiencing poor playing conditions. These factors can easily be integrated into a training session. If training in a team setting, tell your athletes that if they miss a free throw, the entire team is running 10 more sprints. On top of this, have the athlete shoot the free throw immediately after having already ran 10 sprints. As Kobe Bryant is quoted as saying: “ Everything negative – pressure, challenges, is all an opportunity for me to rise.”

Finally, consistency of performance can be developed by way of tough training sessions. If an athlete can put in the same effort each and every training session – even when not feeling the greatest – this is likely to translate similarly to the consistency of performance in their sport. Often in sports, consistency is the ability to do the 1%’ers every game - These are the hustle plays that require effort and don’t always show up in the box score (rebounding, diving for loose balls etc.). In strength & conditioning, this is the ability to focus on technique and continually perform the small details that will not instantly increase a deadlift, for example, from 300lbs to 400lbs, but over time will increase their strength gains little by little. As an example, are you maintaining a stable thoracic spine by envisioning yourself bending the bar inwards with an iron grip at the top? Are you ensuring proper breathing patterns into the diaphragm, throughout the lift? Ensure that adherence to these cues (and others) does not dissolve as fatigue sets in.

Hopefully this article has increased your perception of the important role you may play in developing mental toughness in your athletes. Simple additions can be made to your training sessions to prepare your athlete’s not only physically, but mentally as well.

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