There are a lot of definitions of mental toughness out there. The one I prefer is simple, and comes from Jack Clark, the Rugby coach at Cal-Berkeley. Mental toughness is “the ability to move on to the next most important thing.”
However you define it, mental toughness is about handling everything that is happening around you – good or bad – and still being able to perform. It’s overcoming adversity. It’s handling failure. Handling success. Fighting through fatigue. Executing under pressure. Staying focused. Handling the emotions that come with intense competition. Communicating properly in an intense environment. You can put 1,000 different things under the umbrella of mental toughness. But I don’t think anyone would dispute one thing – it’s important to be successful.
However you describe or define mental toughness for your team – and you should definitely define it – think about whether you exhibit those characteristics as a coach. I see plenty of coaches who think mental toughness is important. But when I look at the coach’s behavior, it doesn’t look like they are exhibiting the characteristics of mental toughness.
How do you react to a bad call, a turnover, or poor execution as a coach? Do you exhibit the behavior you want out of your players when they make a mistake? I see a lot of coaches with demonstrative emotional reactions to a bad play who then preach to their team about bad body language. If you are going to be the body language police, start with your own behavior.
How do you communicate when things aren’t going well? Are you calm and composed, or are you emotional? Think about how you want your players to communicate in the heat of the action. So many coaches jump all over players for saying the wrong thing or using the wrong tone when things aren’t going their way. But that isn’t the behavior they see from the head coach.
I see plenty of coaches who spend the entire huddle during a time out screaming at their team, or a specific player, about the mistakes they just made. Yet their message in practice is “move on to the next play.” You can’t expect your team to be mentally tough and move on to the next play when you don’t do it as the coach.
Mentally tough players don’t make excuses. They take ownership and do not complain about the stuff they can’t control. But that isn’t always what you see from the coach. We harp on the bad calls in big spots. We say stuff like “we just have to make a shot.” We use the phrase, “This isn’t why we lost, but…” and then give an excuse as to why we lost. Coaches make plenty of excuses, because it’s a way of self-preservation. When you do, expect your players to do the same.
Pick the most important elements for you and your team that define mental toughness. Then take a look at your own behavior as a coach. The “do as I say, not as I do” approach doesn’t work. Rationalizing bad behavior by saying stuff like “I’m just fighting for you guys” and “I’m only trying to get the most out of you,” doesn’t work either. The players can see right through it.
If you want a mentally tough team, exhibit those behaviors as a coach. If you can’t handle it, don’t be surprised when your players can’t either.