“If you want a team that is tough, get tough players.” – Jeff Van Gundy

I recently had this conversation with a couple of local high school coaches. How do you make your team tougher?

Get Tough Kids

Coach Van Gundy said it best – you want a tough team, get tough players. Maybe not that easy at the high school level. But if you really want a tough team, then you have to value toughness every step of the way. With whom you take on the team, who you decide to start, who gets the playing time, etc. Value toughness every step of the way.

Define It As Behavior

If it’s a value for you, you have to define it for your team in behavioral terms. Yelling at your team “we need to be a lot tougher!” doesn’t make your team any tougher. They have to know what it is you mean, and they have to understand it as behavior. What does toughness mean to you? The kid who turns the ball over, but sprints back to get a deflection and save an easy basket in transition is tough. The guard who gets stuck in the spot on a big and works his ass off to get around in front and challenge any pass inside is tough. The guy who sprints in for an offensive rebound from the perimeter and gets his hand on the ball to keep it alive is tough. Any player who competes with 100% effort is tough.

However you define toughness, show your team the behaviors that fit that definition.

Get Physical

It’s hard to have a physically tough team that doesn’t play physically tough in practice. It seems like a lot of coaches are more concerned with somebody getting hurt than they are with getting tougher. I don’t want to get anyone hurt either. But I don’t see a way to prepare for the toughness needed to win games without battling it out in practice. You can control the level of physicality (and how long you go) in practice. I’m not saying have brawls. But banging bodies is part of the game, and if you want to be tougher you have to get used to it. Physical drills help breed toughness.

Run. A Lot.

Conditioning is one of the more underrated elements of mental and physical toughness. My teams always ran a lot to get in great shape. Get your team into great shape and they’ll feel a level of toughness that can come through in any situation. It’s a mindset that tough teams have. Start some drills with a sprint or two and then get your team right into what you are doing. Force them to get stops late in practice when they are dead tired. A team that is in great shape and knows it will be tough as nails.

Tough Situations

Put your team in tough situations and make them come through. When you have an early morning practice, demand the same level of intensity and effort. When you played the night before and have another game to prepare for, expect the same approach. If it’s your fourth or fifth straight day of practice in the pre-season, don’t make any excuses for them.

Give them the rest they need when they need it, of course. But don’t always take the easy way out. Create tough situations in practice (after running some sprints) and demand their best. Tough teams are borne out of coming through in tough situations.

Indifferent to Injuries

This might sound a little harsh, but don’t make a big deal out of injuries. In fact, move past them as quickly as you can. Obviously you want to make sure your players are safe and take care of them if they are hurt. But when the trainer gets involved and everything is okay, keep it moving. If it a kid goes down with a turned ankle and is limping a bit, get the trainer on it and move forward. You don’t have to stop practice and have everyone get a drink until you find out the extent of the injury. If you are out of the drill, see the trainer and he or she will take care of it. But practice is moving on. For the guys that are milking things a bit and just need a break, they’ll start to realize that the team is moving forward without them.

You can develop a mentality with your team that injuries are going to happen, and the trainer is the one who takes care of them. But the team has to continue to get better. No one who is tough is going to want to spend any time with the trainer while practice is taking place. If you get past the injuries quickly, your team will too.

Reward It

If you say you want a tough team, then you have to reward toughness. Celebrate the tough plays as much as possible. Stop practice and make sure they know how important it is to you. Show it on film and praise it.

If toughness matters, those tough kids need to play. Don’t threaten to play the tough kids if your starters don’t pick it up. Don’t underestimate the value of having a tough kid who’s not as talented in your line up. If you really value toughness, the best way to show it to your team is to reward it. The test of how you value toughness is how much playing time you will give to it.

Model It

Whether it’s work ethic, consistency, showing up early, a great effort every day – however you define toughness, they need to see it from you. Make sure you model the behavior. If staying after practice and getting work in even when you are tired is a sign of toughness for you, then you should be there with them. If giving a consistent effort every day is a tough behavior, you have to make sure you give that effort. You might not be able to dive on the floor for loose balls (please, don’t try it), but your team will definitely see whether you are tough or not, based on your standards. If you aren’t tough your team won’t be either.

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