• David Lang

Mental Toughness

“I never bother with kids who can’t take it. If they can’t handle the challenge, I find that out early, and we don’t recruit them.” – Geno Auriemma (Head Coach UConn Women’s Basketball, 11-time NCAA National Champion, 8-time Naismith College Coach of the Year, former Head Coach for the US Women’s National Basketball Team 2009-2016, and Hall of Fame Inductee)

The quote from Coach Auriemma may sound cold blooded or harsh but in the reality of today’s high stakes college athletics and professional sports, there is little time to teach a good athlete what might come naturally to great athletes. And, unfortunately, in youth sports there is little to no focus on Mental Skills Training, this is true even though most would agree sports are more than 50% mental, and some like Yogi Berra say sports are 80% mental. So, the question becomes: how can I help my athlete or team improve their Mental Skills and become tough enough to potentially be recruited by the likes of Coach Auriemma.

I’ll start by letting you know it is not through countless burpees or the endless running of ladders. From the book Game Changer by Dr. Fergus Connolly and Phil White, mental toughness can be cultivated by focusing on its core components: persistence, self-confidence, determination, self-efficacy, tolerance, and focus. For teams, trust between teammates is the primary indicator of a mentally tough team. Additionally, cultivating mental toughness in individuals and teams is best accomplished through situational, game-like experiences. In other words, helping a player develop the self-confidence and self-efficacy to “finish”, it would not be helpful having the athlete shooting at an empty goal or basket. Rather defenders and a goalie (if applicable) are necessary, as that reflects a game-like experience. Here are some examples you can use during team practice or at home:

Lopsided Drills:

Soccer, Basketball, or Hockey: You can either have 1 person playing defense against 2 people trying to score or 1 person looking to score against 2 defenders.

Football: An offensive lineman blocking two defensive linemen or one defensive lineman trying to get past two offensive linemen.

Baseball: Batter starting behind in the count 0-1 and progressing to 0-2 trying to get a hit or Pitcher starting 2-0 and progress to 3-0 and going for the strike out.

Passing Only Drills:

Soccer, Basketball or Hockey: Players may not dribble the ball or move the puck once a pass is received and must stay in one spot and must pass the ball/puck to a teammate before being able to move again with the goal of advancing and scoring.

Football: Have a defensive player rushing the QB with 3 options to pass to that are covered.

Practice Distraction:

A coach or parent can do things to distract their athlete like playing loud noises while shooting a free throw or pitching.

Ultimately, the idea is to increase the difficulty over time for athletes while in the safety of practice and where you can provide positive feedback on the spot. Additionally, by involving teammates in these exercises they can begin to develop the trust necessary to bounce back as a team.

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