Coaching Mental Toughness for Youth Sports – Part 1
If you asked almost any middle school, high school, collegiate and professional coach to name the one skill or character trait that is THE MOST important to the future success of an athlete, and most benefits the team that the athlete is on, many coaches (if not most) will tell you “the most valuable attribute a player can have is Mental Toughness.”
Having mental toughness does not guarantee a team a championship, but a lack of mental toughness IS guaranteed to cost a team a championship or an opportunity to compete for a championship. Mental toughness is arguably the one attribute that most often determines the outcome of games, particularly in the critical pressure-filled crucible of post-season play. Yet despite all of the discussion about how important mental toughness is in sports, mental toughness often means so many different things to so many different coaches and to so many different athletes. Some coaches and players believe mental toughness is all about how hard we compete and push ourselves, while others believe that mental toughness is more about how well we perform under pressure. Still others believe that mental toughness is all about how well we respond and bounce back from mistakes or adversity, such as a bad call or no call from a referee, an unlucky bounce, or how well we maintain our confidence when our opponent is playing very well and is making a big run with all of the game’s momentum on their side. All of these different ways of defining mental toughness are correct, but they do not bring us any closer to helping players simply understand what mental toughness is and what it isn’t, and they do not bring us any closer to answering arguably the most important question of all…how do we DEVELOP mental toughness in our players?”
When working with older players and older teams at the varsity high school level, collegiate and professional levels, I always define mental toughness and construct an improvement plan to develop mental toughness around “4 C’s” – meaning an athlete’s Composure, Concentration, Confidence & Commitment. A 5th C – Character, which in many ways is also connected to mental toughness, completes the full and essential mental makeup of the player.
However, for youth players, the meaning of these 4 C’s are not as well understood as they are by coaches and players at higher/more elite levels. When working with youth players, it is much easier and much more effective to define mental toughness in relation to key on-court/on-field and off-court/off-field BEHAVIORS. Key mental toughness behaviors are very easy to understand, simple to create a plan for, and simple to execute. In addition, behaviors can often be scored, which means that improvements can be measured and monitored.
A Smart Mental Toughness Plan for Youth Sports
The 12 key mental toughness behaviors that I will outline in part 1 and part 2 of this article will provide the youth coach and youth athlete with a SIMPLE and EFFECTIVE way to define toughness and put a foundational plan in place to improve toughness. A smart coach can create an easy plan by focusing on just the same smaller set of behaviors each and every day in practice for a number of days or a number of weeks. For example, a 6 week plan can be created by choosing the same 2 behaviors each day for the 1st week, before moving on to the next 2 behaviors. The plan can be extended or shortened using this same principle. For example, if a coach wanted to create a 6 day mental toughness improvement plan for the team, then he or she could have the team focus on just a different set of 2 key mental toughness behaviors each day for 6 days. For youth sports, I would strongly recommend focusing on the same 2 key mental toughness behaviors for a number of days (focusing for 5-7 days on the same 2 mental toughness behaviors before moving on to the next 2 would be ideal) to help ensure that the behaviors begin to form into consistent habits. Taking this plan to the next level, coaches can create a simple point system on an easy-to-read marker board or poster in practice, where a point is scored for an athlete when they exhibit one of the 2 mental toughness behaviors that are being emphasized that day. Then, at the end of that day or at the end of the week, the coach can give some fun rewards (like an energy bar or Gatorade) to the winner of each behavior category, an overall points winner for all of the categories, and even a team prize such as a trip to the local ice cream parlor for shakes, burgers or ice slurpees etc, if the cumulative scores of all of the individual points reaches a certain number.
Mental Toughness Success Keys
The list of the 12 key toughness behaviors is by no means exhaustive. Most experienced coaches could easily generate additional toughness behaviors with some thought and effort. However, remember that the goal when working with youth athletes from a cognitive and learning perspective is keep it simple and keep it fun! Less is often more when working with youth athletes because the amount that they actually LEARN is more important than the amount that they are exposed to. Focusing on just a maximum of 2-3 key behaviors at a time will help the youth athlete to absorb more, learn more and improve more. Further, all of the toughness success keys are 100% controllable by the player, meaning that each of the keys are based on either attitude or effort or a combination of both, versus success keys that are based on ability/high levels of skill or uncontrollable outcomes.
Creating toughness keys based on ability and outcomes have value at professional levels, and to a certain degree at collegiate and varsity scholastic levels, but for youth sports, the more controllable a task the more confidence and motivation the youth athlete will have in the pursuit of that task or goal. Before listing the behaviors, one final point should be made. It is often helpful to show what mental toughness IS and also what mental toughness IS NOT. While it can be important for youth athletes to understand the types of behaviors that are not encouraged or not accepted, a few coaches might choose to deduct a point from an athlete’s overall score when one of the undesirable behaviors occurs. I believe that when using a point tracking system for youth athletes, point deductions can often be a double-edged sword of motivation, because while I am a very strong believer in accountability and a strong believer that the undesirable behavior should be acknowledged and corrected, actual point deductions can be very demoralizing for the youth athlete. Research conclusively demonstrates that for motivation and successful learning outcomes for the youth athlete, the power and effectiveness of positive rewards for the good and desired behavior has greater and longer lasting effects than the negative punishments used in an attempt to avoid and discourage the undesired behavior.
The youth coach is encouraged to meet with his/her team before practice, and read to the team the key mental toughness behaviors (and the descriptions of the behaviors) that will be emphasized during that practice. The coach should hang a simple and easy to read poster with bright markers during practice that has the 2-3 key toughness behaviors being emphasized on the day as columns and all of the players names as rows, and keep a simple point scoring system during practice to make a big deal out of each player whenever a player demonstrates one of the toughness behaviors.
Part 1 of this series will focus on the first 6 Key Mental Toughness Behaviors, and Part 2 will outline the remaining 6 Key Mental Toughness Behaviors
The Key Mental Toughness Behaviors
# 1 EXCUSES
The Mentally Tough Player – RARELY MAKES EXCUSES
The mentally tough player rarely makes excuses for mistakes, for losing, for not playing well, for getting outplayed by an opponent, or when things do not go their way. Instead, the mentally tough player accepts responsibility for his or her role in the mistake and focuses on things that he/she can do better to make the situation and outcome better next time.
The Mentally Weak Player – OFTEN MAKES EXCUSES WHEN THINGS DO NOT GO HIS/HER WAY
# 2 WORK ETHIC
The Mentally Tough Player – HAS GREAT WORK ETHIC
The mentally tough player plays extremely hard in practice and carries that same high intensity into games. This type of high intensity and work ethic is given by the mentally tough player when the opponent is very talented and it is a ‘big game’ and it is also given when the opponent is less talented and the game is not viewed by others as a ‘big game’ or an ‘important game.’ The mentally tough player thinks that EVERY practice and game is important and deserves their best effort. This year’s NBA Finals feature the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, led by Lebron James and Stephen Curry respectively. James and Curry are both the best players on their teams and ALSO the hardest workers on their teams. Both Lebron James and Stephen Curry have GREAT work ethics in practice and in every game.
The Mentally Weak Player – HAS AN INCONSISTENT WORK ETHIC
# 3 COACHABILITY
The Mentally Tough Player – IS VERY COACHABLE
The mentally tough player keeps great eye contact with his/her coach when the coach is giving instruction. Mentally tough players rarely roll their eyes when they do not agree with their coach, nor do they pout or shrink into a shell of self-pity when the coach criticizes them. Instead the mentally tough player listens carefully to their coach, nods their head to show that they are listening and then works hard to try to do what the coach has asked EVEN WHEN THEY DO NOT COMPLETELY AGREE WITH THEIR COACH! Mentally tough players realize that the coach is only trying to make them better players when the coach gives instructions that involve criticism, and mentally tough players LOVE opportunities to learn and improve.
The Mentally Weak Player – OFTEN LETS PRIDE, STUBBORNESS OR SELFISHNESS GET IN THE WAY OF BEING COACHABLE
# 4 DIGGING DEEP
The Mentally Tough Player – DIGS DEEP
The mentally tough player knows how to ‘dig deep’ and find that extra effort when things get really tough, such as during conditional drills, during a hard practice, or at the end of a game when everyone is really tired.
The Mentally Weak Player – WILL SOMETIMES QUIT WHEN THINGS GET TOUGH & MAKES EXCUSES WHEN THEY DO QUIT
# 5 NEVER AFRAID TO FAIL, NEVER AFRAID OF ADVERSITY
The Mentally Tough Player – BELIEVES IN BOUNCING BACK & BELIEVES THAT FAILURE IS ONLY TEMPORARY
The mentally tough player believes that FAILURE is NEVER FATAL, and that failure is just a temporary frustration that must be quickly replaced with a new determination to PLAN TO DO BETTER, and to follow that plan TO BE BETTER. If a player misses a key shot, makes a key turn-over, or loses a big game, the very next day that same player plans (or asks his/her coach to help create a plan) to develop new practice habits to have a greater chance of success the next time that same player is in a similar situation. The mentally tough player is not afraid of failure and so is not afraid to try new things. Failure can temporarily hurt, but mentally tough players believe that failure is an opportunity to learn, grow and improve. Mentally tough players will use failure and adversity as an opportunity to once again prove to themselves and to everyone else just how tough they are by bouncing back quickly
The Mentally Weak Player – ALLOWS FAILURE TO AFFECT THEIR ABILITY TO KEEP TRYING
The mentally weak player allows failure to get them down and keep them down. The mentally weak player even allows failure to give them an excuse to stop trying, while blaming other things or other people for their decision to quit. Mentally weak players are afraid of failure and so they are afraid to try new things and afraid to do hard things. When mentally weak players experience failure, their excuses and frustration sometimes precede a downward spiral of self-pity.
# 6 REFEREES
The Mentally Tough Player – RESPECTS THE REFEREE’S/UMPS CALLS WITHOUT COMPLAINING
The mentally tough player accepts referee decisions, even calls they do not agree with, and they do so without rolling their eyes, acting surprised or showing their frustration. As soon as the referee makes a call, the player starts thinking about the next play, what will be important on the next play, and how to bring their ‘A’ game to the next play. The mentally tough player realizes that it is the coach’s job to question a call (whenever the coach thinks that it is necessary to question a call), and NEVER the player’s job to question a referee’s call.
The Mentally Weak Player – ONLY ACTS ‘RIGHT’ WHEN THEY THINK THE CALL IS ‘RIGHT’
The mentally weak player complains about referee calls and uses referee decisions as an excuse for poor play or when things are not going their way. The mentally weak player’s complaints often result in a loss of poise and focus, and give the opponents confidence by revealing to the opponent just how frustrated the complaining player is.
Stay tuned for your next Icebox Athlete newsletter to read Part 2 of Mental Toughness for Youth Sports and the remaining 6 Key Mental Toughness Behaviors!
About the author:
Spencer Wood Ph.D (ABD), M.S., C.S.C.S., P.E.S., Member A.A.S.P., is an internationally renowned speaker, author and trainer of athletes and coaches in the area of Championship Mental Skills & Toughness Training. A featured speaker at five NCAA Final Fours, and an on-site provider of Mental Skills & Toughness Training Workshops for over 100 championship university programs across the United States, and for professional teams in leagues such as the NBA, With the creation of The EDGE 4 part DVD MENTAL TOUGHNESS TRAINING SYSTEM, Spencer continues to use his unique blend of motivation and passion for athletic excellence to impact the lives and careers of 1000’s of athletes and coaches. For more information or to order a copy, visit www.iceboxathlete.com