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Sue Phillips

Coaches Network: How Do You Develop Mental Toughness?

  • Date:
    Dec 13, 2017

You may remember when posted the four-part series about how to develop mental toughness in youth basketball players.

To supplement the expertise provided in that series, we decided to include some thoughts from the USA Basketball Coaches Network. Our question to the Coaches Network:

How do you help players build and improve mental toughness?


Sue Phillips, head coach, Archbishop Mitty High School (Calif.)

We believe that mental toughness is the ability to focus through fatigue or adversity. At every practice, we incorporate activities and/or challenges that foster mental toughness. Conditioning benchmarks, drills with standards of excellence, and comfort with chaos are some of the ways in which we build mentally tough players.

A timed mile is a conditioning benchmark that forces each player to “gut check” before he/she crosses the finish line. We set individual goal times based on position, ability, and stature. Yes, a timed mile is a different energy system generally required for basketball players, but we believe in the positive tradeoff of developing mental toughness.

Drills with standards of excellence will also cultivate mental toughness. Take any one of your favorite team full-court shooting drills, and do it for time and efficiency (certain amount of makes). To further elevate the mental toughness meter, do the drills for a carrot or consequence. A carrot might be that the next rebounding drill is your team’s choice, and the consequence might be a 30-second plank for the entire team.

Comfort with chaos is yet another way to build mentally tough players. For example, having your team play with an under-inflated ball or shoot pressure free throws with obnoxious distractions will further build both focus and mental resolve. Another chaos avenue is to create unfavorable circumstances during your 5-on-5 situations, like dimming the lights or inconsistently officiating your team’s play. We often tell our players, “You need to win by 10 to win by one on the road.” Exposing your team to adverse circumstances during scrimmage situations is one of the best ways to be successful on the road.

If developing mentally tough players is your objective, then simply praise and reward your team for acts of mental toughness. Coaches: You are what you emphasize.


Brian Robinson, head coach, Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School (N.C.)

Mentally tough players are the best kids to coach just because there is a refusal inside of them to accept anything but the best. They want the best effort from themselves, their teammates, and their coaches.

Not every player has that built-in quality but there are things that can be done to help each player gain bits and pieces of that during the season.

Some of that development begins in practice. Put the players in tough but manageable drills where their will is going to be tested. Maybe that drill is a box-out drill, a defending screens drill or a one-on-one drill. Identify who competes and who doesn't. The ones that don't compete need to be questioned on the spot about why they give in when they can be so much better. They may not be as talented, but effort and energy is something that really doesn't require talent. Demand that they give themselves and the team a chance to be great by giving a better effort and if that is emphasized every singe part of practice for every single day, the player who was lacking in that area eventually begins to come around, especially if their playing time and the team's success depends on it.

Then, if you schedule tough teams that will challenge them early on in the season, they can put the practice into play. They now have the whole season to figure why they maybe gave in to a team they could've beaten and how not to let it happen again.  Non-conference games against good opponents can do that for your players and prepare them to stay mentally sharp when the "money time" comes -- the playoffs.

It's definitely not easy, but it's fun each year to try to build a team that has that type of mental capacity. If it is achieved, it can go a long way to success at the end of a season.


Don Showalter, head coach, Iowa City High School (Iowa)

Mental toughness is an attribute that coaches can work on daily in practice but it seems like some players just have that mental toughness -- what it takes to be "mentally tough" in game situations. One thing that creates mental toughness is the teamwork attitude and the fact that players are playing for each other and not just themselves. This creates a mindset of not letting your team down and I think makes the player tougher mentally.

The coach must put the players in situations that are out of their "comfort zone" during practice so the mental toughness comes to the surface. Situations like some early-morning practice sessions can get players out of their comfort zone.  Making practice as competitive as possible also will help with the mental toughness aspect. Keeping score and making sure the players perform under pressure of the clock will help players become more mentally tough.

CALLING ALL COACHES: How do you help develop mental toughness in your players? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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