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How to Develop Mental Toughness on the Court

  • Author:
    By Alan Stein, CCS, CSCS,
  • Date:
    Aug 29, 2011

A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to meet Graham Betchart, a brilliant performance coach who specializes in mental skills training for athletes.

After numerous phone conversations and email exchanges we finally connected in person at a Big East college basketball game.

I have always been fascinated by the role the mind plays in achieving success on the basketball court, and have spent a ton of time studying (and improving) that aspect of my own coaching arsenal.

Depending on who you ask, most agree that basketball is around 75 percent mental (Bob Knight was even quoted as saying the "mental is to the physical as 4 is to 1"). Yet most players readily admit they don't spend time working on mental training. So at best, they spend 100 percent of their time and effort focused on the remaining 25 percent.

If you want an edge, you have to train your mind and body.

Mental Toughness

People define "mental toughness" in a variety of ways, and there is usually some truth to most of those definitions.

Part of mental toughness is learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

Another part of mental toughness is the ability to focus on what you can control and stay in the moment (also known as "Playing Present").

One of the biggest roadblocks to maximum performance for both players and coaches is falling in the trap of focusing on (and worrying about) things that are out of their control.

You are 100 percent in control of:

  • Focus
  • Attitude
  • Body Language
  • Effort
  • Thoughts
  • Communication

You have zero control of the refs, the fans, or your opponent. And contrary to most people's understanding, you don't have full control over making a shot or winning a game! You can do a series of things that strongly increase your chances of making a shot or winning the game, but you don't have complete control of it. If you did, every shot would go in and you would win every game!

The key to effectively playing present is to focus on the 'next play.' Not the one that just happened--it's over. Not the one that may happen later, but the play right in front of you. You must learn how to focus on the task at hand and execute that to the best of your ability. Then do that for the next play. And the next play. And the play after that. One play at a time.

When you get back on defense, that stop is the most important stop of the entire game. Why? Because it is the ONLY one you can directly affect. It's kind of like the old coaching mantra "the next game on our schedule is the most important game of the year." There is a ton of wisdom behind that quote.

Same holds true for shooting. The next shot is the only one that matters because it is the only shot you can affect. That is what makes Michael Jordan so phenomenal. Although it rarely happens, if MJ misses his first 10 shots... he doesn't let it affect his 11th shot. The 'next shot is going in' mentality is why he was such a potent offensive player. He always thinks, "My next shot is good."

Focus on the Process

A key component of playing present is being able to focus on the process, not the result. For instance, don't worry about whether or not you make the shot. Instead, focus on the steps needed to greatly increase your chances of making the shot:

  • Being on balance
  • Having good footwork
  • Staying square to the rim
  • Keeping your eyes on the rim
  • Executing your shot technique
  • Holding your follow through

Focus on these things because they are things you have complete control over. You control whether or not you are on balance, have good footwork, are square to the rim, etc. If you focus on these things, more times than not, you'll make the shot. But if you only worry with the outcome (making the shot) instead of the process (the steps above), you will not be a very good shooter.

You need to be so into the moment ('Play Present')... that on an offensive possession you are thinking something to the effect of, 'cut hard to an open space, catch the ball, square up, survey my options, and make the right play.' Now of course all of this needs to happen quickly, in real time. You can't be out on the court in La-La-Land day dreaming! In fact, it is the opposite. When you 'Play Present', you are so dialed in you have razor-sharp focus.

Creating this awareness is what separates an NBA superstar from other talented players. He always gets back to the process and doesn't worry with the outcome. Don't be a sucker for the results! Focus on perfecting the process and the results will follow.

John Wooden was famous for NEVER talking about winning. All he talked about was the characteristics needed to be successful. In his case, the winning (obviously) took care of itself.

Just remember, the next step is always the most important step... focus on each and every possession. Play present. Coach Betchart also calls this concept W.I.N. -- 'What's Important Now?' The only thing that should be important now is the play that is right in front of you; the next play.

Have you ever taken a toy away from a 1-year old? They cry. Then you give it right back to them. They stop. They don't dwell on the fact that you took it, they are dialed into the fact they have it back.

Now as a parent, and as a coach, it is my job to keep them 'Playing Present.' Keep them focused on what they can control. Keep them focused on the process.

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