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Dawn Staley

The Mentally Tough Player (Part 1)

  • Author:
    Spencer Wood
  • Date:
    Dec 5, 2016

If you asked almost any middle school, high school, collegiate and professional coach to name the one basketball skill or character trait that is THE MOST important to the future success of a player, and most benefits the team that the player 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 the game of basketball, 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 the “4 C’s” – meaning an athlete’s Composure, Concentration, Confidence and 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 of basketball.  When working with youth players, it is much easier and much more effective to define mental toughness in relation to key on-court and off-court 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 Basketball

The 15 key mental toughness behaviors that I will outline in parts 1-4 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 5 week plan can be created by choosing the same 3 behaviors each day for the 1st week, before moving on to the next 3 behaviors. 

The plan can be extended or shortened using this same principle.  For example, if a coach wanted to create a 5 day mental toughness improvement plan for the team, then he or she could have the team focus on just a different set of 3 key mental toughness behaviors each day for 5 days.  For youth basketball, I would strongly recommend focusing on the same 3 key mental toughness behaviors for a number of days (focusing for 5-7 days on the same 3 mental toughness behaviors before moving on to the next 3 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 3 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.  Below, you will find the first 3 of the 15 key Mental Toughness Behaviors that we will be using.

Mental Toughness Behavior # 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. 


# 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.


# 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.


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