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Advanced Off-Court Training: A Mental Toughness Inventory

  • Author:
    Spencer Wood
  • Date:
    Feb 10, 2016

Is our definition of ‘Toughness’ enough for a Championship Season?

In the hit movie “Million Dollar Baby” boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (played brilliantly by Clint Eastwood) is approached by Maggie Fitzgerald, an overachieving 32-year-old waitress from Missouri (played equally well by Hilary Swank) who travels all the way to Los Angeles to ask Frankie to train her. Frankie responds that he “does not train girls,” to which Maggie responds “…people say I’m pretty tough.” Frankie responds with a blend of truth and sarcasm “Girlie, tough ain’t enough!” Frankie Dunn’s response was short and a little condescending to a young woman with tremendous heart, ambition, and vision to lift herself out of her self-described “trailer trash misery” that had defined her upbringing and life to date. As condescending as Frankie’s answer was, Frankie’s answer was also truthful.

The Mentally Tough Player

Few Hollywood sports movies actually nail the psychology and mindset of real-life sports, but this particular movie scene nails it. Toughness, or at least the traditional view of “toughness,” i.e., the ability to push through exhaustion and fatigue, is simply not enough to guarantee success in any sport. To be sure, this aspect of mental toughness – perseverance – is an admirable trait to have. However, perseverance is just one contributing component of sport success and just one aspect of mental toughness. Many of us have heard of, or have experience with individual athletes and teams who were all heart in practice, had great attitude and effort, and pushed themselves very hard, only to fall flat in actual competition. Great intensity does not always translate to great execution in competition, particularly in those key pressure situations and games that count the most and often determine the outcome of a season. Aggression must be balanced with poise, and intensity must be balanced with the focus necessary for great decision-making. This is where the other key components of mental toughness take center stage.

Toughness is not just about our ability to push ourselves extremely hard and demonstrate great perseverance; it is also about our ability to be at our best when it counts the most. This much more realistic view of what it truly means to be tough and what it truly takes to dominate at a high level in the real-world athletic arena, will always involve so many more skills than just the ability to physically push through the proverbial brick ‘wall.’ A more direct approach takes us directly to the source – applying actual skills and drills that directly improve our composure, concentration, confidence and commitment – the 4C’s of toughness and peak performance.

Unfortunately, so many athletes and coaches approach the development of these critical 4 C’s with the mantra “we’ll just continue to physically practice the play or skill ‘till we improve the skill and this should make the skill automatic under pressure.” And while there is a small element of truth to this strategy, continuously practicing a skill in a ‘practice’ environment, i.e., outside of the intense heat of a championship tournament, only ensures greater proficiency of that skill in that ‘practice’ environment and only some limited improvements in ‘pressure’ situations.

The following toughness inventory provides a much smarter approach to analyzing a team or individual athlete’s true toughness level. Each of the key questions encourages an athlete or coach to score the answer to each key toughness category on a scale of 1-10 (1 = very poor, 10 = perfect). Any effective plan to improve the toughness of a player or the toughness of a team must first involve knowing a score or level connected to key toughness categories. Only then is it possible for that athlete, coach or team to effectively measure and monitor improvements. This exercise is an important first step to create a true mental toughness plan of action.

The Mental Toughness Categories (grade each category on a scale of 1-10)

1. Ability to handle adversity + mistakes

2. Ability to compete against “equal or better” competition

3. Ability to compete against “weaker” competition (some players/teams play “down” to the level of their opponents)

4. Ability to push through fatigue and positive pain in practice

5.Ability to push through fatigue and positive pain in competition

6. Poise: a) In Practice and b) In Competition

7. Dedication to skills outside of team practice

8.  Accepting responsibility for actions vs. blaming others

9. Overall Work ethic

10. Coachability

11. Intensity:  a) In Practice and b) In Competition

12.  Confidence: a) In Practice and b) In Competition


It is a great idea for the athlete and coach to independently score each category, and then compare scores. This way, athletes begin to get a more realistic view of their toughness by comparing their own toughness scores with those scores provided by their coach. Once the scores have been compiled, the first part of the plan is in place. Now the coach and athlete have the task of improving their scores in key categories. Be on the lookout for the next series of articles by Dr. Spencer Wood on Mental Toughness at USA Basketball, which will discuss smart ways to make improvements in many of the key toughness categories.


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