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How to Train Mental Toughness

“I never bother with kids who can’t take it. If they can’t handle the challenge, I find that out early, and we don’t recruit them.” – Geno Auriemma (Head Coach UConn Women’s Basketball, 11-time NCAA National Champion, 8-time Naismith College Coach of the Year, former Head Coach for the US Women’s National Basketball Team 2009-2016, and Hall of Fame Inductee)

The quote from Coach Auriemma may sound harsh, but in the reality of today’s high stakes college athletics and professional sports, there is little time to teach a good athlete what might come naturally to great athletes. Unfortunately in youth sports, there is often a lack of focus on mental skills training, even though most would agree sports are more than 50% mental. Some great sports figures, like Yogi Berra, say sports are up to 80% mental. So, the question becomes: how can I help my athlete or team improve their mental skills and become tough enough to potentially be recruited by the likes of Coach Auriemma?

In the book Game Changer, Dr. Fergus Connolly and Phil White state that mental toughness can be cultivated by focusing on its core components: persistence, self-confidence, determination, self-efficacy, tolerance, and focus. For teams, trust between teammates is the primary indicator of a mentally tough team. Cultivating mental toughness in individuals and teams is best accomplished through situational, game-like experiences. For example, in order to help a player develop the self-confidence and self-efficacy to "finish" or "follow-through" a shot, it would be more beneficial to incorporate defenders or a goalkeeper rather than have the athlete shoot on an empty basket or net. This scenario best reflects a game-like situation. Here are some examples of drills you can use during team practice or at home to sharpen mental toughness:

Lopsided Drills

Soccer, Basketball, or Hockey

  • 2v1 Drill: Two athletes attempt to score against one defender
  • 1v2 Drill: One athlete attempts to score against two defenders

Football

  • One offensive lineman attempts to block two defensive linemen
  • One defensive lineman attempts to get past two offensive linemen

Baseball

  • A batter starts behind in the count 0-1 and attempts to progress to 0-2 trying to get a hit
  • A pitcher starts at 2-0 and attempts to progress to 3-0 for the strikeout

Passing Only Drills:

Soccer, Basketball, or Hockey

Once a pass is received, players may not dribble the ball or move the puck and must stay in one spot. In order to advance, players must pass the ball/puck to a teammate before being able to move again.

Football

Have a defensive player rush the quarterback with three defended passing options.

Practice Distraction

A coach or parent attempts to distract their athlete while they attempt to shoot or pitch.

Ultimately, the idea is to increase the drill difficulty over time while athletes are still in the safety of practice and they can receive feedback on the spot. Involving teammates in these exercises as well can help to develop the trust necessary to create a mentally tough team all around.