Mental Toughness… What Is It? How Do You Teach It?

I was just asked yesterday to give some thought to the notion of mental toughness. That is, what is it and how do I define it? Beyond that, how do you develop it?

Here are some of my thoughts on how I have defined mental toughness to this point. Much of this is an accumulation of other people’s ideas melded with my own. I have “lectured” on mental toughness in our Point Guard College sessions over the years; and, I’ve continually sought out creative ways to “create it” or teach it to athletes. So, the topic resonates with me.

I’m sharing this with everyone because I’m looking for some feedback. What do you think? What is mental toughness to you? And, of course, how do YOU develop this quality in an athlete.

What Is Mental Toughness?

  • Mental toughness is how you think about yourself and your game. More so, it’s what you think about your game – especially under pressure! (I especially love this thought which is inspired by Dena Evans.)
  • It’s a resiliency in thought and action
  • It’s the ability to handle difficult challenges, circumstances and people that come your way (on and off the court) with poise (an inner calm)
  • It’s the ability to “bounce back” (after the inevitable lows of poor performance) and remain mentally even-keeled … being unflappable
    • Emotional stability … a resistance to detracting thoughts
  • It’s the ability to push through the mental and physical “walls” that most average players succumb to; it’s also reflected in a physical toughness or higher pain threshold (or tolerance)
  • It’s the ability to narrow focus and seamlessly move from broad-narrow and external-internal ranges in one’s attentiveness; it’s also possessing the ability to quickly block out the extraneous – either visual, auditory or mental – in a situation
  • It’s exemplified by an inner arrogance … an unshakeable belief in self
    • A willingness to want to be “in the fire”; even to seek it out
  • It’s, as Steve Nash says, being comfortable with being uncomfortable
  • It’s about a consistency of intensity, concentration, effort & energy
  • It’s evidenced by an unrelenting (inner) drive and competitiveness
  • It’s an enduring optimism and an ownership in the outcome of a situation

Additionally, I (like to) believe, as my good friend Mano Watsa says, that people with mental toughness are noble-minded.

(Truth is, that that is not always the case. I’ve come across some “tough” people; that is, men and women, alike, who could stare down the gun of a barrel and still hit the bulls-eye with a grenade going off 30-feet behind them. But, they just weren’t good people.)

At PGC we call it being “unruffleable.” A player with mental toughness doesn’t ‘major in the minors’ … that is, they (consciously or subconsciously) understand the balance between a focus on ‘petty problems’ vs. ‘noble thoughts’. They learn to take conditions without complaint. They are the type of player who can overcome little things that ruffle the feathers of average people.

They’ve learned to, or innately, “stand porter at the door of thought,” as my mother likes to say. They have a wonderfully selective memory, not allowing past failures to linger in thought; instead, they revel in and hold onto past successes.

As it relates to how to develop it, there are many successful cases of coaches/teachers developing MT in their athletes. Having worked with NBA, WNBA and NHL athletes, in my opinion, there are some (i.e. The Talented Tenth) for whom mental toughness is innate (in their nature) and has probably been honed as a result of their life’s experiences (nurture). Often those experiences come early in their childhood and outside of basketball (or sport).

Pete Carril says something to the effect that ‘toughness is directly correlated to one’s proximity to the railroad tracks.’ I don’t think he’s far off the mark there. Perhaps, in today’s vernacular, the railroad tracks could be substituted for “hood or ghetto,” “the mine,” etc.

Of course, there are exceptions to Carril’s rule. There are countless white-collar kids who grow up to possess qualities of mental toughness. That’s why I think it’s both politically correct AND more accurate to say that mental toughness is correlated to one’s ability to overcome adversity.

Whatever you want to call it, some kids just have it. They’re more mentally tough than their peers. And, it’s easy to ID these athletes.

I do believe, though, that it also can be a learned skill. Like speed, athleticism, and intelligence, each person has a threshold within which they operate.

Here’s how I’ve tried to teach it…

How Do You Develop Mental Toughness?

  • Create a process driven environment that establishes (and holds athletes/coaches accountable for on-court and off-court) performance standards; defines work ethic and a high-performance approach to training; while also striving to affect change in what a player does away from their training (life skills and decision making)
  • Focus on targeted, but progressive loading of the athletes through the use of physical, mental and socio-emotional challenges; some of these are basketball specific while others come in the form of discovery activities
  • Engender a mentality of achievement … foster a mentality as we say at our Centre for Performance of “expect(ing) to do more than your share” (in your training, in your team, in life)
  • Develop self-leadership through an “ownership mentality vs. victim mentality” (responsibility vs. blame)
    • Take responsibility for every emotion, word and action; in every circumstance … in other words, you may not control every circumstance, but you control your approach and response
    • Eliminate excuses and complaints (obvious signs of a victim mentality) … promote solution finders and results
  • Encourage independent, critical thinking … the ability to self-assess, have autonomy in training and a willingness to accept criticism – constructive or otherwise
  • Discovery- or games-approach activities that strengthen composure, concentration, confidence and commitment

Physical & Skill-Based Training:

  • Develop an intensity to train rigorously
  • Decision training
  • Create games/drills/challenges that ‘overload’ the athletes; in fact, you must have times where they’re set up to fail – purposefully as a teaching/learning tool

(The training environment should be “tougher” than games, but that does not necessarily mean running 30 suicides back-to-back – as I once had to do! There are physical, mental and emotional/social ways to overload athletes… be aware of which you are using and be strategic about when.)

Life Skills (socio-emotional):

  • Develop problem-solving skills – both on and off the court – through icebreakers, team builders, discovery-approach activities, and in-class “lectures”
  • Develop character and values, commitment, passion
  • Decision training
  • Assign readings (i.e. motivational, informative, aspirational, etc)

Mental Training:

  • Relaxation strategies and psychological skills are introduced to help the athlete cope with any emotional and psychological stresses that result from heavy training, school, and home situations
  • Coping mechanisms and distraction control activities; that is, facilitating the integration of a precise routine of thoughts and actions to maximize concentration and confidence; equipping them with the skills to get into what James Leohr calls an ideal performance state

What do you think? How do you define and develop mental toughness in your athletes?

Coach creatively.


Learn from the past. Prepare for the future. Play in the present.