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A Culture of Mental Toughness

A Culture of Mental Toughness
Brett Klika C.S.C.S.

“Mental toughness!!” the overweight, out of shape, red faced, coach screamed as his team did their umpteenth set of “gassers” at a 10k pace.  He nodded and smirked knowingly at his coaching staff who was fervently echoing his sentiments.   They had succeeded that day.  The athletes were doing what the coaching staff told them to do to avoid punishment.  What mental warriors!

The term “mental toughness” as it is used in our current athletic model irks me.  This terribly misinterpreted but popular coaching vernacular is apparently defined as “complying by the coach’s demands under his/her supervision as an alternative to further punishment”.   How does that make you mentally tough?  If I don’t drive 85 when I see a cop parked on the side of the freeway, is that mental toughness?

This flawed concept is often embraced by coaches as the underlying foundation of their practice and game culture, then they get frustrated when athletes don’t make the right critical decisions at the moment of truth both on and off the field.  Instilling true mental toughness in athletes of all ages comes from creating a culture of expectation, preparation, and empowerment giving way to self efficacy and accountability when it counts.

Here are some other practical suggestions to help foster an ability for athletes to rise to the occasion and apply effective, critical decisions both on and off the field.

  1. Expectation: Have a clear expectation of performance, commitment, and intensity.  As a coaching staff, make this clear both objectively and subjectively.  The athletes will mirror the coach’s level of preparation, intensity, and passion.  Display high levels of all three.
  2. As in any mentor/mentee situation, athletes absorb everything a coach does and says.  They adjust their practice and game behavior accordingly. If a coach is late, unprepared, sloppy, or disconnected, the athletes will behave the same way.  If you want a “sense of urgency” in games, create it in practice.
  3. Preparation: When preparing for a practice, great coaches figure out new ways to challenge their athletes every day.  They don’t rely on the same monotonous drills they have done relentlessly for years.  Athletes are challenged with a variety of situations in game play; they should be in practice as well.

The late fabled basketball coach, John Wooden would change drills every 5 minutes to keep his athletes stimulated and striving to get better.  If he saw a particular drill wasn’t getting the outcome he wanted, he would modify drill parameters to get results.

If a drill doesn’t go great, it’s probably not the athletes’ fault. The nature of the drills in the practice culture should create intensity without the coach having to prod for it.

  1. Empowerment: If a coaching staff has expectations that are only met by direct intervention or fear of repercussion, it is not an effective program.  When athletes buy into the culture and take accountability for expectations as a team, true mental toughness is achieved.

Chose team leaders or captains that understand and embody the unwavering expectations of the program.  Share the responsibility of creating an optimal practice environment with them.  Meet with them.  Listen to them.  Work together with your team towards the same goal.  It’s very different when coach shares praise, disappointment, concerns, or other observations, and when a respected teammate does.

Empowering your team creates a tremendous level of self efficacy as well.  Athletes grow to embrace the culture, not merely be prisoners of the coach’s expectations.  This affects behavior in every aspect of their life.

For further insight as to how to create this environment, I highly suggest reading “When the Game Stands Tall” about the Delasalle High School Football program in Concord, CA.  This legendary program has posted a 151 game winning streak spanning many years.  Furthermore, they have a graduation rate (and college enrollment ) of 99%.   The foundations of their program are based on individual accountability as the players are in charge of many things like team rules, discipline, and individual expectations.  It’s phenomenal insight into a fabled sports program.  True mental toughness.

As you can see, the key to creating the toughness “x” factor comes down to the culture a coach creates, not the words he or she screams occasionally.  An expectation for “performance under duress” starts with the coach, his/her staff, and the practice/game culture they create.

Audit your practice environment.  What could you do to make things better, creating true mental toughness on the field, and in life?

Brett Klika C.S.C.S., Director of Athletics at Fitness Quest 10, is a world renowned human performance specialist, motivational speaker, author, and educator. In his 14 year career, Brett has accrued more than 20,000 hours of training with youth, athletes, executives, and every day people. He uses this knowledge and experience to motivate individuals and audiences around the world through his writing, speaking, DVD’s, and personal correspondence. For a copy of his new e-book and exercise program “The Underground Workout Manual- Exercise and Fat Loss in the Real World” visit To contact Brett, send correspondence to

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