Mental Toughness and Resiliency in Today’s Student Athlete

Mental Toughness and Resiliency in Today’s Student Athlete

Mental Toughness and Resiliency in Today’s Student Athlete
By Kristin Sheehan, Program Director for the Play Like a Champion Today Educational Series
Play Like a Champion Today partners with Catholic schools and sport leagues to elevate the culture of sports by promoting character-development and faith-formation through mission-driven athletics. It was an honor to present at the CNAA January Retreat on the topic of mental toughness. If you missed the retreat, here is a glimpse into the session.
Mental toughness is the ability to stay motivated and rebound when things do not go as planned.
Hanton and colleagues, (2002) conducted focus groups with male and female elite athletes all of whom achieved international honors and represented their countries in major events such as the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. They concluded that mental toughness provided the athlete a psychological advantage over opponents. This advantage, either innate or developed over years of experience, enabled the mentally-tough athlete to have superior self-regulatory skills. Specifically, mentally tough performers consistently remained more determined, focused, confident, and in control under the pressures and demands that top level sport placed upon them. Sound like qualities you would like to see in your athletes?
The good news is that mental toughness and resilience can be taught and built up in an individual over time. Here are three steps to help coaches effectively teach mental toughness and increase an athlete’s resilience.

  1. First, coaches must ensure that they have established a trusting and supportive environment where student-athletes are not afraid to try and fail. This includes communicating the expectation that team members will support one another in their journey to develop mental toughness.
  2. Second, coaches must use the language of the growth mindset and teach their athletes to use it too. For example, if an athlete says, “I can never hit a curve,” the coach can respond with, “Maybe you can’t hit it consistently now, but you’ve improved other areas of your game before and you can do it again with hard work. Let’s set a goal and make a plan to develop that skill.”
  3. Third, coaches should create game-like situations in practices to be able to teach, provide practice opportunities and assess athletes’ progress in an authentic way. Whether it’s teaching a physical skill, technique or mental toughness, teaching in the context of game-like conditions increases the likelihood of application in real game situations.  

One of the key qualities of mentally tough athletes is they play with Passion and Purpose. These are athletes who literally love being engaged in all aspects of their training, including the most challenging elements. When athletes have passion and purpose, they quickly move through tough times and stay hungry for the next day.  They understand and accept that they will take their lumps along their way to greatness.  Stress and failure are actually accounted for in the passionate athlete’s mind, and therefore quickly (and successfully) dealt with efficiently.
Guided-discovery is a coaching technique that can help develop the passion and purpose of athletes. This involves activities and discussions with athletes to help them discover answers and solutions on their own.  When coaches use guided-discovery to teach athletes about game strategy or emotional regulation, they guide them to come to the solutions themselves. When athletes are given ownership over a strategy, solution or reaction, they are more likely to carry it out on their own.  Likewise, when coaches use guided discovery to help athletes discover what motivates them to play their sport(s), athletes begin to see (and appreciate) that intrinsic motivation will take them much farther along the path to success. To guide the discovery of passion, coaches should ask questions like:

  1. Why do you play?
  2. What keeps you going?
  3. What goals or expectations do you have for yourself? (Are they realistic? Measurable?)
  4. Who motivates you to achieve your goals in life and your athletic career: you, your parents, coaches, friends, teammates? How do they do so?
  5. Other than people, from where else do you draw motivation? (Trophies? Championships?)
  6. What feels better – achieving a goal someone else set for you or achieving a goal you set for yourself?

This is just a small glimpse into the Play Like a Champion approach to increase the mental toughness and resiliency of your student-athletes. To learn more… come to the annual Play Like a Champion Sports Leadership Conference on June 21-22, 2019 held at the University of Notre Dame. This session will be presented along with two full days of educational sessions, inspiring speakers and an opportunity to network with coaches and administrators from all across the country. Contact:

“Challenge yourselves in the quest for good in both Church and society, without fear, with courage and enthusiasm… We learn much about life by winning and striving to win, but we also learn much by losing according to the rules…”
– Pope Francis, (To Members of the Sports Associations for the 70th Anniversary of the Foundation of the CSI (Italian Sports Center)” June 7, 2014