How to Teach Mental Toughness

Coach Stuart
March 26, 2020

For coaches, teaching players how to be “mentally tough” and subscribe to a positive mindset is one of the toughest skills a coach has to teach. If you are a player, learning how to be mentally tough and staying positive after making mistakes is one of the toughest things to learn.

We have all had that match where we make a mistake and then we make another mistake and then we make yet another mistake and it feels like our own mistakes keep adding up. And it feels like each mistake weighs heavier and heavier. And when you start feeling the weight of your mistakes, you start playing with a negative mindset. And when you have a negative mindset, it affects how well you play.

I recently got to listen to a former U.S. Olympic volleyball player, Courtney Thompson talk about mental toughness and what that looks like at the professional level and how it can be applied to athletes of any level. After listening to her talk, I sat down with my team and asked them a series of questions to see how each of them works on managing their negative thoughts after making a mistake.

Struggling With a Negative Mindset

It is safe to say that most athletes struggle with a negative mindset in some way. I asked my team what types of negative thoughts they had and how it affected them when they were playing in a match.

Everyone is going to be mad at me. I feel like this is a big one. It’s a little bit of Fear of Rejection and a little bit of Letting The Whole Team Down (or letting their parents down). It doesn’t matter if your players like each other or not, many players feel a great deal of pressure to perform at their best all of the time so that they don’t let the team down.

But it’s not always possible to play at your best all of the time. Performing at your best and giving your best is not the same thing. If you could play at your best all of the time, then it wouldn’t be your best, it would be your average. It’s called regression toward the mean.

Also, it’s important to remember that everyone makes mistakes and the mistakes that happen at the end of a match aren’t worth more than the mistakes that happen at the beginning of a match. Wins and losses are attributed to the whole team’s effort.

I tear myself down. Some players put a lot of pressure on themselves. Sometimes it is because they are a perfectionist and other times because they feel like they are letting others down. They hate making mistakes. I was this way when I played baseball. I hated to strikeout. It drove me crazy. I knew I was better and I expected perfection but the reality is NO ONE IS PERFECT. It doesn’t matter how good you are at something, you can’t be perfect at it. Even Lebron James misses shots.

I may not get another opportunity. I’m going to be honest… I had actually never considered this before but it makes so much sense. Some players fear that if they make a mistake, they won’t be given another opportunity to try again and it weighs heavy on them. For some players, this means they won’t get any playing time. For other players, it means the Setter may set them less or that the coach won’t let them serve again. I am going to address this issue later in this article.

I get intimidated by the other team. It can be perceived that coaches like to design their pre-match warmups to make their team look better than they really are. That’s why hitting lines are so popular. Any hitter can look good when they get a perfectly tossed set from a coach.

While watching the other team warmup, whether through hitting lines or serving, some players can come off as intimidating — they hit the ball really hard or they have a wicked top spin jump serve. This can get into a player’s head causing them to think negative thoughts — “I hope she doesn’t serve to me”. This is exactly the kind of thinking we don’t want our players to have during a match.

We need to train our players to welcome any challenge that comes their way. If another player is serving tough, we need to put the pressure back on them by shutting them down with a perfect pass and a First Ball Kill. We can also take some time during practice and have someone serve tough at our players so they get more comfortable with tough serves.

The Coach Effect

Coaches can have a big impact on the mindset of an athlete, whether they do it intentionally or unintentionally. Some of my players are still holding on to the negative feedback that a previous coach gave to them. They feel like they aren’t good enough or that they’ll never be good enough.

I’m not talking about being a tough coach and holding your players accountable. This is about coaches who talk down to their players and make them feel like they don’t matter and that they have no value.

I don’t believe that coaches are intentionally negative toward a player, but it probably comes down to being a transactional coach instead of a transformational coach. Transactional coaches are your win-at-all-cost coaches. They see the players as only a means to get what they want–to win. Transformational coaches still want to win but it’s not their main focus. Transformational coaches are the ones that build relationships with their players and show players that their value isn’t just in what they can do on the court but also as a person.

As coaches, we have to be intentional about creating a culture that fosters a positive mindset with our team. We have to use positive language and work on giving feedback that pushes a player forward instead of tearing them down. We have to be transformational coaches and not transactional coaches.

How do we do this? We set the expectation early and we communicate it consistently. As with any expectation, it must be communicated at the beginning of the season and it must be implemented regularly throughout the season in your practices and during matches.

Create a safe space where mistakes are welcome. Mistakes are part of the learning process. But if players are afraid to make mistakes, they are going to hold back when trying new things out of fear of failure and that will restrict their growth as an athlete.

Players need to be focused on the right kind of goal. A player’s goal cannot be tied to performance. It must be tied to personal growth. This is where the growth mindset comes into play. When a player’s goal is tied to performance (especially when the feedback comes from a coach), they are going to struggle with having a positive mindset. But when their goal is tied to something that they can control, developing a positive mindset is much easier to maintain.

Control What You Can Control

One of the first points made by Courtney Thompson is that “If you want to be a champion, you have to think like a champion”. Of course, most athletes don’t just wake up with a champion mindset, so how do we get our athletes to that point?

We’ve all heard it before and we probably tell our players this all the time — control what you can control. We can’t control what the referee does, we can’t control what the other team does, and we can’t control what Pool we end up in. But what we can control is our Behavior, Effort, Attitude, and Thoughts (B.E.A.T. as in BEAT the negative mindset). All of these things start in the individual’s mind.

When we make a mistake, we can control our negative thoughts. When something doesn’t go our way, we have the ability to control our negative attitude. We can control whether or not we give our best effort and we can control how we act. Everything else is outside of our control.

Often times, players are distracted by the things that they cannot control and that feeds into a negative mindset. This is what happens when a player’s goals are performance-based. They shanked a few passes, the coach yelled at them and now they feel like they are not a good athlete.

An athlete’s goals should be tied to the things that they can control — behavior, effort, attitude, and thoughts. At the end of each practice or match, a player should be able to answer the following questions: Did I work hard and was I a good teammate? When a player focuses on the things that they can control, it is much easier to maintain a positive mindset.

The Parent Effect

As a parent, it can be tough to not interject yourself into everything your child is doing. Believe it or not, parents can greatly impact the type of mindset a player has. Even with the best intentions, some of the things that parents say to their child can cause unwanted stress and can even give their child a flawed perspective on what is really going on.

Here are 3 things that parents should not do…

  • Don’t compare your child with another player. It doesn’t matter if your child really is more skilled than everyone else on the team. This can create division between your child and the rest of the team.
  • Don’t tell your child what they did wrong. They generally know what they did wrong and they’ve probably played it over and over in their mind. The last thing that they need is someone else harping on their mistakes.
  • Don’t try to “coach” your child without them asking for your input. Even if you know the sport very well, if your child doesn’t ask for your input, then they probably don’t want to hear it. Trying to coach your child when you are not the team coach can cause some confusion if you are telling them something that is different from what their coach is telling them.

If your child does start to vent to you about their team, let them vent but don’t try to fix anything. Tell them that you love them and that you enjoy watching them play.

It is always important to focus on the things that players can control. Courtney Thompson suggests that parents only ask their child these three questions:

  • Did you have fun?
  • Did you give your best?
  • Were you a good teammate?

These questions are important because these are three things that players have control over. Players can decide if they are going to have fun at practice, players can decide if they are going to work hard, and players can decide if they are going to be a good teammate by giving their best and supporting the rest of their team.

Giving Your Best

As I mentioned previously, giving your best is not the same thing as performing at your best. Giving your best is something that you can control through your behavior, effort, attitude, and thoughts. Performing at your best is something that only happens sometimes because every athlete has an average skill level that they will eventually revert back to.

What does “giving your best” look like? For my teams, it means we will work hard at all times not just for ourselves but for each other. This goes along with the whole “We before Me” mentality. When we train to make ourselves better then we are making our whole team better (a chain is only as strong as the weakest link). This is something that every athlete can control because it isn’t dependent on their skill level, it is based on their controllables — behavior, effort, attitude, and thoughts.

But what if you are one of three players competing for a starting position on your high school team and you haven’t played a single match the entire season? This is a common story and it happens on many teams. The truth is, you may never start, but by giving your best effort at all times, you are challenging your teammates to give their best at all times. When you work harder, it forces your teammates to work harder and when everyone is working harder, then everyone is getting better.

So maybe you won’t get to be the starting Setter, but you can challenge the starting Setter by challenging them to work harder than you are working.

Having a positive mindset doesn’t come naturally to most athletes. It is something that coaches and players must be intentional about cultivating. This means using positive language and reinforcing the results that you want to see. It means that you have to be okay with making mistakes and you have to learn to control the things that you can control and ignore the things that you can’t control.