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Mental Toughness: Coach Perspective

Most of us already know that confidence, resiliency, and coping with adversity are all traits of being mentally tough. Did you realize how important relationships and culture are in the development strategy?

There’s certainly no shortage of content on mental toughness. As a co-founder of Sevwins, a new app for student-athletes, I’ve been having a blast getting lost in sports-related research papers.

As I’m digesting the flood of coaching information, I plan to share my summaries. Here is a review of mental toughness as it relates to coaching.

Define Mental Toughness

There are as many definitions as there are coaches. Let’s take a look at a few before we get into how to develop it.

I started by asking the rest of the Sevwins founding team, who happen to be coaches.

Coach Moore (Div I Baseball):

The habit of responding productively in challenging circumstances is mental toughness. It starts with asking, “what works” not “how do I feel.” In baseball and life it’s not what happens but how you respond.

Coach French (HS Baseball):

Mental toughness represents an individual’s ability to maintain clarity, focus and purpose in demanding moments. It is a core character trait and mental skill that is rooted in self-confidence — the ability to draw on past experiences and preparation to calm the system and attack the challenge.

Published Definitions

Eighteen years ago, Jones, Hanton, and Connaughton posited mental toughness is probably one of the most used but least understood terms in applied sport psychology. In that paper, they defined mental toughness as: having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer. Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.

Developing Mental Toughness: From Research to Practice outlines the four C’s of mental toughness as:

  • Control: The ability to handle lots of things at once and remain influential rather than controlled.

  • Challenge: Being able to perceive potential threats as opportunities for personal growth and thriving in constantly changing environments.

  • Commitment: Being deeply involved with pursuing goals and striving to achieve them despite difficulties.

  • Confidence: The ability to maintain self-belief in spite of setbacks, and not to be intimidated by opponents.

Mental Toughness versus Mental Wellness

NCAA’s Mind, Body, and Sport publication summarize the potential conflict between mental toughness and mental wellness.

Student-athletes, coaches and staff tend to minimize mental disorders or psychological distress because of the expectations of strength, stability and “mental toughness” inherent in the sports culture.

The concern here is when coaches and athletes perceive mental toughness as suppressing your emotions and emotional needs. In recent years, the need for mental health awareness in student-athletes has increased due to the rise in mental disorders. While some studies show college athletes outpace student peers in mental health, others report that student-athletes have higher rates of mental disorders.

The point is, as you look for new ways to motivate and push athletes, it’s always best to keep mental wellness a priority. The reward is your athlete’s ability to deliver when they need it most.

Mental Toughness in Coach Language

It was the paper developing mental toughness: Perspectives from NCAA Division I team sport coaches that inspired me to write this. I enjoyed it for a few reasons. The core content is based on a survey of Division I coaches, so it’s in coach language. The focus is on the benefits and development techniques without being overly complex in science. And finally, the concepts align with our values at Sevwins.

Here are the highlights that I found most interesting and applicable to the student-athlete market.

A simple definition:

A personal capacity to deliver high performance on a regular basis despite varying degrees of situational demands

Benefits of Mental Toughness

Mental toughness has been linked to better coping skills, increased psychological well-being, and better academic performance.

The author summarizes the most effective development strategies. From NCAA perspectives, three key areas are essential.

  1. The coach’s expectations of each athlete — have high expectations of every athlete, so you don’t hold them back.

  2. The environment and culture — coaches need to create a motivational climate for mastery. Using a strength-based approach leveraging the positive qualities of the athlete will allow the coaches to challenge athletes by pushing them outside of their comfort zone. It’s essential that the coach balances this with support to help them cope with the demand.

  3. A key aspect of a successful environment is the relationship between the coach and the athlete. Effective relationships are based on listening, challenging but encouraging, and enabling autonomy. Quality relationships lead to open communications, improved athlete satisfaction, trust, respect. It also supports psychological development. Coach empathy and praise can help reduce athlete emotional or mental burnout.

Strategies from Division I Coaches

The survey in this paper consisted of 15 Division I head coaches. The group of 11 men and 4 women had an average of 18 years of experience with Division I teams, 73% had winning records. The survey’s purpose was to identify the top themes and strategies for building mental toughness.

#1 Relationships

The top strategy identified by all coaches was establishing coach-athlete relationships. This starts with having conversations and getting to know the whole individual. The athlete and the person they are outside of the game.

This is one of my favorite quotes captured in the survey. It’s also a common message I hear when I talk to athletes.

I don’t think you can push a kid mentally until they know you care about them…you have to earn that. You have to ask them everyday how they are doing, how’s your mom, how was class…you have to listen to them, you can’t just be this anarchy.

#2 Culture

The second theme a majority of the coaches identified was building and enforcing culture. It’s important to define a culture early that is built on honesty, coaching philosophy, and core beliefs. Coaches also need to demonstrate the culture in their actions.

Everything we do in training, games, we refer back to loving each other, having positive action, and relentless dedication. No matter what’s going on we refer back to those things.

#3 Activities and Training

Pressure drills and challenging athletes on their physical abilities have always been on mental toughness development plans. What I found interesting is that it came in third behind the soft-skills. Part of my surprise, I’m sure has to do with my age. Based on tips for coaching the current generation of student-athletes, it makes a lot of sense that relationships and culture are required to push athletes mentally and physically.

#4 Resources and Mental Skills

The last theme I’ll cover is the fourth-ranked topic of providing access to resources and mental skills. There are many tools, applications, and routines out there. Techniques include visualization, self-talk, breathing exercises, goal-setting, meditation, and mental breaks during the season.

Pro teams and many collegiate teams now have sports psychologists and mental training professionals on staff. For the rest of you, resources like the papers mentioned are a great place to start to bridge the gap between pro-level knowledge and your not-so-pro staff budget.


Stay tuned for more summaries and tips for student-athletes and coaches by signing up for the Sevwins newsletter.

Share your top strategy for supporting and developing mental toughness in your team. If it’s also building strong coach-athlete relationships, I’d love to hear tips on what works for your environment.



Leilani Madrigal (2019) Developing mental toughness: Perspectives from NCAA Division I team sport coaches, Journal for the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education, 13:3, 235–252, DOI: 10.1080/19357397.2019.1669366

Graham Jones (2002) What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14:3, 205–218, DOI: 10.1080/10413200290103509

Lee Crust & Peter J. Clough (2011) Developing Mental Toughness: From Research to Practice, Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 2:1, 21–32, DOI: 10.1080/21520704.2011.563436

Clough, P. J., Earle, K., & Sewell, D. (2002). Mental toughness: The concept and its measurement. In I. Cockerill (Ed.), Solutions in Sport Psychology (pp. 32–43). London, UK: Thomson.

Clough, P. J., Earle, K., & Sewell, D. (2002). Mental toughness: The concept and its measurement. In I. Cockerill (Ed.), Solutions in Sport Psychology (pp. 32–43). London, UK: Thomson.

Originally posted on Medium 3/12/2020.


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