Recently, I have had two separate discussions, one with a high school football coach, and another with the parent of a young athlete, about sports and toughness. In both conversations, the individual with whom I was speaking touted sports as the last arena for youngsters where the “field” is not artificially altered in such a way as to prevent one side from “losing,” where it is conceivable that despite one’s best effort they may not make the team, and where score does count. One of these individuals bemoaned the sense of entitlement present in some of our younger generation, where “showing up” should automatically lead to participation and all the accolades that follow. Showing up may be 80% of the battle, but it’s not 100%, he said.
What I think both of these gentlemen were referring to is what is known in sports as “mental toughness.” Mental toughness is the ability to overcome adversity. It is persevering when things aren’t going your way. It’s digging deep for that last bit of energy when you are exhausted. And, it’s coming up on the short end of the score and deciding what you are going to learn from it, and whether the athlete is going to define this outcome for herself, or let it define her.
This concept of mental toughness is perhaps where sports and life most overlap. It’s where the lessons learned on the athletic field are just as valuable after the final whistle. Improving at anything in life requires that you set your goals just out of reach, work harder than you thought possible, and to use setbacks as feedback for the next attempt. No coach or parent should deprive their athletes of the important lessons that come from temporary failures.
The latest research suggests that mental toughness is actually a set of mental skills, rather than an entity onto itself. As parents and coaches, nurturing the skills that comprise mental toughness is one of the most important roles we can provide for our young athletes. It is a tremendous responsibility and at times a tenuous line to tread. To build mental toughness, we have to push our athletes beyond where they are, and sometimes beyond what they think they are capable of achieving. But for optimum success, we need to do so in a way that is motivating, reinforcing, and in a way that builds rather than breaks down self esteem. Mastering these skills is what sets great coaches apart from good ones, and great parents of young athletes apart from the rest. And of course, a mental coach can help you learn these skills and show you the best way to teach them to your young athletes!