Teaching Toughness

Creating an intense, disciplined, hustling team begins with a program of exercises for mind and body.

By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at: rja@MomentumMedia.com.

Coaching Management, 14.6, August 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1406/toughness.htm

When UCLA made its run to the 2006 NCAA Final Four, the word coaches, players, writers, and TV commentators used to describe the Bruins was “tough.” Using chest-to-chest pressure defense and a methodical ball-control offense, UCLA imposed its will game after game, forcing opponents out of their comfort zones and into a lower-scoring tempo. The effect of this in-your-face style was never more evident than when UCLA held the University of Memphis, a high-scoring number one seed chock full of NBA-caliber talent, to a season-low 45 points in the tournament semifinals.

UCLA’s transformation from a freewheeling, hard-driving, running team to a disciplined, cerebral, defensive-minded unit was no accident. Since arriving at UCLA in 2003, Head Coach Ben Howland has carved a place in Bruin lore with an approach that stresses taking care of the ball, maintaining great defensive and rebounding intensity, and toughness. After playing under Howland, student-athletes walk away with their bodies stronger, their minds more disciplined, and their game more controlled.

For many coaches, toughness seems like the kind of intangible quality that can’t be taught. There’s no single way to measure it, no standard textbook, and no set of time-tested drills. Too often, it’s seen as the byproduct of good coaching and willing students. But coaches like Howland, Metropolitan State College of Denver’s Mike Dunlap, and Michigan State University’s Joanne McCallie include it as part of their daily workouts, coming up with new ways to build the discipline that underlies both mental and physical toughness to create a culture shared by every member of the team.

What does it mean to be mentally tough? For Dr. Alan Goldberg, a sports psychologist who worked with the University of Connecticut’s 1999 championship men’s basketball team, the defining traits are focus, calmness under pressure, and the ability to let go of mistakes.

Goldberg begins his program with the most important factor in building mental toughness: an athlete’s ability to concentrate effectively. “I teach them that concentration is the ability to focus on what’s important and let go of everything else,” says Goldberg, author of Sports Slump Busting. “I tell them that everyone concentrates. For instance, somebody who chokes at a critical moment is doing a great job of concentrating—he’s just concentrating on the wrong thing. So we identify the most important thing to think about at any given time they’re on the court, whether it’s making foul shots or stopping the other team’s rush up the court.”

At the start of UConn’s 1999 championship run, Goldberg led the team through mental focus exercises, then conducted weekly or biweekly individual consultations with three or four key players throughout the season, working on things like letting go of mistakes, handling pressure, and staying focused.

The key to effective concentration is always being in the present moment. “You can’t get caught up in the past or the future,” says Goldberg. “A lot of athletes ‘time-travel’—they think about something that happened earlier in the game or what will happen next if they miss their shot. You can’t play tough if your focus is somewhere else. If athletes are time-traveling, they need to recognize they’ve lost their focus and learn how to quickly bring it back.”

Goldberg demonstrates the importance of concentration with a simple challenge. He throws 10 colored markers into the air and asks an athlete to catch as many as he can. Usually, the athlete catches very few, if any. “Then I’ll throw them up in the air again and ask the volunteer to catch one particular colored marker, which most athletes can do pretty easily,” says Goldberg. “That exercise shows it’s easy to do something when you focus on what really matters.”

From there, Goldberg trains athletes to bring their attention back to the present. To start, he has athletes close their eyes and focus on their breathing. “I ask them to feel their diaphragms contract as they inhale, and think of the number one as they exhale,” says Goldberg. “The rule is that every time you feel yourself drift, add another number. So if you get distracted, inhale, feel your diaphragm contract, exhale, and think of the number two, and so on.”

Goldberg puts athletes through the drill for two minutes while attempting to distract them, making noise as he jumps around the room. “I want to give them a hands-on understanding of what it feels like when they’re distracted and how they can learn to bring themselves back,” he says. “When you’re in the middle of a game, you don’t want to be thinking about what’s happening off the court. For instance, if you’re trying to impress college scouts, your mind is in the stands, not on the court. Toughness is all about mentally being in the right place at the right time.”

Even the mentally toughest players can have lapses in concentration, so the trick to staying tough is working through those distractions and quickly getting back on track. “Everybody loses focus at one time or another, but it doesn’t necessarily have to hurt their performance,” says Goldberg. “What hurts performance is when you lose your focus and don’t bring it back right away. You hang on to the mistake you just made, and that gets you into trouble. Your ability to stay calm under pressure and rebound from setbacks is a direct result of your ability to concentrate.”

To avoid dwelling on past mistakes, Goldberg teaches student-athletes not to worry about things outside their control. “One of the biggest mistakes players make is to focus on stuff they have no direct control over, like how good their opponent is, playing time, officiating, things people in the stands are saying, and so on,” he says. “When you focus on those uncontrollables, three things happen: Your stress level goes up, you get tight and nervous, and your confidence level drops. The consequence is that you play like crap.”

The best way for coaches to combat a team’s misplaced focus is to define those uncontrollables, collect them into a list, and post them in the locker room. “The things on that list are mental traps,” says Goldberg. “The only way to avoid a trap is to recognize it and walk around it. When athletes are focusing on the uncontrollables, as they inevitably will, they need to find a way to bring themselves back. The key is to keep uncontrollables from having a lot of air time in your head.”

One way for players to help one another re-focus is to develop cue words they can say to a teammate when they see him time-traveling, focusing on uncontrollables, or holding onto a mistake. “It can be as simple as ‘cancel,’ or ‘let go,’” says Goldberg. “It’s best if the team comes up with a set of cues on its own, because it gives athletes a feeling of ownership. And if players on the bench start to see teammates hanging their heads, they can use the cues to remind them to let go.”

Overcoming nerves is another key to responding positively in pressure situations. To teach athletes to calm themselves down, Goldberg starts by explaining the differences between good and bad nervousness. Good nervousness means anticipating the moment of truth and being focused on your response. Bad nervousness can lead to feelings of anxiety and cause athletes to become distracted.

“You have to recognize when you get too excited or too nervous,” says Goldberg. “Then you work on specific relaxation exercises, like progressive muscle relaxation drills where you go from your head to your feet tightening and relaxing the muscle groups in succession.” The technique can be used during timeouts or before an athlete steps to the free throw line for important foul shots.

“I also teach athletes to use positive imagery as a relaxation technique,” Goldberg explains. “I have them link their breathing with something relaxing like waves in the ocean—when you inhale, picture the wave coming in, and when you exhale, see it going out. Or I’ll have them create a resource room inside their head: an imaginary place where they feel safe and comfortable and can visit in stressful moments.”

Mentally and physically tough teams set themselves apart by consistently imposing their will on their opponent. At UCLA, Howland creates a culture that emphasizes toughness in every aspect of the game, making a conscious effort to keep his squad stronger and more mentally prepared than the opposition. In practice, that means explaining and re-explaining the importance of things like applying man-on-man defensive pressure, having disciplined shot selection, taking care of the ball, and acknowledging those players who execute “little things” like bump cutters and box-outs, whether they’re in a game or a drill.

“When guys set good screens or fight through picks, I make a point to praise those players,” says Howland. “You get a lot more out of positive reinforcement when you’re urging players to play tougher.”

For Howland, who takes a hands-on approach to his players’ conditioning, physical and mental toughness begins in the weightroom. “Coach Howland thrives on seeing each player produce in the weightroom, and they get excited about proving themselves to him,” says UCLA Head Strength and Conditioning Coach E.J. “Doc” Kreis. “He loves to ask me, ‘How did so-and-so do on the bench today? On the squat? How many pull-ups did he get today?’ Coach keeps track of what everybody is doing and compliments each of the players when they make a gain. The kids really appreciate that Coach is keeping track of those things and that he’s genuinely impressed with what they’re doing. It truly does give them confidence.”

Kreis and Howland work closely together to design each student-athlete’s lifting program, based on what Howland sees as the player’s strengths and weaknesses. The key to making their partnership work, says Kreis, is that Howland doesn’t just tell his strength coach to make the players strong—he explains exactly what he wants from each athlete.

At UCLA, players lift individually, as their schedules allow, which provides Kreis the opportunity to give a lot of one-on-one instruction. He makes sure to vary routines from day to day and explain how each exercise translates into improved performance on the court. “Our message is, ‘How good do you want to be? Well, this is what it will take to bring your game to the next level,’” says Kreis.

At Metropolitan State College of Denver, Head Coach Mike Dunlap has cultivated a Division II powerhouse, winning two national championships in nine years by being crystal clear about what he wants out of his players both mentally and physically. “As a coach, you have to be very careful when you talk about toughness,” says Dunlap. “If you throw the term around arbitrarily, telling athletes to ‘play tough,’ they won’t know what you really want. You have to give players specific criteria by which they will be judged. If your criteria aren’t well-defined, your team will just tune you out.”

To spell out his expectations, Dunlap uses a hustle board that charts 10 indicators of mental and physical toughness. Like many coaches, he places a high value on steals, deflections, offensive rebounds, loose balls gathered, and offensive charges drawn. But he also suggests charting less obvious plays, such as defensive closeouts on shooters and bumping cutters.

“If you can keep an opposing player from getting by you, that’s a sign of mental and physical toughness,” he says. “Assist-to-turnover ratio is also a huge mental stat, because when you don’t turn the ball over it shows a degree of discipline. You’re making the decision to deny yourself risky moves that can get you in trouble.”

No matter what you choose to emphasize on a hustle chart, says Dunlap, it’s important to place a lot of significance on what those statistics mean to the team’s culture and to consistently refer to the chart when talking about toughness. At Metro State, that means posting it in the locker room, clearly ranking every player on the team in each category. By presenting it as public information, players hold each other accountable and are extremely competitive about their place on the chart.

Dunlap compiles his hustle stats from film of every game and practice, which is not as time-intensive as it sounds. “We practice early in the morning for two hours and 15 minutes, and it takes me an hour or so to break the film down,” says Dunlap. “After practice I’ll sit down with a muffin and a cup of coffee and throw the tape in. We keep it simple and each coach charts specific things.

“Each position coach watches the video and takes care of the offensive emphasis for guards and forwards, and I take care of the defensive stuff,” continues Dunlap, who refers to his VCR as the Truth Machine. “Then we cut up the tape to consolidate each practice into a five minute clip. We use those clips to show the team what we really liked and what they need to improve.”

For high school coaches working with a small staff—or no staff at all—Dunlap prescribes even more simplicity: place your video camera on a tripod, focus it on either basket, and turn it on. “I always hear coaches say, ‘We don’t have the resources to do that kind of stuff,’” says Dunlap. “Yes you do. I coach at a non-scholarship school, where we don’t have everything the Division I guys have, but we make it work. It really doesn’t take much extra time.”

To Dunlap, who lifts weights alongside his players during in- and offseason workouts, playing tough begins with physical toughness. He expects his student-athletes to play with heart—literally. Each member of the team begins practice outfitted with a monitor strapped across his chest. The monitor measures the number of heartbeats per minute (BPM), which is relayed to a device worn on the wrist. “A heart monitor allows me to be more specific about what I want in terms of effort,” says Dunlap. “It helps quantify when they’re playing out of their comfort zone—it’s very objective. They’re wearing those monitors to learn how to react and make good decisions when they’re out of their comfort zone.”

Before players wear their heart monitors for the first time, Dunlap and his staff establish cardiovascular thresholds and target zones for each athlete based on body fat percentage. As he does with video, Dunlap uses heart monitors as a tool for providing positive feedback and building confidence in his student-athletes. “If I see somebody who is really pushing it, I might go up to him and turn his wrist over and see that he’s hit 185 BPM,” says Dunlap. “I’ll give him a tap on the head and say, ‘That’s great, that’s outstanding.’ Praising guys who are working hard is really what I’m trying to do.

“However, if I see a guy who’s not working as hard as he should and his BPM is 140 or 150, and I know he’s not out of his comfort zone until he hits 175 or 185, I’ll say, ‘You’re dogging it! Let’s get moving!’” he continues. “As a player, you know you can’t get away with not practicing at a high cardiovascular level. And that’s an important part of building toughness.”

But it’s not enough for coaches to keep emphasizing toughness. For the program to succeed, everyone on the team needs to demand as much from their teammates as they do from themselves. “Your culture is most productive when your players are demanding mental and physical toughness themselves,” says Dunlap. “As a coach, do your best to establish that culture of toughness, and if your athletes feel invested in the cause, they’ll perform at their highest level.”

For Joanne McCallie, Head Women’s Coach at Michigan State University, teaching mental and physical toughness means incorporating martial arts into her student-athletes’ training. During the offseason, the team attends weekly sessions with Pil Chung, an East Lansing Taekwondo and kickboxing instructor.

The players aren’t breaking boards with their heads or testing to earn colored belts. “They simply have 45-minute workouts with a black belt who is able to deliver a familiar message in a different style,” says McCallie. “The kids don’t always love it, but they appreciate what it does for them on the court.”

The workouts typically include hundreds of high kicks and punches, along with strength and balance drills that challenge athletes to hold difficult stances for long periods of time. To unify body, mind, and spirit, Chung pushes players to their physical limits and teaches them to listen to their minds, not their bodies. The workouts are exhausting, but Chung’s message is a positive one, and he begins each drill by having his pupils shout, “I can do it!”

“It’s extremely challenging,” says McCallie. “Taekwondo and kickboxing are extraordinary disciplines that demand incredible focus. Exposing athletes to intangibles they might not otherwise encounter is another way to teach toughness, and our players are amazed at the mental discipline martial arts requires.”