Don't look at mental fortitude as random in the same way as serendipitous luck.
November 8, 2016 by Alex Rummelhart in Opinion with 0 comments
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It happens every year. The end of the season rolls around, the big games appear, and people are left scratching their heads and asking: “How did that just happen?”
For some teams or players, it’s asked in awe. How did they possibly just accomplish that? That incredible miracle moment, that stunning upset, that crucial victory when it seemed impossible. The Cinderella stories and the magnificent surprises always beg for a second look.
For others, it’s a shaking of heads. A team or player seemingly so good, falling far short of potential. When the chips are down and the game is on the line, a mistake occurs, a plan fails to be executed, a chance is forever missed.
What’s the difference between those who rise in the crucial moment and those who fall? Often times, it is mental toughness. A quality as nebulous as the momentum it creates, being mentally tough is something that nearly everyone can agree is important. And yet, for something so important, we often overlook the “How?” and “Why?” of where it chooses to show up, instead assigning mental toughness the same aura as serendipitous luck.
There are, in fact, ways to improve mental toughness for a team or a player. Not all are within your control, none are easy, but all can make the difference. Here are ten ways to increase your mental toughness.
1. Accomplish a major fitness goal.
Success breeds success. The more you or your team can find ways to experience “winning,” the more likely you’ll accomplish your goals in the critical moments.
Start with something where you control the variables and that everyone on your team can accomplish. Set a big team fitness goal, something that will require a lot of effort over an extended period of time. This is the key: months of hard work paying off will train both your body and your brain not only to become more physically prepared, but to have the consistency in effort to overcome hardships and achieve goals. After all, what’s the effort of playing a few hard points against a tough opponent when you’ve faced down the dauntless task of seven months of hard daily training?
Here are a few fitness goal ideas that will not only make you more athletic, but can also increase your mental toughness through the effort working towards them (and eventually accomplishing them):
- Run a mile in under 5 minutes1
- Finish 100 pushups in under 5 minutes
- Bench press 75%-100% your body weight
- Squat 1.5 times your bodyweight
- Increase your vertical jump 10%
- Improve your 40-yard dash 10%
- Improve your agility cone time 10%
Even doing something simple — like completing 10 pullups in a row for the first time — will give your body and brain renewed strength.
2. Experience a major life event.
Perspective can be extremely useful, especially in critical moments.
While universe point in a big game might feel terrifying if it’s your first time in that situation, it will feel much more routine the tenth time you get there. In a similar way, experiencing something truly life-altering can shift your outlook and impart a sense of calm that will help you keep things in perspective in big ultimate moments.
Major life events can be both good and bad. On the good side, they can be serious checks off your ten-year plan or scratches through the bucket list. On the bad side, they can be the serious struggles that we must overcome personally to realize the gravity of individual situations. Overcoming a fear in a big way can also be a major life experience that has extremely powerful mental implications.
Some life events to experience that can provide valuable perspective:
- Visit one of the wonders of the world
- Buy a house
- Work for, request, and receive a promotion or raise
- Complete a major challenge like a marathon, triathlon, or cross-fit challenge
- Go scuba diving
- Move across the country
- Study abroad
- Go sky diving/bungee jumping
- Swim with the sharks
- Increase your education
3. Overcome long odds.
No underdog is more dangerous than the one that has had the odds stacked against them and lived to tell the tale. A team that knows it can still win when it’s down is a team that is never out of any contest. Likewise, any player that refuses to quit in any situation can be a player that will thrive on the high-pressure situation, when expectations and eyes are focusing in.
The more experience you or your squad have in competing — really competing — against high-quality opponents in games you might be picked to lose, the better. When this is the case, be sure to treat it as an opportunity to practice mental toughness rather than assuming a loss and saving your energy for easier games.
Failing that, you can find ways to artificially stack the odds against yourself in training and practice to help mentally toughen up.
- Start scrimmages with the O-line trailing by 3
- Purposefully have players drop pulls or easy passes (or simulate that happening)
- Do drills where, as a defender, you are trailing deep shots by ten yards
- Have a center handler scrimmage with dumps and swings eliminated as options (as if they had gone downfield or were completely covered)
- Purposefully mix matchups to have weaker players cover the strongest
4. Take a risk.
Risks, by definition, imply a need for guts. Always doing everything the safe (and even smart) way during training, practices, and games may lead to steady consistency, but won’t necessarily prepare you for the unpredictability of chaos that can come in a situation when the game is on the line. Having the experience of trying something that isn’t necessarily easy will give you the grit to find a way when someone has to make a play.
There are many ways to practice taking a risk individually or as a team in games or practices.
- Shift a strategy to one that has high-risk, high-reward
- Try a new player as your go-to handler
- Set up plays that you’ve seen work before but that you haven’t practiced
- Experiment with new defenses to see what works best
Personally there are many ways to take a risk that can increase your confidence and help you gain a mental edge. Asking a person out for the first time, signing up for a big course or job, or going for a risky goal can all give you the fortitude to try things in uncertain times. Taking a risk and succeeding can train your brain to continue that same pattern.
5. Change your mindset.
Along with taking risks, changing things up in drastic ways can keep your body and mind on its toes. Increasing flexibility will again help in those unknown critical situations of the future, especially in places or moments that you haven’t experienced before (say the game-to-go or an elimination matchup).
If you’ve played a certain way for so long, sometimes you can get stagnated in a traditional style that becomes too predictable and thus ineffective. Even for teams that are succeeding, be open to testing new ideas, players stepping into new roles, or a new strategy that can make you more dynamic. Sometimes switching a player from handler to cutter sounds like a crazy idea (or switching lines from O to D, etc) but can actually really change a team for the better.
Other ideas for change of mindset:
- Ask a guest coach to come teach something new
- Change your role on the field
- Try something new in your personal life
- Change your training style in the gym or on the track
- Change your throwing program
- Imitate an opponent’s strategy
- Create a new play set
- Run a new offensive or defensive scheme
6. Band together.
Ship captains with unruly or restless crews used to pray for a battle or a storm, some point of crisis where the group could rally together rather than mutiny. Similarly, when a group can have a team win or a strong practice where everyone plays well, it will do wonders for the morale of the crew.
A team is only as strong as its weakest links. As exciting as individual performances can be, allowing a few players to dominate and carry a scrimmage or practice should be avoided. Instead, focus on trying to get every single person involved.
- Rotate lines as often as possible to give everyone playing time
- Praise the small contributions from role players as much as big plays from stars
- Find groups of players who work well together
- Give lesser known players occasional chances for glory
7. Go through hard times.
Almost as good as a team succeeding together is a team suffering together. Overcoming that terrible streak, gritting through that savage tournament, or rebounding from a tough loss can be very good for growing together.
Some coaches will specifically try to give their players hell in the early parts of the season for this very reason, knowing that if they all hate him or her, they will soon come to care and work for each other.
There are good ways to gain the benefits of going through the tough times without experiencing seriously negative side effects:
- A grueling practice regime
- Scrimmaging with minimal subs
- Team workouts or sprints at the end of practices
- Repeating plays or drills until a specific difficult goal is achieved
8. Be (near) perfect.
Imagine a squad that just did something incredible: perhaps they had unstoppable break throws that led to easy goals all day or their defensive line went on a shutout run for an entire game, refusing to let up a point. Such victories feel good, not just because of the winning, but because of the way the success was achieved. They raise sights and expectations.
Having those near perfect days, crushing a workout, or being lights-out can boost confidence in a way that makes you feel unstoppable.
- Have the entire offensive line remain unbroken
- Run a catching drill to 100 completions in a row
- Play a clean game or tournament (no turnovers)
- Completely deny an opposing player the disc
- Get a block or goal on a star opposing player
- Hit new highs on the stat sheet for goals or assists
9. Vindicate expectations.
The very best success comes when someone else thinks (and says) that it won’t happen. Vindicating you or your team means winning when everyone else (or someone specific) is doubting you. It can be when the online comments disparage your team or when you get revenge against a squad that knocked you out of your last tournament.
Put extra efforts into any games that can be turned into bulletin board material, when your team can purposefully show the talkers against you that they are wrong.
Individually, find those things that others say you can’t do, or criticize you for, and accomplish them. It will make you feel like you can do anything, a mental toughness that can’t be beat.
- Make a team or line that someone discounts you for
- Cover a player that trash talks you
- Beat a team that has knocked you out
- Beat a team or player that has bad spirit
- Show those online haters up (with actions not words)
10. Experience heartbreak
It’s nearly impossible to replicate — and why would you want to? — but the very best source of mental toughness is experiencing a heartbreak moment. Losing when it matters most, having something terribly unexpected go wrong, failing to live up to the pressure… these are all terrible things, but the memory of them can drive you to push yourself twice as hard to be ready for next time.
In some instances the most mentally tough people are those that have lost before and refuse to do it again. If you experience heartbreak, grit your teeth, get mentally tough, and show that toughness at the very next opportunity.
Adjust the time based on an appropriately achievable goal. ↩