How to raise a tough athlete

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What does it take to become a great athlete? One characteristic everyone agrees one is mental toughness.

Toughness is the way you bounce back after a disappointment.
Toughness is how resilient you are when it matters.
Toughness is for how long you can compete at your highest level.
Toughness is how good you are at dealing with discomfort.
Toughness is how much you can give when you have nothing left to give.
And toughness is how much you back yourself regardless of the odds.

So if toughness is so important, how do we instill it in an athlete?

The short answer is we can’t.

But we can create an environment wherein it develops.

In tennis we often hear of Eastern European players who had to overcome the most challenging circumstances in order to play the game. Often I find that my South African players have it “easy”.

They get what they want.
They are protected against discomfort.
They make no real sacrifices.
They aren’t met with any career-stopping adversity.

And when those Eastern European players meet our players on the court, regardless of talent, preparation, gear or experience, they have what most players need: toughness. And more often than not it wins them matches.

So how do we go about developing tough players who aren’t necessarily expected to be tough on a daily basis? How do we develop toughness when life is easy?

1. Firstly, give the athlete as must responsibility as soon as possible. Want to have water at practice? Pack it yourself. Need to be somewhere on time? Tell me when you need to leave. Need a new racket? I’ll pay half of it. Suddenly it requires some effort for the player to play. Those small responsibilities add up.

2. Talking about effort. I often hear players say: if I win this, I get this. Parents, please stop rewarding results. And start rewarding effort. So often young athletes learn that they are only loved when they win. Effort means the work that is done. Goals achieved that aren’t connected to a result. Effort makes them tough. Sustained effort.

3. The best opportunity you have everyday is practice. How focused are you? How much energy did you show? Did you have a good attitude? How you resilient were you when it mattered? Train smarter, not more. Up the level and keep it there. Make the last 30 minutes of practice your best. That is where matches are won.

4. Show me that you want it. How hungry are you? Do you have reason that keeps you going? Help athletes to develop that reason. Make it personal. If the reason isn’t present, the toughness wouldn’t be present.

5. Create and embrace challenges. We become complacent, doing the same things everyday. There should be a daily opportunity for the athlete where he needs to do more than what he is used to. If he makes it? Well done. Confidence grows. If he doesn’t? Try again tomorrow. Don’t fall into a trap of staying in your comfort zone.

If you try to improve on thing as an athlete this year, let it be your mental toughness. Plan for it. Get help. The results will come.

A great way to start is addressing your Intensity during practices.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. This should not only be applied in sports, but in all facets of life – especially during the school years. Making the world out to be a ‘nice’ and ‘easy'(for a lack of better terms) place for your kids is the worst mistake any parent can make and yet I see it being made everyday. Life is tough and the sooner you learn this the better. When you have very talented kids, the type who only gets A’s without effort and/or excels at any type of sport, I personally believe one should/has to challenge them more. They need to stay engaged and feel like they worked for their successes. Sure some kids can excel at everything and have the mental toughness to cope in the big world, but most can’t.

    If we get this right and stop wrapping the youth in wool, I’m sure we will be amazed at the individuals they will become one day – the type that will change the world one day!!

    To your point on toughness. There is a very good reason why SA have some of the best businesses in the world (SAB, Naspers, Billiton…), its because it is so damn difficult to make a success. You have to work harder than any of the business in the 1st world countries and I’m sure the CEOs running these are of the toughest people in the world. Maybe they can help our sport teams…

    Nice article cousin…

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