If you’re interested in learning how to truly develop mental toughness in your athletes (and anyone else), then you should give Do Hard Things by Steve Magness a read. I actually reference an article by the author in this post, which summarizes some of the book’s content.

The following quote from early in the text sets the stage:

“Real toughness is about providing the tool set to handle adversity. It’s teaching. Fake toughness creates fragility, responding out of fear, suppressing what we feel, and attempting to press onward no matter the situation or demands. Real toughness pushes us to work with our body and mind instead of against them. To face the reality of the situation and what we can do about it, to use feedback as information to guide us, to accept the emotions and thoughts that come into play, and to develop a flexible array of ways to respond to a challenge. Toughness is having the space to make the right choice under discomfort.”

That is in contrast to the old school approach to mental toughness. This, as Magness notes, is largely based on an incomplete application of military methods. It took a sorting process to be a training process, while also failing to account for the teaching which preceded it.

“We took the sorting to mean training. We saw the training but forgot the teaching. We glossed over that the training wasn’t hard for the sake of creating toughness. It was designed to simulate and train for the actual demands soldiers would face on the battlefield. The lesson wasn’t that we just need to put people in difficult spots and force them to deal with adversity. We need to teach them how to navigate the discomfort they’ll soon face.”

And therein is the big lesson for us as coaches. We help our players develop mental toughness by facilitating them learning the requisite skills, then putting them in situations to practice those skills.

If we “vaccinate” someone to extreme stress, they’ll be able to handle it better. The first step isn’t to throw someone into the deep end of extreme stress; it’s teaching the skills necessary to cope with the situation. Without learning the skills, the second part—putting individuals in a harrowing environment to practice those skills—is useless.

In other words, training mental toughness is a lot like training anything else.

There’s a lot to the book, so I can’t really cover the whole thing here. There are three things I want to highlight, however, as contributory to mental toughness. They are confidence (realistic, not fake), autonomy, and internal motivation. These are things we can and should foster in our players alongside their technical and tactical development.

I pulled A LOT of quotes out of this book! Some of them will for the basis for future posts so I can explore things further in the coaching context.

I should note that Do Hard Things is not simply a theoretical discussion. Most of the main chapters feature a how-to section to work on the particular topic of that section.

If I was going to offer a criticism of the book, I’d say at least some of the chapters could have been shorter for easier consumption. All in all, though, I thought the structure was well developed. Magness does a good job of mixing the science related to mental toughness with his experience in competitive running. Definitely a book I would recommend.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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