What does toughness mean to you?

I’d venture to say the ability to endure physical hardship and to push through physical challenges is something that comes to mind. This is especially true if that was the basis for toughness you grew up with. It’s about the ability to suffer. Unfortunately, many of us did just that. As a result, we see old school methods to develop toughness still employed today.

And what happens when that’s the mentality? The death of a football player is a horrifying example. The amazing thing is how the lessons just don’t get learned. As the linked article reports, 26 NCAA football players died during off-season training between 2000 and 2016 because of overzealous workouts. These aren’t skill development activities. They aren’t even really conditioning exercises as they go way beyond the structure and requirements of the sport. In some cases they’re punishments.

“Yeah, but that’s football,” you might be thinking. “That sort of thing doesn’t happen in volleyball.”

While I’m not aware of any volleyball deaths from this sort of thing – at least not recently – that doesn’t mean player health isn’t put seriously at risk. In 2016, during my first season at Midwestern State, there was a prime example. Nearly half the team of one of our conference rivals landed in the hospital as the result of excessive workload.

And even if this sort of “toughness” conditioning doesn’t put your players in the hospital (or morgue), does it accomplish anything? Does it actually make players “tough”.

This is something that comes up in the book Fake Fundamentals. The author there specifically challenges the validity of the timed mile from a couple different perspectives. One of them – which I’ve often heard used to justify its use – is that it helps develop mental toughness. His argument is that it doesn’t because mental toughness is contextual. I completely agree.

Think of it this way. Do you want a player who knows they are the other team’s serving target and doesn’t let it rattle them, or the player who can run one more suicide? Which do you think is more relevant to your team’s success – the player who can run one more lap around the track, or the player who doesn’t let the fact that they were blocked on their last two swings keep them from being aggressive with this one?

Running a mile under a certain time, or finishing a series of sprints, only tells you about an athlete’s capability in that realm. It doesn’t tell you what will happen when a game is on the line and they feel the pressure.

Think about it. The physical stuff is almost always to do with suffering. What we want, though, is very different. We want consistency and focus and confidence in the effort to achieve something positive. We don’t want players with the mentality of “just let me get through this”.

On top of it all, this “toughness” training (or punishment) likely has some negative physical outcomes related to workload and the need for recovery, risk of injury, etc. That means you aren’t just training the wrong things. You risk losing the opportunity to actually train mental toughness properly.

Can we get over this obsession with physical suffering based mental toughness once and for all, please?

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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.

    2 replies to "Developing tough players"


      I only have three words, “Concur, Concur, Concur!” Being tough physically to me is still being tough mentally to be able to do the physical.
      GREAT POST!!!

      • John Forman

        Glad you liked it Kelly. 🙂

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