Is Toughness Now a Celebration?

“You gotta be tough!”  I can still hear my coaches saying this, but what does it mean?  Why does coach speak seem so simple and clear, yet hard to get sometimes? When I coached 16 and 17 year-olds during my summers in Nashville, I was convinced during our tournaments that our players had misconceptions on toughness -- most of which were derived from what they saw on TV.  

At one point on an ESPN College Game Day, Kirk Herbstreit acknowledged some of the cheap shots and unsportsmanlike conduct that seemed to take over college football the week prior.  He said, “I can’t stand when a corner back lights up a receiver after a 20-yard catch and beats down their chest like they’ve done something.  The only thing they have done is given up a first down!”

TOUGHNESS: the ability to deal with hardship or to cope in a difficult situation

You see it in basketball as well.  Players bow up after a blocked shot or a hard dunk.  Meanwhile, this so called “toughness” turns into one big worthless display of theatrics when the “tough player” gets beat down the floor because he is too busy making some weird face at the camera on the other end of the floor. 

Years ago, I had a chance to speak in Charlotte to a group with Jay Bilas of ESPN.  He communicates on this subject with such clarity and credibility. His original blog post on toughness is now a book, but he begins by simply stating some observations.  Jay says, “I watch games…and see player upon player thumping his chest after a routine play, angrily taunting an opponent…getting into a shouting match with an opposing player, or squaring up nose-to-nose as if a fight might ensue.  I see players jawing at each other, trying to ‘intimidate’ other players.  What a waste of time.  That is nothing more than fake toughness, and it has no real value.”

He then goes on to say that “toughness has nothing to do with size, physical strength or athleticism.  Some players may be born tough, but I believe toughness is a skill, and it is a skill that can be developed and improved.”

In the article, Jay lists nearly 25 elements of true toughness.  For the sake of time, I will share my favorites–what I found to be most relevant to any team.

  1. Tough players play so hard, the coach has to take them out.

  2. Tough players get to their teammates right away.  When a teammate lays his body on the line to dive on the floor or take a charge, the tough players get to him first to help him back up…

  3. Tough players take responsibility for their teammates.  They expect a lot from their teammates, but they also put them first.  When the bus leaves at 9AM, tough players not only get themselves there, but they also make sure their teammates are up and get there, too.  Tough players take responsibility for others in addition to themselves..they give credit to their teammates before taking it themselves.

  4. Tough players take and give criticism the right way.  They can take criticism without feeling the need to answer back or give excuses.  They are open to getting better and expect to be challenged and hear tough things. Tough players listen and are not afraid to say what other teammates may not want to hear, but need to hear.

  5. Tough players show strength in their body language.  They project confidence and security with their body language.  They do not hang their heads, do not react negatively to a mistake of a teammate, and do not whine and complain to officials.  Tough players project strength, and do not cause their teammates to worry about them.  Tough players do their jobs, and their body language communicates that to their teammates–-and to their opponents.

  6. Tough players are alert and active…and they communicate with teammates.  Tough players echo commands until everyone is on the same page.

  7. Tough players concentrate, and encourage their teammates to concentrate.  Concentration is a skill, and tough players work hard to concentrate on every play.  Tough players go as hard as they can for as long as they can.

  8. Tough players take responsibility for their actions.  They make no excuses.

  9. Tough players look their coaches and teammates in the eye.  Tough players never drop their heads.  They always look coaches and teammates in the eye, because if they are talking, it is important to them and to you.

  10. Tough players move on to the next play.  They don’t waste time celebrating a good play or lamenting a bad one.

  11. Tough players are hard to play against–easy to play with — they make their teammates’ jobs easier, and their opponents’ jobs tougher.

  12. Tough players make every game important.  They don’t categorize opponents and games.  They know that if they are playing, it is important.  Tough players understand that if they want to play in the championship games, they must treat every game as a championship game.

  13. Tough players make getting better every day their goal.  Tough players come to work every day to get better and keep their horizons short.  They meet victory and defeat the same way.  They get up the next day and go to work to be better than they were the day before.  Tough players hate losing but are not shaken or deterred by a loss.  Tough players enjoy winning but are never satisfied.  For tough players, a championship or a trophy is not a goal; it is a destination.  The goal is to get better every day.

Jay Bilas ends the article by saying, “Anybody can talk.  Not anybody can be tough.

Thanks Jay.

Perhaps toughness is not a reiteration to others of our own success, but rather a response to adversity; doing what we don’t want to do, fighting feelings we don’t want to feel – perseverance not for the sake of self, but for the team.