Dom Starsia: Mental Toughness Delivers Success - 01/03/18 01:10 AM
It is about to be that time of the year in our sport when a little mental toughness is required of all participants. As the start of the lacrosse season has slowly migrated into January, players, coaches, managers, trainers and fans find themselves in a survival mode as they force themselves through practice and games. What are the characteristics of those who will endure the early season, thrive in the daily battles and flourish in reaction to the competitive challenges?
Let’s examine the topic.
I received a call about a year from Marquette coach Joe Amplo asking if I could come to Milwaukee to consult with them about an effort to start an inner-city lacrosse program. There was strong interest from the university president and the local chamber of commerce to find a way to connect with under-served, young urban men and women. I was happy to oblige and looked forward to my first visit to this emerging Midwestern lacrosse outpost. Joe met me at the airport and offered a tour of Marquette’s lacrosse facilities. It did not take long, however, since the Golden Eagles didn’t have a locker room nor indoor practice facility, barely had a stadium, lack a dedicated meeting space and just procured adequate offices. (Did I mention that they just beat Denver for the second year in a row, captured their second consecutive Big East title and were headed for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament? This all in their fifth year of existence.)
When I asked Joe how all that was possible, his straight-forward reply was, “We recruit kids for whom all those other things are not important.” While I am not sure there are enough of those particular prospects, for whom a visit to the facilities at Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan won’t turn heads, Marquette has clearly found a formula for its own success. They have broadened the definition of toughness in our lacrosse lexicon. Wait a second, lacrosse is a private school sport, played in Garden City with guys in polo shirts! You might want to think twice about that characterization as you consider practicing lacrosse outdoors in Wisconsin in January, February and March.
Let’s talk about mental toughness and its relationship to success.
If you asked any competitive athlete how he would like to be described, the word “tough” would emerge consistently near the top of the list. The definition and concept of toughness has changed in my lifetime. I grew up in a time when salt pills, limited hydration, up/downs in the searing heat, daily live Oklahoma tackling drills and coaches screaming derogatory comments at me and my teammates were almost a requirement to make us tough enough to play high school football. I recall struggling with that connection but not questioning its wisdom. Try to imagine a football coach in these present days following Bear Bryant’s example with his first Texas A & M team told in the blistering story Junction Boys.
I do not have all the physical nor psychological data on a topic like this but I am resolute in my belief that players do not need to be put in to physical peril nor encouraged to act accordingly in order to identify and enhance athletic toughness. I have always been much less impressed with those lacrosse players who would seem to define their lives by being primarily physical — swinging your stick, always looking for the big hit, acting tough or happy to tell you how tough they are — than I am with those who simply do the right thing over and over. We are all drawn to the stories of those who get knocked down, get back up and have the fortitude to persevere. Early in my career, I came across a quote by Jim Lohrer that resonated to my core: “Consistency is the ultimate measure of mental toughness in an athlete and is the distinguishing characteristic of a champion.” My coaching philosophy over a long career was built on that premise.
You do not have to hit someone like an NFL outside linebacker, take a punch like a professional boxer or stare down personal endangerment like those in the military to meet the requirement for mental toughness. We see glowing examples of mental toughness every day, all around us; if you get up for work every day, care for your family, love your mate, do your job consistently well, you may be mentally tough enough. If you are a person that family, friends and teammates can turn to when life seems about to go off the rails, you may be tougher than you think. Winston Churchill said, “When you are going through heck, keep going.” We may not picture Churchill in this literal context, but those who emerge at the end of that journey may be the quiet disciples of that quality.
It bears repeating that consistency is the trademark characteristic of toughness. Doing the right thing over and over again; doing it when it needs to be done. A player who can’t or won’t adjust his fundamentals to hit a big shot more than once in a while, the player who gets a tough groundball once in a while, who gives in on defense when he tires, who looks for shortcuts in the weight room or who picks his spots in the conditioning, will not likely be the one you turn to when a game is being decided.
Coaches are the role models here. Are you organized every day? Do you have your practice plan up on the board in the locker room? Do you hold your players to consistent standards of practice performance and behavior? Are you early on to the field? Are you excited every day? Do you visit with the non-starters regularly? Do you carry the ball bag? This is not a model that will necessarily be recognized on the first day, but players will begin to strive to match your strong, quiet bearing.
Tough players have a resilient spirit. They absolutely accept failure as part of the process. They are convinced that getting knocked to the ground reflects effort and growth and often come up smiling. They manage their discomfort in every instance. These players forget about a shot the very moment it leaves their stick and are immediately on to the next play.
This resilient spirit leads to poise and unbreakable body language. The mentally tough do not take careless fouls, they don’t retaliate in the heat of a moment, they play through pain, they don’t blame teammates, and they do not exhibit athletic uncertainty. At halftime of our 2003 regular season game with Syracuse in the Dome, Chris Rotelli sat in the middle of the locker room bleeding from a “walnut” swelling on his forehead. With a sore shoulder and his fresh stitches, he went out and scored the winner late in a one-goal game. In the larger team context, Virginia had not won a national championship in 27 years when we found ourselves up three goals at halftime in the 1999 Finals. I told the team as we were about to exit the locker room on that sweltering day that “Syracuse will make a run at us here late in the game fellas, no matter what, run everywhere, run to the face-off line, run to the bench, don’t give an inch.” It was no small matter, and we needed a strong, clear signal of our intent as we exited the locker room. The Orange closed to within one with three minutes to go, but we rose up and made the plays.
Resiliency, poise, body language and a little sense of humor doesn’t hurt. Mentally tough athletes often have that little devilish smile that seems to indicate that they know something that the rest of us don’t recognize. They might be trash talkers, but they don’t give in to it; it never affects their play. What I may miss the most about coaching is the give and take on the practice field with those special athletes who give it back (respectfully) as good as they were getting it from me. Smiling helps you cope.
Poise also refers to taking responsibility. I have always had a simple set of rules for players and one of them is “don’t whine.” Someone put it very well: “You take what life gives you, you make something out of it. Everything else is just whining.” The coaches are screwing you, the professors don’t like you, your parents aren’t fair, your stick doesn’t work… it’s truly not about any of that and, even if it was true (some of it not impossible to imagine), you need to persevere in spite of those issues. Players who come in to my office and imply that they are not playing more simply because I don’t like them, I tell them all, “tough luck.” Even if it was true — and it hardly ever is— I’m the head coach, and you are going to have to find a way to succeed in spite of this personal dilemma. I also tell them that putting the best players on the field is not nearly the most difficult thing I do. Don’t whine.
Selflessness is another important characteristic of the mentally tough. Booker Washington said, “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” Mentally tough players don’t even consider the first part of that statement. “How can I lift others?” Oh, by lifting myself? .. OK, I’ll do that!” They live to serve the team and those around them, without hesitation. In every daily endeavor, we will ultimately improve our own lives more when we put the welfare of others before our own. I truly admired Tim Tebow’s description of the quality he was looking for in a life partner — someone with a “servant’s heart.” If you want to be a great coach, a great player, a leader, a captain, a good husband and father, the most mentally tough among us come to all those circumstances with a servant’s heart. Tim Tebow may not have the arm for the NFL nor be able to hit a big league curveball, but he is one of the great leaders in college football history and a poster boy for toughness.
While we have talked about the qualities and characteristics of toughness, its manifestations in practice come in different shapes and sizes. I would put Greg Louganis beside Ronnie Lott on any high end of the scale, Kerri Strug alongside Willis Reed, Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, Lindsey Vonn, Jackie Robinson, the late Dale Earnhardt and on and on. The 1980 U.S. Hockey Team endured Herb Brooks and coalesced around a commitment to toughness and determination. The 2011 Virginia lacrosse team went from talented to tough midway through that season and persevered in spite of being down three goals with three minutes to play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, down three goals early in the Quarterfinals and having lost four of their top five players going in to the Semifinal. It certainly required a certain toughness for the 2017 Maryland men’s team to deal with the ghosts of 42 years of championships past.
How do we encourage and build toughness in our athletes and our teams? We need to explore other avenues than simply putting our athletes in additional situations of physical vulnerability. In the final third of that 2011 season, we went to live GBs every day in an attempt to emphasize a requirement for toughness. My heart leapt when our captain went down in a heap during this drill in a practice at the stadium the day before the Semifinal with Denver. You might get tougher, but you are likely to run out of players if you load up on live GBs and 1v1s. In fact, the winningest college football coach of all time with 489 wins is John Gagliardi (not the Lacrosse player) from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. Using unconventional methods, Gagliardi’s philosophy includes no yelling, no whistles, no sprints, no calisthenics, and he does not allow ANY live tackling in practice. He recalled in a recent article that they had not made one since 1958!
You reinforce the qualities of mental toughness before you step on to the field. Insist on attention to detail, set standards and hold the players accountable. Keep the locker room neat, no meals in the locker room immediately before practice (plan your day better!), finish reps in the weight room and on the practice field. My common refrain to players is that “the fruit is at the bottom.” You need to dig down in order to get to the fruit, get through all that yogurt to get to the good stuff! Whether it is the very end of a drill, a full extension of an exercise in the weight room or the final repetition in the running. Make sure we are finishing our drills because we want to make that play at the late critical moment on game day. Be on time for study hall and prepared for tutors. West Genesee has taught us the value of dressing properly for practice and games. A little touch of self-discipline, a little piece of being mentally tougher.
You truly establish the culture of your team on the practice field. Let them know that when they cross that line, they are ready to work. Chin straps are buttoned, have a plan for pre-practice shooting, insist on lining up properly for stretching and sticks ready for the workout. Practice starts and there are “no palms up” (body language), no offsides in practice, no cursing allowed, no pushes in the back, no retaliation fouls EVER, finish drills and run the first and last sprint equally hard. There are others, and you should identify your own list and implant your own athletic priorities. Failure to comply and the whole team pays the price (something firm but sensible to get their attention, to make your point). Rather than thinking about additional “tough” drills, emphasize to the players that “every” drill contributes to mental toughness.
You establish standards in the locker room and on the practice field and demand attention to detail and consistent execution. Young men want discipline in their lives. They may moan at first, complain about a strict adherence to minor routines but they will come to appreciate a consistent, even-handed policy. In addition, the mentally tough among them will flourish in this atmosphere. Whether it is athletics, business or simply the rest of one’s life, we all need a little mental toughness to get through the events we encounter on our daily journey.
Contributions by IL