Athletes and teams who are mentally tough usually meet or exceed expectations.
It is up to the head coach to develop their players’ mental toughness and ability to overcome adversity.
Coaches develop the mental toughness with their athletes by following a regime that includes building trust, developing individual goals, providing honesty and consistency, stressing focus, emphasizing accountability and giving guidelines.
College coaches like Bowdoin College men’s hockey coach Terry Meagher and University of Maine head coaches Scott Atherley (women’s soccer), Lynn Coutts (softball) and Bob Walsh (men’s basketball), said mental toughness is one of the important traits they seek in evaluating a recruit.
“Being able to handle adversity is so big at the college level because they have to manage their classes, their workouts [practices and games] as well as the social aspect,” Coutts said. “So they have to be mentally tough to fit everything in and balance everything.”
When Atherley is evaluating athletes’ mental toughness, he looks at the type of response they generate on the field.
“If they make a mistake, do they hang their head and kick the ground, or are they action-oriented to make up for the mistake,” said Atherley. “If they give the ball away, is their immediate instinct to fight to get the ball back?
“Then you look for their temperament as the game progresses. Are they impactful early in a game and still impactful at the end? And if you have kids who play three games in a weekend, how well do the play in the third game? You can assess their mental and physical durability.”
Walsh has a unique approach in gauging a player’s mental toughness.
“I like to see him play a bad game because whenever they send you a highlight video, it’s always showing him score 34 points,” he said. “If he shoots 3-for-15, will he defend and rebound and do other things to help his team win?”
Meagher said he looks to see if a recruit has the type of resiliency which enables him “to look at adversity as an opportunity as opposed to a negative.”
He also watches to see how a player “keeps himself going” if things aren’t going well on the ice.
And he stressed that they “have to be passionate.
“They have to find joy in competing and exercising and being with [teammates]. You don’t want somebody who is going to bring everybody else down.”
Meagher has implemented an innovative approach to his coaching style which gives his players significant input into the running of the team. He calls it “shared leadership.”
They have established a council comprised of the captains and six other players, two each from the senior, junior and sophomore classes.
They meet once a week with the coaches and discuss various issues which could range from a particular practice drill to the dress code for away games to the academic rigors in the week ahead.
Each player must make a point at the meeting.
The coaches have the final say on any proposals but Meagher said they usually go along with the players. They convene with the rest of the team to discuss the council meeting.
He said the trust that evolves from this shared leadership proves to be a “great motivator.
“If they trust and believe in you, they don’t want to let you or their teammates down,” he explained.
Goals and guidelines
Maine Sports Hall of Famer and 33-year Skowhegan High School field hockey coach Paula Doughty said she and her teams never talk about winning.
Instead, at the start of the year, she gives her players “goal cards” that outline expectations.
“We list their strengths and two or three things we’d like them to work on. Every player has strengths and we like to build off them,” said Doughty. “We talk about developing as a team and meeting their goals. We focus solely on what we can control. We talk to them about mindset.”
Doughty, who has guided her Indians to 12 state Class A championships in 14 years, pointed out that they faced a situation this season where their goalie was hurt and three other girls had concussions.
“But rather than look at things negatively, you have to say ‘OK, this is what we have to do today [to be successful],” said Doughty.
She also noted that it is important to be “honest with them and not make promises you can’t keep.”
Bangor High School baseball coach Jeff Fahey, who will begin his 15th season this spring and is coming off a state Class A championship, said coaching is “definitely a process.
“You have to set down well-defined guidelines and hold the kids accountable,” he said. “I firmly believe that if you hold kids accountable, they will stay the course whether it’s following team rules, school rules or training rules.”
John Bapst High School football coach Danny O’Connell said “the biggest battle we fight as coaches is motivating our players. That’s 90 percent of it. Ten percent is content.
“You have to treat all of them fairly and with respect but you have to coach each of them differently,” said O’Connell. “It used to be that you coached them all the same.
“But now you have to find the right buttons to push. Some kids respond if you get up in their faces but other kids will shut down if you do that,” O’Connell added.
“Some kids like to be hugged and others don’t,” Doughty said.
It’s also important for a coach to get to know their players and find out what their goals are, according to Coutts.
“You have to have a personal relationship with them to get to know what inspires them. You have to let them know you care about them in order to earn their trust,” she said.
“You have to be empathetic and understand each individual, their backgrounds and what is going on in their lives,” Meagher explained.
Doughty said one of the neat aspects of coaching is those two or three hours a day with the players during practices or games when they are insulated from any other negative aspects of their lives and sharing some enjoyable time with people they care about.
Coutts said players who trust and care about their coaches and teammates have a built-in support group to help them through difficult times.
Mike Siviski, who guided his Winslow High School football team to a Class C state championship this past fall, emphasizes consistency with his players.
“That’s what leads to self-motivation. You have to give them enough tools to bring out their self-motivation,” he said.
That means instilling confidence and making sure they understand the team concept, explained Siviski, who just completed his 30th season at Winslow.
Siviski added that football is different in that “you improve in tiny increments at a time when society wants everything instantly. Football isn’t that way. But when you compare your first game with your last game, there’s no comparison.”
O’Connell said another important aspect for his athletes is getting them to “focus on the next play” and not dwell on the previous play if that play produced a negative result.
“Kids nowadays can fixate on a negative and that can hurt momentum. They’re hard on themselves. They want to do well. You have to tell them that they can’t rewind the tape. You have to go forward. That’s the only way to improve,” said O’Connell.
A coach also needs to access their players strengths and put them in situations where they can be successful, according to Atherley.
The coaches said they try to have some fun events scheduled with their teams to give them a little break from the rigors of the season whether it be a community project or just taking some time off from practice to do something different.
“We’ve played things like dodgeball or capture the flag,” said O’Connell.
When he was an assistant girls basketball coach at Nokomis High School in Newport, “we used to occasionally throw a football around in the gym. The girls thought it was great.”
The coaches feel strongly that productive practices equal strong performances on game day and that sports are an important part of society and the learning process.
“Sports are good for kids. They stay healthier, they do better in school, they learn discipline and they also learn that life is not fair. Not everything goes their way,” Doughty said.