January 14, 2011

Toughness: I Can Has It?

    Meme-induced title aside, one of the biggest issues I hear coaches talking about is how to build toughness. I don't think there's a single coach in America who would describe his players as 'a little too tough'. Physicality cannot be replaced on the football field and it's an unbelievably consistent thing for the more physical, but less talented team to persevere and win. But toughness is not just physicality, it's something more than that.

    So… What is it, then?

    As I've seen it amongst coaches, toughness is frequently thought of as a physical characteristic. A kid who plays through pain is 'tough', whereas the kid who cannot work off a sprained toe is 'weak' or 'has no heart'. We harp on this issue constantly, trying to get kids to recognize the difference between being hurt and being injured, to let go of the apron strings, to toughen up and be a man, all that nonsensical jingoistic/rhetorical BS. In my mind, toughness is a mindset and a way of being, not a physical ability.

    The kid who plays with a broken finger, he's tough, no doubt about it. But it's not because he's playing hurt, I actually think playing hurt is a foolish and dangerous and counter-productive notion. It's because he's refusing to let up, despite obstacles that are arising. The kid who gets pancaked EVERY SINGLE PLAY for the entire game and keeps getting up, he's a tough SOB. He may not be able to play the double team very well, but he sure as hell qualifies as 'tough' because he isn't folding. I think that being tough is more about how you mentally respond to situations and moments that go against you than how you block out or ignore pain or inconvenience. It's more of an accomplishment, in my opinion, to fully acknowledge the negatives of a situation and deal with it than to ignore them and pretend like everything is OK. It takes more mental strength, more discipline, more accountability to yourself.

    How Do We Build It?

    This a part where I'm going to more or less outsource my philosophy to an author: The New Toughness Training by James Loehr. Loehr basically boils it down to a few things: emotional flexibility, responsiveness and strength. You need to be emotionally flexibile, you need to learn to respond with the appropriate attitude and mindset, and you need to be emotionally strong enough to take it.

    Emotional flexibility is basically the ability to not get stuck into a certain emotional position. Being emotionally rigid increases your chances of breaking when things don't go your way, a sure-fire sign of 'weakness' to many classical types. By having the appropriate mental state and recognizing that things will occasionally go against you, flexibility is gained. Much like the Buddhist concept of impermanence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impermanence), recognizing that nothing is permanent, nothing is fixed, nothing is certain gives you a certain freedom to respond when things don't go as you'd like.

    Responsiveness is an interesting concept and I truly believe it is about building a mindset within yourself or your charges. A popular internet meme sensation are the courage wolf pictures (Courage Wolf, Frequently NSFW, Always Fun), which I actually think are kind of awesome examples of emotional responsiveness. A few favorites that I think might show the kind of responsiveness that I like: "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional", "Bite off more than you can chew, then chew it", "Someone dislikes you for no reason, give them a reason", and my personal favorite "The cops are here, sucks to be them". There's no room for sulking or passivity or weakness in that kind of an attitude, it's very, very alpha and it's very, very strong.

    Strength is strength. Much like physical strength, which requires stress and then rest to build to new levels, emotional strength requires more of the same. How we incorporate that into what we're doing is somewhat of a personal choice, but the football analogy I think might be best would be playing a progressively difficult pre-season. Not only that, but a progressively difficult pre-season versus schools that mirror more difficult programs down the road. Playing a Wing-T in the late part of your league schedule? Schedule a Wing-T team in the pre-season. Stress, then recover.

    Ah, I see.

    Do you though? Do you? Almost everyone wants to have a tough, physical program, even spread guys. Except Kurt Bryan. But being tough isn't necessarily about the drills you do or your kids' backgrounds, it's about how we train them to be emotionally strong, responsive, and flexible. Not unlike our physical training that we do, we have to have a measure of mental and emotional training as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment