Mental Toughness: Training Secrets for Winning the Close Ones

When talent is more or less equal, the mentally tough usually come out on top. Use these techniques to increase your willpower and effort on the field.

We train all year for the opportunity to succeed, yet at some point we encounter an opponent of equal or greater speed, strength and scheme. When we meet our match and find ourselves in a down-to-the-wire fight, the team with more mental toughness usually prevails.

If only self-control and tenacity were qualities we could train. Good news! They are.

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The best teams are full of athletes with exceptional willpower: the ability to delay gratification and control emotions under trial. The famed Stanford Marshmallow Test put preschoolers in a room, each with their own marshmallow. They were told they could eat the marshmallow or wait to eat until the adult returned and then receive an extra marshmallow. Those who waited the 15 minutes displayed creative strategies for self-control. Fifty years later, those disciplined preschoolers generally have lower BMI, lower addiction rates, lower divorce rates, and higher SATs.

The correlation to sport: When you're tired, will you choose rest and temporary relief or strive toward abstract goals of pride and accomplishment? When frustrated, will you lash out angrily and get a technical foul, or can you put the good of your team over that temporary emotional impulse? Will you lose focus and jump offsides? In the most crucial moments, these questions of willpower dictate wins and losses.

Willpower can be trained. Athletes must be put into emotionally taxing situations before the game. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, explains: "This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following a routine when an inflection point arrives."

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For example, condition athletes right before the most mentally taxing part of practice. Explain that the goal is to perfect complicated plays in mental fatigue. Add a carrot or a stick, and the athletes will creatively find their own routines for willpower. Consistently put athletes in situations where they must delay gratification. Where I coach, football season begins with a conditioning test to ensure athletes prepare all summer and arrive in shape. Those who do so are excused from the conditioning test. Vacations happen, but showing up when in town is a habit pertinent to success. Nothing takes more willpower than showing up four days a week for tough two-hour voluntary workouts at 8 a.m. on summer days. Some sleep through alarms and find excuses, but the dominant culture shifts toward greater mental toughness.

Another essential strategy to inculcate mental toughness and encourage work ethic is to praise effort, not performance. Psychologist Carol Dweck studied the effects of praising intelligence or effort on over 400 New York 5th graders. She found that groups praised for intelligence wanted easy tasks and gave up when tasks grew too difficult, while those praised for effort creatively explored options and persisted. Those praised for effort were not afraid of challenges, because mistakes didn't present a threat to their identity. The lesson is clear. The most talented athletes should not receive favoritism or hero worship among coaches for performance. Coaches must intentionally and consistently praise the athletes who display willpower and exert great effort. In my programs, I encourage coaches to choose a weekly off-season athlete of the week. Give it a creative name, such as the "Big Cat," and make sure each week to identify the specific effort, attitude and willpower that led to the selection.

RELATED: Why Confidence Isn't Always the Solution to Mental Toughness

As with all things, it's about consistency, not complication. If willpower and effort are emphasized consistently, change is inevitable. Never reward lack of discipline. This goes against our "everyone gets a trophy" culture, but it is the key to training mental toughness. Athletes must see privilege and success as earned through sacrifice. Set up processes for athletes to earn their gear. Number selection and helmet selection tend to be highly valued. Order of selection does not have to be random. Reward self-discipline. The Marines have a mantra: Earned Never Given. Few people (if any) have as much experience and success training mental toughness.

Perhaps this approach is the key to winning the close ones. It's certainly the secret to success in life.


  • Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business.
  • Stanford Marshmallow Test:
  • Strengthening Willpower Article:
  • Carol Dweck, "Praise Effort":

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