My senior year of high school began in 1995.
I played Pearl Jam over and over on my Walkman and Seinfeld was appointment viewing. But while bands and shows come and go, sports are timeless. Football remains my favorite sport, and I relished the opportunity to play.
In our first game of that football season, we were beaten soundly. We arrived at the next practice to discover that our poor performance was owed to a lack of “toughness.” For us, salvation lied in spending the entire practice jogging around the field and performing calisthenics at various intervals. Even in 1995, it was a questionable strategy for improving the performance, morale and fortitude of the team.
When I think back to that Monday practice, it’s quite clear that it was a missed opportunity for several reasons. And truthfully, these often apply to any practice or training session where the coach’s main goal is to “build toughness.”
1. We Didn’t Get Better
Practice time is valuable.
The foremost priority of any workout or practice should be to elicit a response that is consistent with the athlete performing their best on game day.
In our case, we needed to bolster our ability to execute the offensive and defensive vision of the coaches. Specifically, we needed to improve our blocking, tackling, throwing and catching. We needed to be pushed outside of our comfort zone within those contexts.
Instead, we got really good at jogging and bear crawls, neither of which have much carryover in a contact sport that primarily demands you stay on your feet, react to your opponent, and sprint at full speed.
2. We Learned Nothing
As I recall, we were not a particularly savvy group of football kids.
This was an obvious weakness that needed attention. Time spent helping us better understand our bread-and-butter plays and becoming more confident in their execution could’ve seriously improved our play in the next game and beyond.
That day, we forfeited that chance. Instead, we performed what was basically a mixture of a cross country practice and a military Hell Week workout.
3. We Didn’t Actually Get Tougher
If we were grading the day based upon an increase in our “toughness” quotient, then it was colossal failure.
Some would argue that such an experience builds toughness because it taught us to fight through adversity until the end.
But practice was over at 5:30, not some indeterminate time in the future. Once it became clear that we were participating in a 2-hour jog and crawl fest, we did just enough to get by.
So, I would argue that when the end of the session is defined, it’s relatively easy to slog along until it comes.
I’d also argue that nothing about that practice made us tougher on game day. We weren’t better at recalling information or making critical decisions under fatigue. We weren’t better at tackling or accepting contact. And, because the entire practice was a (very) sub-maximal effort, we didn’t even improve our conditioning in any meaningful way that would translate to football.
Any of those things could have been better addressed with an up-tempo team period with coaches calling the offense and defense and us having to react to what we were hearing and seeing on the field. It would have been an intense, frustrating experience where we probably failed—a lot. But we would have adapted and improved in every facet our coaches needed us to, including “toughness.”
To be clear, this is not a shot at my old coaches. I genuinely like and respect them. To this day, I’d grab a bite and reminisce with them at the first opportunity. It’s also not a shot specifically at football, as the athletics landscape is littered with similar examples. Regardless of where or how it occurs, the approach mentioned above is, and should remain, a product of a bygone era.
Unfortunately, you and I both now such ill-conceived “toughness” workouts are still going on.
My experiences as an athlete turned coach have taught me a better way. I’ve learned that whether it’s on the field or in the gym, the strategy demonstrated above creates a sense of fake toughness that, ironically, detracts from our ability to improve performance.
Smart Workouts > Hard Workouts
“Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
Performance improvement should lie at the core of our workout and practice goals.
Yes, sometimes that means we must physically push beyond our comfort zone. But, in the long-run, “toughness” will never overcome a lack of preparedness.
If it takes 101 blows to split a rock, the same principle applies to our practice or workout plan. It’s consistency that counts, not infrequent displays of extreme intensity.
Yet I’ll occasionally see coaches who mistakenly believe that a few hard workouts here and there are sufficient for getting stronger and improving performance. Usually, these coaches are trying to make up ground with athletes who have attended an offseason program sporadically or who do very little during the season.
The following workout is such an example:
It took no knowledge or skill to write this workout. In fact, it’s obvious that no planning or thought went into its design.
Ultimately, one of the most important jobs of a coach is to place our players in a position to be successful. If we’re not doing that, then we’re failing those we should be helping.
In 1995, I would have expected, maybe even understood, a workout like this. But it’s 2019. The science is better. The application of training principles are better. It’s time for the mentality to catch up.
Again, consistency and discipline are the cornerstones of improvement. No single workout or small sampling of workouts will fast-track progress. Even worse, a workout that overreaches in the name of “toughness” can have deleterious effects.
To wit, I love this quote from strength coach Tony Gentilcore, who states:
“80% of the time – which is almost always – you’re going to show up and just do the work. You’re going to hit all your reps, strain (but not too much), and for all intents and purposes you’re going to complete a mediocre workout.”
We live in the 80%. It’s where the work is done. The remaining 20% is split between days where you feel amazing and those where you feel horrible. Those 10% of days where you feel you can crush the world present an opportunity to do a little extra. Those 10% of days where every step feels like a chore are opportunities to lighten the training volume and focus on regeneration.
Taking time for regeneration activities like foam rolling and improving movement quality are not things to be scoffed at. Investment in these areas, especially on days where your athletes feel sluggish, will lead to better workouts down the line. That’s still getting 1% better each day!
Now, this is not to say that athletes should be told that being mediocre 80% of the time is the “goal.” It’s just that every day won’t be part of the 10% where you feel like Superman. In fact, 90% of days won’t be like that.
But it’s the days when you’re not feeling like Superman yet you’re still able to focus, do your work, and get better that matter most.
Those are the little wins. Those are the true moments of toughness.
Stack up enough of those little wins, and your progress will be anything but mediocre.
How to Truly Be Tough
We know “being tough” in a way that translates to better sports performance isn’t about slogging through punishment workouts.
So how should athletes be tough?
Part of being “tough” is being accountable to yourself, your teammates and your goals. Toughness is being on time. Toughness is doing your job. Toughness is being a great teammate.
Although the coach is responsible for programming a practice or workout (and adjusting accordingly) athletes must take ownership of those things directly within their control.
Ultimately, performance is driven by contributory factors like work volume, sleep and diet.
If smart workouts are the goal, we need to look critically at those areas:
1. Work Volume: Are you recovered from your previous workout(s), or is your battery still on empty? Does your body feel like it was in a car wreck, or is there a spring in your step? Are you pushing yourself to make progress, or are you simply going through the motions?
2. Sleep: Did you get at least eight hours of quality sleep? Or did you go to bed late, play on social media for two hours, and then toss and turn for another three? Did you hit the snooze button 18 times?
3. Diet: Does your daily food intake consistently include a healthy variety of protein, carbs and fats in sufficient quantities, or did you skip breakfast then load up on fast food and sugary snacks? Are you drinking plenty of water to remain hydrated, or is soda your go-to drink?
Think of sleep, diet and exercise as a tripod. If one of the legs of the tripod is broken, it falls over. The better our adherence to sound sleep and diet strategies, the better our workouts.
If we slip in these areas, work quality will suffer and work volume must necessarily be decreased. Good luck being tough when you’re sleeping only five hours a night and eating nothing but candy.
The mantra of fake toughness dictates that hard workouts, for their own sake, are a necessity.
Yet if we blindly follow this mantra, we eventually become overstressed, tired and broken down to the point of suboptimal performance. Some may even wind up injured.
Either way, we’re straying further from our goals, a fact that no amount of toughness can overcome.
Instead, I’d encourage coaches and athletes to play the long game. Think of toughness being more about the consistency of showing up, doing the right thing, and putting in the work.
Coaches must choose to program smartly.
Athletes must choose to make sleep and diet decisions that optimize performance.
Both must work together to ensure that every day, regardless of the agenda, there is a focus on getting 1% better than the day before, while setting themselves up to get 1% better the next.
To do so consistently is hard work that requires grit, determination and discipline.
These qualities not only lead to success, they also exemplify real toughness.
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