Coaching Football's "Little Things"

Developing a Consistently Successful Football Program

Mental Toughness

Posted by admin August - 13 - 2018 - Monday

If you have not seen (I think it’s called) Rollin’ With The Tide on ESPN, you need to check it out! It’s an inside look at the Alabama football program… particularly focusing on Nick Saban. I watched part of it (is there more than 1 episode?) the other night and was verrrrrrry impressed! It was the day that the ‘Bama players reported. I focused on the initial team meeting as Saban welcomed the 2018 players. What he shared was so good! I want to paraphrase what he said cuz I think it’s important for coaches to know.

I am pretty sure that no other coaches were in the room— I didn’t see any! Just Saban and the players. Welllllll… one guy over on the audio/visual machine. They were sitting up straight in their seats and nobody was wearing a hat. Of course, all of these “little things” have been established over the years of success they’ve had; but, it had to start somewhere. Most people don’t remember that Saban’s first year at ‘Bama was not too good. They even lost to a 1-AA team! Things turned around quickly, though.

He welcomed the players and let them know right off the bat that they have a “target on their backs.” Everyone is chasing them. It’s going to require that they continue to work hard to stay on top. Then the first KEY point.

Saban pointed out how opposing schools have hired away a number of the “leaders of his program” to try and figure out what ‘Bama does. However, Saban pointed out that it’s more important HOW they do things… not, what they do! That’s a point that you have to ask yourself when you look at your program, too! HOW do you do things? In the off-season weight program? In your preseason practices? On game night? It’s all part of what Saban calls The Process!

Then, he asks them a very powerful question! He said, “What does it take to break you?!” and added, “What does it take to make you give in?! Is it too hot? Are you too tired? Is it when you don’t feel like working hard? What does it take?!” What Saban then defined is one of those “unanswerable questions” that I’ve been trying to answer for years! Coach said, “What we are talking about here is MENTAL TOUGHNESS!!!”

“You’ve got to have a LOT of mental toughness to sustain what we do here at Alabama as such a high level.”

“It’s not our goal to try to break you! It’s just the way it IS in football.” THAT was the second key. I see some coaches today (not as many as in the past… thank goodness!) who have decided that Lombardi’s Way or Bear Bryant’s Junction Boys (if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, you need to check it out!) is the way to treat players. Break them down… then build them back up. It seems that a couple of prominent college coaches thought that this is the way to “build up” their players! Look what that’s gotten them? Lots of trouble— legal type!

There’s that line between mental toughness and physical toughness that you have to realize that there IS a difference! If a young high school boy hasn’t shown that he likes (or at least doesn’t mind) contact/collisions on the football field, I think it’s too late to try to instill that physical toughness in him. That should’ve been determined when he was in Youth League or Middle School. I just don’t believe you’re going to get a HS kid to start “liking” contact by putting him through a lot of full contact drills; ie., Bull in the Ring; Oklahoma; etc!

I am a strong advocate for developing mental toughness. This comes about, not by physically abusing players, but by challenging them to develop DISCIPLINE! Saban said, “Mental toughness helps you maintain the level of discipline necessary to overcome obstacles.” Notice he said “maintain.” ‘Bama football players already have a high level of discipline. If they don’t, they don’t stay in the program very long.

I’ve written previously about creating (and maintaining) discipline in an earlier post. Scroll back till you find it if you want to discover how to create discipline in your program. Again, though, it is NOT being abusive (physically or mentally) to your players. It is really just having high expectations for them and then… making sure you require them to uphold those standards. Let me give 2 examples and I’ll close.

Hustle was instilled in me from the time I started playing sports back in the 60’s. Why walk when you can jog? Why jog when you can run? Hustle! So, I required our players to run everywhere they went. We crossed Beautiful Bruin Creek on the way to our practice field… which was still 50 yards away. Once you crossed the creek, you ran. If someone saw you walking, you went back! Everyone runs when they’re ON the field. Once you hit the sideline, then you can walk. But, on the field you run! I’d blow the whistle to call up the team at the end of practice. If someone was not running up to me, they ALL went back where they were. I blew the whistle again and watched to be sure that everyone ran this time. If it was the end of Conditioning period, they went back and ran another sprint! Then they got another chance to show their discipline/hustle by running this time! It, hustle, was a core value for me and it was something that I stood by and did not let slide. Our teams became known as hustling teams. It was very (mentally) intimidating to opponents over the years!

One more example. I was also very picky about how our players wore their uniforms. I felt it showed team and individual pride. Both socks up to the top of their calves. Everyone wore the same black game shoes. No sleeves taped up so they could show off their guns. Shirt tails tucked in (that one did NOT change!!!) My daughter came to me one day. She’d just started high school and it was the same school that I was the HC at. She gave me a lesson in “letting the guys show a little bit of individuality.” “Let them wear the cleats they want to wear, Dad. If they want the ‘no sock look’, let them.” Interestingly, I’d just read a book by Bobby Bowden, former HC at Florida State. He’d run into the same thing with his college players. I sat down and prayerfully considered what my daughter said. I decided that I was willing to “bend” a bit. When I announced that some changes were going to occur with how I let them wear their uniform… you’d have thought I’d just handed each of them a $100 bill! Now… the shirt tails did have to remain in. That, in my opinion, just looks sloppy. NO discipline; no pride! Socks could be white, navy or gold. They just had to match. Shoes could be black, white, navy or gold (our school colors)… they had to be the same and NO writing on them. My willingness to compromise showed the players that I was willing to be flexible without losing our discipline.

That’s what you have to decide. What are your standards? What are your core values? Once you determine what they are, then you have to continually uphold them until, as Saban said, you maintain/sustain your level of mental toughness.

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