Develop Mental Toughness with Constant Challenge in Practice

“Talent is a piece of the performance puzzle, but a small piece.” – Penny Werthner

If you ask coaches they would probably rate mental toughness as one of the most important determinants of success. If that’s true do you know how to practically develop it? Do you believe you can develop or change it?

Mental toughness is one of the most used and least understood terms. Coaches throw the word around, but I am sometimes not sure if any of us could define it. Then again, does it matter if we can define it? For me, mental toughness is a state of mind, so what matters most to me is can I create situations for my players to experience mental toughness? 

“There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.” – Denis Waitley

I believe challenging experiences can toughen a players spirit to endure challenges. I also believe success is achieved through effort. So for me mental toughness is a combination of determination and effort. My responsibility as a coach is to constantly challenge my players so that they experience moments that can develop toughness by demonstrating determination and effort.

Most of this process comes down to players deciding between their two choices. Are they going to take responsibility and work harder to persevere when challenged? Or are they going to shut down, make excuses and/or blame others?

To develop mental toughness I need to develop my players mental edge. The goal is:

  1. To get players to cope better with the demands of competition.
  2. To get players to be more consistent in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control.

I want to focus on what we actually do in our practices to create “challenging experiences” that build the locus of control necessary for my players to respond with determination and effort in the face of challenges.

“Coaches need to prepare their team to face the toughest possible challenges and situations. If a team’s own coach does not provide it’s biggest challenge, then an opposing coach and team will do it.” – Dave Smart

Making your practices harder than games is a common coaching concept. In my experiences of observing, evaluating and consulting for coaches, very few actually do this. The reason is because most coaches are too soft. They don’t coach their players hard enough. I don’t mean that you should be an a#@hole to your players. I mean that most coaches don’t actually hold their players accountable to what they teach or ask them to do. 

“You get what you accept”

Part of our strategy to build mental toughness is to put constant challenge on our players to be accountable to what we teach daily in practice. Holding your players accountable to what you teach means that you correct them when they aren’t doing it right. Correction has become such a negative word, but it is essential to learning and development. I tell my players I am going to correct everything we teach because otherwise they won’t do it right. 

How does constant correction get reconciled with the concept of player freedom? Freedom is earned. Freedom is given gradually as players start to work within the parameters of what we have taught. Freedom is given when players start to make decisions that make sense for how we want to play the game of basketball. Eventually there are many decisions that I don’t necessarily agree with but that ultimately are made from a place of intelligence and independence.

“All drills beyond a development focus are competitive toughness drills”

We plan and design our practices so that every drill beyond an initial learning phase is competitive. Game-like competitive drills, where there are winners and losers at the end, build mental toughness. I can make that comment because any list of the attributes of a mentally tough athlete I have ever seen describes the best players I have ever coached. Juan Pablo Favero, who is a coach and sports psychology consultant, lists these seven qualities to describe a mentally tough player and team.

Not surprisingly, those same qualities are required to succeed in any of the game-like competitive drills I choose. If a drill doesn’t challenge players in these ways than I don’t do it in practice. If I use the drills that don’t develop these mental toughness qualities, then I am not developing qualities that transfer to performance. This would mean I was having my players do a useless drill.

Here is a sample drill to help you understand how a drill with constant challenge can build mental toughness.

This drills has many layers. In a team setting you can work on the offensive and defensive skills and tactics you teach. Or you can make it purely about survival where the focus is 100% on succeeding or failing. The decision is up to you as a coach. The drill gives you an idea of how I can put my players in a situation where they are challenged constantly to apply the mental toughness qualities listed by Juan Pablo Favero.


Building mental toughness in basketball practice is an essential aspect of player development and success on the court. By creating competitive, game-like drills that constantly challenge players, coaches provide opportunities for growth and resilience. However, the process extends beyond mere physicality—it requires coaches to blend the art and science of coaching to instill coping mechanisms that help players navigate the demands of competition.

As coaches, our role is not only to develop players’ skills but also to cultivate their mental fortitude. By integrating strategies that challenge players both physically and mentally, we equip them with the resilience and confidence needed to excel in high-pressure situations. Whether it’s pushing through fatigue, overcoming setbacks, or staying focused under pressure, mental toughness is a skill that can be honed through deliberate practice and guidance.

Ultimately, by prioritizing the development of mental toughness alongside technical skills, coaches empower their players to perform at their best when it matters most. Through a blend of challenge, support, and guidance, coaches play a pivotal role in shaping players who are not only skilled athletes but also resilient competitors capable of thriving in the face of adversity.

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