Friday, January 6, 2012


I had the chance to visit with a high school basketball team yesterday, and in their pre-practice meeting, they were referring to an article that I had also once written about a couple of years back. The article had to do with toughness, which ESPN's Jay Bilas has a pretty good reference point about.

Bilas has a great reference point when it comes to competing at a high level of sports – he played basketball at Duke University, and after his playing career ended, joined Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching staff; He has parlayed his playing and coaching career into a role as one of ESPN’s top college basketball analysts.

Elements of an article he once wrote on a couple of years ago ( still draws references today. I think the reason I still refer to it is that it hit on a topic that every coach stresses with their players – toughness.

I think I was shocked about how many coaches from different sports at all types of levels had read the article, and were able to draw from their own experiences when reading and relating to Bilas’ thoughts.

‘…in almost coordinated fashion, I would watch games and see player upon player thumping his chest after a routine play, angrily taunting an opponent after a blocked shot, getting into a shouting match with an opposing player, or squaring up nose-to-nose as if a fight might ensues. I see players jawing at each other, trying to “intimidate” other players. What a waste of time. That is nothing more than fake toughness, and it has no real value.

I often wonder: Do people really understand what coaches and experienced players mean when they emphasize “toughness” in basketball? Or is it just some buzzword that is thrown around haphazardly without clear definition or understanding?’

Bilas referenced that where he came to college thinking that toughness was based on the physical, he realized that it had more to do with the mental. I was always taught that strength could be measured in a weight room, but that toughness was measured by what was inside of you – it wasn’t measured in your ability to kick someone on the other team, but in your ability to get kicked and keep playing; it was not whether you were knocked down, but in your resolve that allowed you to get back up.

Bilas also referenced that he thought toughness was a skill, and as a skill, could be developed and improved. He even created a list of items that he thought were a way that toughness was exhibited in basketball.

Soccer Journal editor Jay Martin had taken the lead from Bilas’ article and created his own list of items that displayed toughness in soccer. I thought it was a great reference point for players to draw from, and had even hung it up in our locker room at the University of Evansville.

Some of the key items were-

Talk on defense: A tough player talks and communicates with teammates while defending, and is so focused on winning that he/she is not only worried about the player that they are guarding, but on helping their teammates as well.

Play so hard, your coach has to take you out: Tough players work so hard that the coach has to take them out to rest. The toughest players don’t pace themselves. The first time I watched the University of North Carolina’s women’s team play, what I was taken back from was that when some of coach Anson Dorrance’s players came off the field, they needed to get oxygen because of how hard they were playing – you could actually see one of the girl’s chests expanding and contracting due to how hard she was breathing when she came off the field. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a player or team play as hard as that team on that day – they are a ‘tough’ team, and it is no coincidence that they compete for a National Championship on an annual basis.

Take responsibility for your teammates: Tough players take responsibility for themselves as well as others. If the bus leaves at 9:00 AM, tough players make sure that they are there on time as well as their teammates, too.

Get out of the comfort zone: A tough player knows that soccer is a game played when tired and sore. When tough players are tired and sore, and feel like they don’t want to run any longer, they run harder.

Take and give criticism the right way: Tough players take criticism without feeling they have to answer back or come up with an excuse. They want to get better. Tough players are not afraid to tell teammates what they need to hear.

Show strength in body language: Tough players project confidence and security with their body language. They don’t hang their heads; they don’t argue with officials.

Look coaches and teammates in the eye: Tough players never drop their heads. They always look their coach in the eye, because if the coach is talking, it is important to them.

Make every game important: Tough players know that every game is important regardless of the opponent. They know if they want to play in a championship game they must play every game like a championship.

Out of any of Jay Bilas' toughness rules, the one that I thought this high school team (and their coach) truly embodied the most was 'Make getting better every day your goal'- We always try to stress with our players at the University of Evansville that their goal should be to make today better than their play yesterday. Tough players come to work every day to get better, and you could see by this team's focus and commitment in practice that they bought into that theory.

Michigan State University basketball coach Tom Izzo said that “Players play the game, but tough players win the game.” Look over this list, and gauge whether your team or children are tough- you can encourage toughness, and the best coaches and parents develop those attributes in their players and children.

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