Authors: William Steffen1, Conrad Woolsey2, Ronald Quinn3, Brandon Spradley4
Affiliations: 1Wingate University, 2University of Western States, 3Xavier University, 4United States Sports Academy
Dr. Brandon Spradley
Chair of Sports Management
United States Sports Academy
One Academy Drive
Daphne, Alabama 36526
Bill Steffen is an Assistant Professor of Sport Science at
Wingate University and serves as the Chair of the United Soccer Coaches Ethics
Committee and a Senior National Staff Coach. Dr. Steffen won two NCAA National
Championships in women’s soccer while coaching at the University of North
Carolina and has 28 years of NCAA coaching experience, in addition to playing
professional soccer for five years.
Conrad Woolsey is the Director of Sport and Performance Psychology
at the University of Western States. As a nationally recognized expert in the
field of sport and performance psychology he is a Certified Mental Performance
Consultant (CMPC) through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP)
and a member of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Sport Psychology
Ronald Quinn is the Director of MEd in Coaching Education &
Athlete Development at Xavier University. Dr. Quinn is considered a leading
authority in youth soccer and coaching education presenting at prestigious
national and international conferences.
Brandon Spradley is the Chair of Sports Management and an Associate
Professor at the United States Sports Academy.
Dr. Spradley was a four-time NCAA regional qualifier and a two-time NCAA
national qualifier in track and field running on nationally ranked relay teams
for The University of Alabama.
Toughness in Coaching
Researchers have explored the mental toughness
that is associated with elite athletes as a concept relating to specific
activities and sports; however, there is limited research concerning mental
toughness among elite coaches. This study expanded previous research by
investigating elite coaches’ (N=22) perspectives of what attributes were most
important for defining mental toughness in coaching. Results of coaching focus
groups interviews yielded several themes which were incorporated into a
definition of mental toughness of a coach. Mental toughness of a coach is a
complex interaction of several characteristics: (1) a determined mindset; (2)
resiliency; (3) confidence; and (4) a strong belief in the coach’s system,
processes, and actions; all of these characteristics result in consistent behaviors
and emotional responses. Coaches were asked to list attributes that they felt
were descriptive of the ideal mentally tough coach. Their list included
confident, resilient, consistent, positive spirit, energetic, passionate,
optimistic, adaptable, possessing inner strength, and patient. These attributes
were discussed in consideration of coaches’ rationale for these choices.
Examining mental toughness can positively assist coaches seeking to become the
best they can be.
Key words: Mental toughness,sport coaching, psychological skills
Although mental toughness has been
studied extensively in recent years (2, 20, 24, 36), the concept has been
described as one of the most over-used, yet least understood, terms in sport
with nearly all desirable mental attributes linked to sport-related success
being classified as mental toughness (23). Previous work in compiling desirable
cognitive attributes attempted to better define the concept of mental toughness
(4, 23). Crust (8) has more directly approached mental toughness with the
following suggestion: “a mentally tough individual would exhibit different
patterns of reactivity to standardized stressors, than would a less tough
individual” (p. 594). Additionally,
Crust (8) reported that observable behaviors could be consistently noted in
mentally tough individuals, and behavioral checklists could be created for
certain activities. Until recently, there has been little work in this area, considering
the historical importance placed on the mental toughness construct (32). However,
Crust (7, 8) has written comprehensive reviews of investigations into mental
toughness with the goal of establishing a foundation of understanding.
Much of the early research that
examined mental toughness has focused on identifying potential constructs that
may lead to the development of mental toughness within athletes. Gucciardi, Gordon, and Dimmock (22)
identified various roles that a coach may play in helping athletes develop
mental toughness. These included the coach–athlete relationship, coaching
philosophy, training strategies, and negative experiences. Additionally, many
studies have examined mental toughness in specific sports such as soccer (34),
tennis (6), rugby (29), swimming (11), gymnastics (33), and cricket (2). Jones
et al. (23) has posited the need to examine mental toughness in alternative roles
beyond athletics. For example, a recent study examined the impact of a mental
toughness training program on early-career English football referees, which led
to the referees’ improved overall performance (31). While coaches have
frequently been studied to determine their perceptions in relation to mental
toughness (35), this has often been framed as the development of mental
toughness among athletes. Very little research has explored concepts of mental
toughness as it relates to the coaching profession. This study addresses the
need to investigate the mental toughness of coaches.
There should be an understanding
that while the definition of mental toughness may have common attributes across
several roles, there may be differences among differing sport-specific roles,
such as those of players and coaches. For example, athlete-specific mental
toughness for an offensive lineman in American football may feature many different
key factors than mental toughness for a billiards player. Indeed, mental
toughness can be expressed in many different ways across different sports (2).
Similarly, it can be hypothesized that the concept and constructs of mental
toughness among coaches may be quite different than those among athletes. Thus,
in order to best assist coaches seeking to become mentally tough, examining a
definition and attributes for mental toughness in coaching is appropriate and
should be further researched.
Despite limited education or
training programs for assisting with such mental challenges, the stress and
pressure felt among coaches has been documented (25). These substantial mental
challenges experienced by coaches suggest a need for further exploration and
the development of a specific definition of mental toughness for coaches. Such a definition may benefit coaches and
athletes by helping coaches survive the rigors of coaching for greater lengths
of time. As coaches continue their careers, they will have the opportunity to
learn more and continue to polish their craft. This definition of mental
toughness would be different from the Jones et al. (23), Crust and Clough (9),
and Gucciardi, Gordon and Dimmock (21) definitions of mental toughness for
athletes. Attributes should differ substantially as the job requirements for an
athlete and coach contain significant differences. In an effort to advance the
science of mental toughness related to coaching, the purpose of this study was
to explore the concept of mental toughness among a sample of elite sport
This Intuitional Review Board (IRB)
approved study followed the methodology used by Coulter, Mallett, and Gucciardi
(5) based on previous work by Jones, et al. (23). Their process, however, used elite athletes instead
of coaches to investigate mental toughness through focus group interviews. As
in the previous study on athletes, data were gathered from semi-structured
interviews and were utilized to define mental toughness. In the present study, elite
coaches were operationally defined as having won a world, professional, or National
Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) national championship. This definition
is parallel to the structure of the elite athlete definition provided by Jones
et al. (23). Elite coaches (N=93) were contacted and invited to participate via
email. The email addressed the purpose, procedure, and requirements for the study.
Of these elite coaches contacted, 22 coaches agreed to participate. Each member of the group was then sent a
message containing details of the study. Informed consent was obtained.
Phone-based focus groups of four to seven coaches were formed based on
participants’ available schedules. A coach with training in sport psychology
conducted semi-structured interviews with each group, keeping the discussion
focused while still allowing individual viewpoints and experiences to be
expressed (27). Demographic information included sport, number of years
coaching (all sports), levels coached, athletes’ gender, and coach’s ethnicity,
gender, and age.
The interviews consisted of three
sections: (1) defining mental toughness of coaches; (2) whether mental toughness
of coaches can be developed; and (3) what the attributes of the ideal mentally
tough coach are. Phone conversations from the focus group discussions were the
primary source of data. A second researcher typed transcripts from all
conversations, which yielded 30 pages of text. This investigation differed from
the methods of Jones et al. (23) as that study’s authors used three athletes
per group. Larger focus groups were incorporated in this investigation as
several researchers felt larger group numbers yielded richer, more diverse data
(1, 13); thus, this study used focus groups consisting of 4–7 coaches.
Following the completion of all group calls, data transcripts were grouped into
meaning units based on all researchers’ agreement. Three investigators reviewed
all commentaries from focus group discussion transcripts. Following review, meaning
units (dialog from the transcripts which represented a single idea) were
determined. From the meaning units, raw themes emerged and were consolidated
into categories. For the next stage, individual coaches received an email
containing a written consensus of the definition of mental toughness of coaches
based on the focus group calls for reflection and commentary. Additionally, the
email contained a compilation of all attributes from focus group calls. Coaches
listed their top ten mental attributes of the ideal mentally tough coach in
order of priority with one being the most important attribute. Attributes were
then ranked on the result of the 22 elite coaches’ responses.
Focus groups produced eight, 15,
21, and 33 categories. The investigators compiled the categories and obtained
the following definition from the input of all elite coaches: Mental toughness of a coach is a complex
interaction of a determined mindset, resiliency, confidence and a strong belief
in the coach’s system, processes, and actions, which result in consistent
behaviors and emotional responses. A list of 46 attributes of the ideal mentally tough
coach was collected (see Table 1).
Table 1 Attributes of Mental Toughness According to Elite Coaches
|Adaptable||Doesn’t ever want to show panic||Patient|
|Analytical||Doesn’t sacrifice respect to gain superficial popularity||Powerful|
|Consistent||Has inner strength||Resilient|
|Controls emotions||Has a positive spirit||Secure|
|Courageous||Has a willingness to push beyond perceived limits||Stoic|
|Detached||Not afraid of what other people think||Strong-willed|
|Determined||Optimistic||Undaunted by small failures|
|Doesn’t ever want to panic||Passionate to improve and get better|
focus group calls, the development of the definition of mental toughness of
coaches and the compilation of attributes, coaches were contacted individually
to perform member checking. Coaches were emailed the definition of the mental
toughness of a coach and asked to consider the definition prior to a phone call
from the researchers. Member checking allows members of a focus group to
consider the original conversations in addition to considering the results of
those conversations. All coaches felt the definition was appropriate and
accurate. One coach felt the definition was too wordy and did not roll off the
tongue; however, the coach agreed the definition was suitable.
submitted a list of the ten attributes that each felt were representative of
the ideal mentally tough coach. Attributes were ranked by coaches with 10
points for the most important characteristic, nine points for the second most
important characteristic followed by decreasing importance for each decrement
in score. A score was obtained by dividing the total number of points for each
characteristic by the number of coaches. These attributes included ten
characteristics: (1) Confident (M= 7.33); (2) Resiliency (M= 4.42); (3)
Consistent (M= 4.08); (4) Has a positive spirit (M= 3.83); (5) Energetic (M=
3.42); (6) Passionate (M= 3.17); (7) Optimistic (M= 2.75); (8) Adaptable (M=
2.67); (9) Inner strength (M= 2.42); (10) Patient (M= 1.92).
attributes are discussed with inclusion of the coaches’ comments obtained
during the focus groups. Several of the characteristics overlap, but coaches
felt these characteristics were necessary to help ‘paint a picture’ of the
ideal mentally tough coach.
confidence was a key ingredient of mental toughness for coaches. There were two
motivations for this mentioned by coaches. Coaches need to act confident themselves
to develop confidence in their athletes (16). Additionally, coaches felt
confidence helped produce more productive coaching behaviors. Coach A summarized confidence by saying “mentally tough coaches definitely
have the attitude and project that to their players, that you can do this, that
kind of confidence, that ‘can do, we are going to figure it out’ type
described the need to endure long hours of involvement. This involvement
includes practice and training, planning, recruiting, and travel. Beyond that,
coaches need to endure the ups and downs associated with competitive athletics.
Coach B described the ideal mentally tough coach as “being able to deal with the
adversity and probably the successful moment equally as well”. Thus, coaches
felt this characteristic is necessary for periods of both success and struggle.
The “ability to kind of consistently
bring together their best effort as a coach, a teacher, to the players to the
team that they have no matter what the circumstances” was put forward by Coach
C as a necessity for the mentally tough coach. Maintaining a consistent outlook
throughout the course of a season with the inherent ups and downs was mentioned
by coaches in an attempt to describe attributes of the mentally tough coach.
a positive spirit
Positivity was a necessary
ingredient for mentally tough coaches. Coach B stated a mentally tough coach
was “an optimist that isn’t fazed by a few loses or setbacks, by a difficult
challenge with a difficult athlete and player management issues”. Many coaches
felt it was easy to fall victim to negative experiences and have those
experiences determine an outlook. The mentally tough coach resisted and
maintained a positive spirit.
Coach D described the mentally
tough coach by stating “They ‘gotta’ have passion for the game. A coach has to
have passion for the game and the kids feed off of that, and they know it.” This sentiment was shared by many
participants as a source for other characteristics.
The ability to be optimistic, tied
to consistency and resilience, was summarized by Coach E’s statement: “The
really great coaches, in their core, are optimistic about everything.”
A mentally tough coach will likely
have a lengthy career. During their careers, coaches would need to progress and
adapt to changing technical and tactical issues in addition to changing social
phenomenon. Coach F felt mentally tough
coaches “think that mental toughness also has to do with being able to adapt.
It’s easy to, just particularly those of us that have done it for a number of
years, they kind of go back to what has worked. Well, what worked 20 years ago
doesn’t work today and so you got to have that energy to bring, to go after and
look after new ideas and re-invent yourself and re-invent your process and
Many coaches felt being mentally
tough requires fortitude. This inner strength was especially salient regarding coaching-related
personnel and management issues. Coach G summarized this sentiment by stating
that participating coaches: “think that this capacity to manage people, they
are also very strong and powerful, is a critical quality in the mentally tough
Patience is required to be a
mentally tough coach. Similar to resilience, patience was seen to be important
as those individuals surrounding the mentally tough coach may not demonstrate
patience. The following statement from Coach B summarized this feeling:
“Flexible, patient, adaptable … you don’t let your emotions determine your
actions. That’s a good point. To me that’s mental toughness too. You know, when
you want to shoot somebody, or when somebody should be shot, and you handle
The value of mental toughness for
athletes has been established for a long time (18), but this characteristic has
only recently been investigated on a more objective basis. Authors have investigated
mental toughness in specific activities such as cricket (2), rugby (14, 16, 29),
football/soccer (5, 10, 19, 21, 32, 34), ice hockey (28), fencing (12),
swimming (11), and gymnastics (33). This investigation examined coaching-related
mental toughness. The value of learning more about mental toughness for
coaching and elite coaches’ perspectives lies in understanding the specific
characteristics that help create mentally tough coaches. Coaches demonstrating
mental toughness may be more successful in their careers, and thus, bring more
benefits to the athletes they serve and support. The definition
of mental toughness based on this investigation supports behaviors that will
enable a coach to continue with positive, appropriate coaching behaviors
throughout any issues that may arise. This positive motivating factor could help
coaches seek to further understand how mental toughness can apply to their
Several researchers have
investigated the way in which mental toughness is developed (15, 17, 18, 22, 30). Indeed, if mental toughness is such a
desirable characteristic, sport psychology practitioners need to pursue ideas
regarding its development. By listing attributes of the ideal mentally tough
coach, coaches seeking to continue to improve by becoming more mentally tough
can work to develop these characteristics. Several of these characteristics can
be developed and demonstrated over time; thus, developing mental toughness is an
experiential improvement process.
The paradox between the mental
toughness attributes, consistency and adaptability, may be better understood
through further examination of the coaches’
focus group discussion comments. In the discussions, the focus of consistency
was on coaches’ personality traits and interaction styles with others.
Adaptability was considered necessary for technical and tactical changes needed
for successful training approaches and game(s) strategy management.
Additionally, changes in social phenomena, such as evolving technology, may
require coaching changes.
The leading factor, confidence, may
be an elusive attribute to develop as a beginning coach may not experience much
success as defined in terms of winning percentage. Coaches may need to focus on
other positive developments, including personal development through means such
as education and team/athlete process gains, in order to help foster increased
confidence. Given the importance that these successful coaches placed on
confidence, coaches seeking increased mental toughness through greater
confidence should further their education relative to their sport and coaching
methodology. Coaches should take advantage of opportunities to coach in a
variety of circumstances in order to add experience and skills to their
repertoire. These factors may enhance confidence within the coaches to be able
to effectively use mental toughness skills.
Resiliency may be increased through
coaches’ discussions of obstacles with mentors, peers, and staff. Learning how
other coaches deal with difficult times may help coaches develop solutions to
aid in resolving problems occurring throughout their careers.
Coaches may develop adaptability to
changes in technology and the way in which it is used by young people through
establishing a relationship with someone with expertise in information
technology (IT). If a coach is affiliated with a school or other organization,
collaborating with a sports information director for support to stay aware of
changes in social media and other applications can help a coach understand
players and communicate more effectively.
Professional development may help
coaches become aware of tactical or technical changes relevant to their
sport. Membership and participation in
professional organizations may help coaches learn new methods and make tactical
changes within their specific sport. Coaches who are current with rule changes
can help players initiate new strategies to make best use of these shifts and
This investigation was limited to
coaches in the United States; thus, there may be cultural differences found in
future studies in different countries. Further studies would be necessary in
order to assess elite coaches for mental toughness and inquire as to their
development of mental toughness.
By studying mental toughness for
coaching, the hope is to increase the quality of coaches leading to improved
performances and satisfaction for both coaches and the athletes they serve.
Defining mental toughness in coaching and identifying the attributes can assist
toward this desired outcome. By further investigating the attributes of the
ideal mentally tough coach, coaches choosing to continually improve can look
introspectively for characteristics within themselves to improve. Additionally,
sports psychology professionals should also seek to develop appropriately
designed training or educational programs in order to assist coaches in
developing professional mental toughness.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
Identifying attributes of mental toughness can serve the coaching field in a variety of ways, particularly helping coaches develop at all levels of sport. Coaches who consistently develop attributes of mental toughness may become more effective coaches and better serve their athletes. Through this study and continued study of mental toughness for coaching, the hope is to increase the quality of coaches leading to improved performances and satisfaction for both coaches and the athletes they serve. Defining mental toughness in coaching and identifying the attributes can assist toward this desired outcome. Many of the characteristics revealed by elite coaches are attainable through continued coaching practice. A danger to this process is each attempt has no guarantee of succeeding on an initial attempt. Coaches may be hesitant to try ideas and activities that may not provide quick, positive results. In a field increasingly emphasizing immediate results in terms of wins and losses, coaches may not be granted the amount of time necessary to attempt methods to develop mental toughness and learn from unsuccessful endeavors. Progress toward increasing mental toughness can be made as coaches learn from both successful and unsuccessful attempts at becoming more mentally tough. Coaches, assistant coaches, sport psychologists, and athletic administrators should be aware of the characteristics of a mentally tough coach and steps necessary to developing mental toughness. Coaches should strive to progress each of the characteristics listed in this study with the support of others associated with their athletic programs including their athletes. Through the list of characteristics of the ideal mentally tough coach, support staff can aid coaches seeking to develop mental toughness by regularly evaluating coaches’ progress on each of these characteristics. By further investigating the attributes of the ideal mentally tough coach, coaches choosing to continually improve can look introspectively for characteristics within themselves to improve. Additionally, sports psychology professionals should also seek to develop appropriately designed training or educational programs in order to assist coaches in developing professional mental toughness. Athletic administrators should provide time for coaches to make strides geared towards improving mental toughness. The potential benefits to coaches and their athletes can improve coach and athlete satisfaction and performance.
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