Make Practice Harder than Competition
The fundamentals of instilling remarkable mental toughness in your athletes
by Dr. Chelsea Pierotti
How do you build mentally tough athletes? A big goal of mine as a coach and a teacher is to help my athletes and students build resilience that they can lean on as adults. We all go through challenging times, and I think a lot of our ability to be mentally tough and resilient as adults can be built through sports. But it’s up to us as coaches to make that happen.
I’m going to start off with an academic story but stay with me I promise I’ll come back to sport! When I was a junior in high school, I was taking Spanish 5 and preparing for the IB test. This test would allow me to have college credit for a foreign language and not worry about taking Spanish once I got to college. Now I’m the first to admit I’m a nerd and I love school, but foreign language was always extremely challenging to me. I worked harder on that class than anything else, and I always felt behind, stressed, and ill prepared. I thought that Spanish 5 class would be the death of me! I could never do well enough to get top marks and my teacher always had feedback for improvement, even when I thought I nailed it.
For that class, every assignment was hard. Every presentation was stressful. Reading out loud to my classmates every day was torture. But I did it. And I kept fighting. Guess what happened when it came time to take the IB exam… I was confident and the test felt easy. That’s right, it felt easy. Our teacher had pushed us so hard in preparation for the test, that when it was time, I felt incredibly confident and when I sat down to take the exam, I realized I was prepared and capable of succeeding.
I spent all year cursing my teaching in my head for the difficulty of her class. But when I walked out of that exam, I realized what my teacher had done. I realized that she knew I could do it so she wouldn’t let me back down. She believed I could get better and pass this challenging exam, so she kept pushing me even when I wanted to quit. And (eventually) I was incredibly grateful. I went right to her classroom after the exam and thanked her. She gave me a sly smile and said you’re welcome. Then went right back to her work.
That’s how you build mental toughness. You keep presenting challenges. You keep pushing your athletes to go past where they think they can go. For every warm-up that leaves them breathless is a competitive event that will be easier to get through. For every full out practice where they are exhausted and silently curse you for saying “1 more time” is a stronger and better prepared athlete.
It’s your job in practice to push your athletes and make practice harder than competition. Make what they must overcome in practice a bigger challenge than they will ever see from their competition. Your athletes will learn they can survive and pick themselves up when things get hard. They will learn they can continue to push, no matter what obstacles are in their way. But in order for that to be true, there have to be obstacles in their life! They have to experience something that’s challenging, isn’t easy to overcome, and takes some persistence to achieve. Then, when they face another challenge outside of your team, they will remember the lesson. They have learned that they can stand up and try again. That’s one of the greatest lessons a coach can teach their athletes. You can get up and try again, and it’s worth it.
So, if you’re looking for a little motivation, or want to talk to your team about this topic share a story of your own perseverance and talk about what it means to be persistent and push through a challenge. Start the conversation with your team about how practice is hard for a reason. To be clear, I’m not saying you push them to a breaking point. Challenge them and don’t let them back down if you know they can do it but be sure there is a lot of supportive and positive language while you’re at it. Let your athletes know you’re trying to challenge them because you believe in them and because you want practice to be harder than competition. Then they will build that mental toughness you’re looking for, and hopefully carry it with them well beyond their time in sport.
Dr. Chelsea Pierotti
Mental Performance Coach for Dancers