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Toughness for Coaches

This article was written by Mike Neighbors from the University of Arkansas.

Are you as TOUGH as you Want your Athletes to be?

I am personally guilty of almost every example that I am about to point out. At one point and time, I had to learn the hard way. I don’t claim that this is an exhaustive list.

Many coaches throw the word “Toughness” around to athletes as a cliché. It is a buzz word. And in many instances that those coaches were urging their athletes to be more tough, the coach themselves were NOT being very tough.

But we can be TOUGH. We must be TOUGH if we demand it of our athletes.

So with the help of some coaching buddies, we began a list of what makes a coach TOUGH. Not tough to play for. Not tough to deal with. But things that would be consistent with those things we demand of our athletes. This is a work in progress.


It takes energy and effort to confront… a great deal of both in fact. The tough coaches never exhaust themselves of the energy needed to consistently confront and hold people accountable. When someone or something challenges the culture of their program, a tough coach stands up for what they hold true. They do it consistently and they do it tirelessly.

Coaches who have toughness confront any athlete who falls below the standards they have set in their program.

If you exhaust yourself of the energy to confront, then you are “allowing things in your program” rather than “coaching them”.

You must have (or find) the energy every single time something challenges the fabric of your culture. If you don’t, no one else will. If you do, everyone else will.

When confronted with parental concerns, a tough coach listens and explains their view point.


Tough coaches know that making the hard decision is what separates the good from the great. Head Coaches make hundreds of decisions a week concerning every aspect of their program. They don’t delegate the difficult ones down the chain of command. They make them and then they stand behind them.

Experience has taught them how to make them with the best interest of the team AND the best interest of the athlete all at the same time. More often than not, it’s the coach who struggles the most with these decisions. They feel the weight of deciding something that impacts so many people in so many ways. It can be paralyzing. It can be overwhelming.

Many coaches confide that this responsibility has led to burnout and can ultimately drive you from the profession all together if you don’t develop toughness.

Avoidance of decision making is even worse than making the wrong decision in many instances.

The toughest of the tough actually embrace it. It’s these coaches who make the proper decision more often than not.

TOUGH coaches expect mistakes, but don’t accept Excuses

TOUGH coaches know their athletes are going to make mistakes. They know they are going to fail from time to time. They know this because they know they are going to put them in situations to fail. They are going to create scenarios designed to push them beyond their comfort zones.

TOUGH coaches know mistakes lead to improvement. They teach through lessons.

Wayne Gretzky routinely tripped over his own skates because he pushed himself to go harder in drills than his coaches demanded.

While the TOUGH coaches expect these mistakes, they do NOT except excuses for them. They deal with excuses swiftly and severely.

Tough coaches know the difference between a reason and an excuse.

Tough coaches use mistakes to help a person grow.

Tough coaches teach without the person even knowing they are being taught.

TOUGH coaches understand NEXT PLAY Mentality

Do we move on or do we replay every mistake in the next timeout, then at half time, then in post game, then the next day in film room, then the next 10 times it happens?

Do we hold grudges when dealing with discipline issues? If you do, then take NEXT PLAY out of your coaching vocabulary.

Obviously there are aspects of our job and this profession that accumulation of actions must warrant consequences, but if you want athletes to move on to the Next Play, you had better coach this way.

TOUGH coaches actions are aligned with standards

“Do as I say, not as I do” mentality is dead to the iY Generation of athletes today. When presented with a situation that conflicts between what they see you do and what they hear you say, 99.999999% of the time they will believe what they see.

The alignment you have in your program between TALK/ACTIONS will be directly proportional to how your athletes balance their TALK/ACTIONS.

When a coach demands something of a program or someone in it that is out of alignment with a coach’s actions, frustration sets in quickly. That will turn to disengagement and total withdrawal the moment adversity hits.

A TOUGH coach has alignment in this area.

Athletes, fans, and administrators believe what they see more than what they hear. If you want a TOUGHNESS in your program your actions better be worth watching.

TOUGH coaches take no credit for wins and deflect blame in loss

TOUGH coaches don’t need pats on the back after a win. My PaPa Neighbors always said,” If you want someone to clap for you, be a musician or a magician… don’t be a coach.”

Coaches with toughness recognize the efforts of their athletes and their team in victory. In defeat, they deflect the blame from those same people.

You don’t have to be that coach that takes total blame every game. That grows old fast too and simply isn’t believable. It may also be out of alignment with your program’s culture on truth and honesty. You can be honest and truthful in private…not in public.

TOUGH coaches never allow anyone outside their program to attack someone within it.

The best way to do this at times is actually another sign of TOUGHNESS…give the other team the credit for the victory.

The TOUGHEST coaches learn to balance these situations. They learn to use these situations to their advantage.

When coaches do this, their athletes will do the same.

If you have this ingrained in your team culture, it will be obvious that in public each member has each others’ back. It will allow them to deal with adversity in private and keep team issues within the locker room. We have all seen great teams derailed by team issues that become public.