• Luke McEldowney

Building Mental Strength

As an offshoot of Self-Determination Theory, Basic Psychological Needs Theory focuses on the three main areas all people need to have satisfied in order to thrive in all areas of their life: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness (Cotterill, Weston, & Breslin, 2016). This is absolutely relevant to athletes, because their needs can be examined in or out of sport settings which both have a major impact. If these needs are being neglected outside of sport, they will never reach their full potential in competition. But, if those needs are being met, the coach must then figure out how to create a similar environment in the athletic setting. Certain behaviors will be more effective in supporting those needs being met, while others can lead to disastrous results for the athlete. Although these coaching behaviors do not all fall on opposite ends of the spectrum, there are a few that do. Creating opportunities for your athletes to make choices brings about a strong sense of empowerment and autonomy in a situation where that is not always the case (Cotterill, Weston, & Breslin, 2016). Coaches are so used to planning things out that they forget to include the team on decisions which is a way to thwart their needs. It is also important to validate their emotions instead of feeding into the 'macho athlete' culture by telling them to suck it up (Cotterill, Weston, & Breslin, 2016). Show the athlete that you are invested in them as a human being more so than just what they bring to the table for the team or their ability to help you win games as a coach. Another way of relating to the athlete is to have an understanding of their personal values and what they are striving for. When this is the case, you can develop a strong sense of purpose behind everything that you do as long as it connects back to their code of conduct or the goals that they want to achieve (Cotterill, Weston, & Breslin, 2016). This also goes back to autonomy, because telling somebody to do something 'because I said so' just doesn't cut it. That is not going to get the best out of your athletes. They do need to be criticized or corrected, at times, and doing so intelligently will give them the support that boosts their self-efficacy instead of always trying to fix what they are doing wrong (Cotterill, Weston, & Breslin, 2016). Using the sandwich technique is a good way to work in constructive criticism by putting positive things before and after the negative. 

For building mental toughness, it is vital for a coach to walk a fine line when challenging athletes. They should be put through difficult training to expand what they believe they are capable of and this will carry over to practice, as well. But, making things too difficult will have the opposite effect and the team or individual will feel like they are always coming up short and develop negative thought patterns (Cotterill, Weston, & Breslin, 2016). On the other hand, it cannot be so easy that the challenge is always blown out of the water developing overconfidence. In competition or when true adversity inevitably shows up, they will not be prepared to handle it. Fortunately, game situations with pressure can be simulated. Practice drills can be a great way of injecting small doses of controlled stress where the athletes are able to build up their mental toughness (Cotterill, Weston, & Breslin, 2016).

If a sports team wanted a mental toughness program implemented, I would definitely begin with some assessments that have been validated in the community. A mental toughness questionnaire would be beneficial, but I think other areas like mindfulness should be addressed. I would also want to get feedback on training that they have had in the past so I know what has or has not worked for them. The next step I would take is to get the best possible understanding of that sport and the specific needs because mental toughness shows up differently in each sport (Steffen, Woolsey, & Quinn, 2015). After getting that understanding, I would figure out what the most important skills are and then try to access them in as many ways as possible. Using visualization can help athletes run through adverse situations repeatedly to train their emotional regulation directly, but injecting confidence through positive affirmations and focusing on the hours and reps that got them to where they are gives them extra tools when those difficult moments come (Aoyagi & Poczwardowski, 2012). 


Aoyagi, M. W., & Poczwardowski, A. (Eds.). (2012). Expert approaches to sport psychology. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

Cotterill, S., Weston, N., Breslin, G. (2016). Sport and exercise psychology: Practitioner case studies. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Steffen, B., Woolsey, C.L., & Quinn, R. Mental toughness in coaching: A functional definition determined by elite coaches. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, revisions submitted September, 2015. 


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