There is a myth in coaching about toughness, I hear it all the time: “tough players are found, not made.” It is a belief that personality determines physicality and as coaches we get stuck with however that kid was raised. When in actuality it ins’t black or white. Instead, we must start to shift the thinking of toughness from a trait to a skill. One that can be introduced, trained and practiced.
Of course there are players who are predisposed to this skill much like many others, yet no player is incapable of becoming more tough.
I’ve always idolized tough teams; those teams who sacrificed their bodies, never backdown and have a presence on defense. The Bad Boy Pistons are always a prime example. In my early years coaching I instilled toughness the only way I knew how. Some random toughness charge drills or rebounding drills and a constant voice on the topic: rewarding players for their acts of toughness, pointing it out in practice or game film, making sure diving for a loose ball or taking a charge was a Top 10 play in our weekly film, and of course constantly stressing to be physical on defense - sometime even in spite of the refs.
But it wasn’t until I joined Lee Deforest’s staff that gained a much clearer perspective of the skill of toughness. Coach Deforest gained his believes on toughness through his military training: that toughness was brought out of and revealed to individuals. And that people often don’t realize how tough they truly are.
Thus the first goal as a coach is to eliminate these fears and doubts in our players. This process is not painful, instead, it is a realization of relentlessness. Much like the military’s belief of pushing recruits to their limits in order for them to find them. The same principles are needed here. Players must recognize that their bodies are more than capable of diving on the floor or taking a charge and handling these efforts.
The repetition will build confidence in players and desensitize them from the hesitation of these actions. Because we shouldn’t always look at these displays as acts of heroism in basketball. Drawing a charge should not be seen as some almighty act of sacrifice, instead it must be deemed commonplace. It is simply what we do around here. We take charges, we dive, we battle, we’re physical, etc. We want to change the thinking and processing of these events from decision making behaviors to habit forming.
Often these hidden possessions are secured by fractions of a second. Therefore it will be the player or team quickest to act who will win these moments, by create tough habits, your players will gain the ability to win these moments without any hesitation.
Of course we should not discount celebration. Desensitizing does not mean, not celebrating these acts, it means making them a common practice. We can celebrate these acts, but we due so because we are celebrating the culture, not the rarity of the act.
Coaching with Lee was eye opening. Our teams would start the year with a week of these toughness drills, much like the militaries initiation week. There was a lot of loose balls, a lot of charges and a lot of diving on the floor. But Coach Deforest was smart about it too. We weren’t trying to injury anyone. They weren’t diving at each other and the toughness drills weren’t pitted against each other. It was a whole team exercise. It was all about repetition.
This mindset laid the foundation as we carried beyond that first week. You could dive to finish a run if you were tight on the time, last person into the huddle or in line had to do push ups or dive, it was so much apart of the culture the players took ownership of it and had fun with it.
And in our first game, as a first year post-grad program going against a highly rated JUCO, the power of toughness came through. In a close game headed into the last 8 minutes, one of our players made a defensive play near the sideline that sent one of their players out of bounds with no call from the referee. The player did not complain at this point in the game, he was simply exacerbated and said, “damn.” This was the moment I knew we're going to win the game. And we did.
Since then I have seen and reaped the benefits of having the tougher team multiple times. And there are few things I like hearing more from spectators or other coaches afterwards then, ‘you guys play tough.’
See you next time!