Tough Training?

Are athletes made tough or do we coach them into being tough?

The popularization of special forces style camps in team sport preparation would lead you to the conclusion that yes, in a very short period of time we can make our athletes tough.  Now, for better of for worse, I’ve seen few special forces camps over the years, and while for someone like me running around in the bush or firing “Sim-unition” in a mock hostage rescue is a bunch of fun, does it make our athletes tougher?

Let’s start with a working definition of the word tough;
Strong enough to withstand adverse conditions or rough handling
Able to endure hardship or pain
Demonstrating a strict and uncompromising approach
Strong and prone to violence
Courtesy of The Oxford Dictionary

For me that’s not really enough.  Those terms don’t pay enough respect to the elements of time and choice.  My definition of tough…

"A person, who chooses to place themselves repeatedly in a situation that will require both physical and psychological resilience in order to see it to it’s conclusion".

My rationale for my own definition; too often real TOUGHNESS is mistaken for short term bravery.  A brave person can do a really challenging thing once, often without thinking about it.  As compared to a really TOUGH person who knows the difficulty of the task they are about to undertake, and not only do they accept it once, but by virtue of their TOUGHNESS they choose to repeatedly do it.

I tend to think of myself as a “holist” when it comes to preparing athletes.  Therefore, despite my academic qualifications in physiology, my coaching experience tells me that you can not separate the mind and body.  The body can only go where the mind wills it.  At the highest levels of athletic pursuit, the commitment required is far too great to suggest that anything substantial could possibly be achieved without cognitive drive.

We guide athletes on a disciplined path that requires rigour, effort and unquestionably some suffering.  While the suffering is nothing on the scale of that which is endured by millions around the world every day, it is clearly a path that requires a conscious decision to pursue. 

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” described his observations of survival within the horrors of Auschwitz, “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future...his future…was doomed.  With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold and became subject to mental and physical decay”.  This, Frankl holds up as the embodiment of Nietzsche’s words’ “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”.

So if the individual’s vision of the future for themselves is clear enough, then literally anything can be endured.  

So can we, as S&C coaches train toughness?

No.  We can’t make someone tough!  We can help facilitate, mould, develop and guide an individual in order that they can choose to express their toughness.  Toughness is a trait born deep within an individual, a function both of events past and those envisioned for the future.

In my opinion people choose to do things or they choose not to.  Sure they can choose small things at first and build their confidence, but they choose to commit to a level they are prepared to sustain.  

We must be observant of individual variations, weaknesses and strengths.  We should in the strongest, most authentic and passionate way possible communicate to those in our charge the magnitude of the next moment, the next effort, the next rep, because you never know when it will be the last.  However, when push comes to shove, those with the “why” will choose to go, albeit with our assistance, but they will never go because of us alone!

Unquestionably, we are an important part of how athletes develop as a whole.  But don’t overstate our capabilities, and don’t underestimate the power within the individual.

Remember...You are what you repeatedly do!

Our job is to put athletes on the right path, and help them navigate the small issues that may tip them off.  However, the capacity for the individual to remain on the path long term is their choice and one we must always respect.



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