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Developing Toughness in Today’s Athletes

Developing Toughness in Today's Athletes

One of the key questions that coaches How can a coach teach today’s athletes to be tough while still being sensitive to the very real social and emotional challenges they are experiencing?


The Educational AD Podcast host Jake von Scherrer interviews athletes, coaches, athletic administrators, and other thought leaders in the field of athletic leadership to get their take on that issue.  Here is a summary (posted with permission) of some of the thinking of the guests.



Volume 3 #35 The Educational AD Podcast
Meghan O’Leary former Division I athlete in two sports and two-time Olympian


“The evolution of how we think about how to communicate how to be tough has changed but what it takes to be tough hasn’t changed.  You still have to work hard and be willing to push yourself to a place where you’re going to experience some discomfort.”


“That applies to non-physical discomfort outside of sports.  For example, when you’re taking risks professionally you’re going to be uncomfortable, but you are uncovering new levels of progress.  We need to communicate that being tough means it’s going to hurt a little bit.  There is a difference between bad pain and ok pain.  It takes more communication.  It’s about setting expectations.”


“Coaches need to pause to think that I am delivering the same message but that I need to say it a little bit differently.  It’s an important topic because we are still learning and wanting to be better.  We need to be patient on both sides.  We need to put thought into saying things in a less harsh way that creates the same message.  It’s difficult. “


“It’s empathy.  I know this is tough, it’s supposed to be hard. It’s not supposed to be awful, but it’s supposed to be tough–it’s all part of the experience. As a coach, I am here for you.”



Volume 3 #31 The Educational AD Podcast

Dr. Iyhia McMichael, Girls AD/Head Softball Coach at Emerson H.S. McKinney, TX


“Coaching and Athletic Administration is all about relationships.”


 “Finding a balance between coaching kids to be tough while being aware of social and emotional challenges Define everything.  Athletes give a definition.  Coach gives a definition and they meet in the middle.  It helps that the athletes have a say in it.  Defining the vocabulary and having a shared definition of what those words mean such as grit, toughness, mentally strong.”


“High schools can’t afford a sports psychologist to help with athletes mental strain.  Coach McMicheal has asked the school counselor to come in once a week and do some mental training with the softball team as a group to allow them to have some kind of release.  In order to create a safe space for the athletes, Coach McMichael is not in the room and the counselor does not share with Coach what the discussion was.”


“We need to teach athletes that it is ok to be anxious, frustrated, and to have thoughts that don’t need to be suppressed and help them discover tools to make them better in the moment and in pressure situations.

As the counseling program has grown, she has the players fill out a questionnaire about some of their individual stressors.  Coach compiles a list of the most common ones and presents it to the counselor for weekly topics to help them on the field.”


“When there are shared expectations, the players will use the common language and police themselves and the accountability is on them.”



Volume 2 #97 The Educational AD Podcast

Deepjyot Sidhu, Director of Equity & Inclusion at the Global Online Academy


“Athletes don’t perform in a vacuum at school or in practices or games–they bring their outside life with them every day.”


“It starts by reframing what toughness, mental strength, and courage are.  It takes both of those to face up to and publicly admit what you are going through.”


“We need to be more intentional about the circumstances we create for our athletes.  All while being focused on supporting athletes and less focused on forcing them to comply and to meet unreasonable and often unnecessary standards that don’t help with mental health or performance.”


 “Knowing what the limit is and how to navigate that limit. Pressures are increasing on young people in athletics and academics and that stress impacts areas of their lives such as sleep and motivation which allow them to be at their best.”

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Volume 3 #29 Educational AD Podcast

Wayland Academy (WI) Student Panel & AD Josh Blumenthal


Student #1 “Coaches can instill that you need to do this on your own and figure out what you need, what you want, and how I can help you.  It is a two-way street.  If you’re struggling, I am here to help and help you learn from it.  Having compatibility between the coach and athlete and giving the athlete independence in finding what works for them is crucial to building toughness.   Who better to tell you to work hard or do better than yourself?”

Student #2 “The athlete trusting how they feel is important.  Coaches are there to help the athletes become the best that they can be, but pushing the athlete too much and not helping them physically or mentally hurts the athlete. Communicating with the athletes to find out how they are feeling mentally and physically is essential.  Communication implies that coaches listen as well as talk.”


 AD Josh Blumenthal.  “Communication must be both open and honest.  We have 2 ears and 1 mouth.  Coaches are hired because they are an expert in their field, but should never fall into the trap that they know everything.  You must hear the voices of those that you are striving to mentor and inspire and get the buy in.”



Vol 3 #36 of the Educational AD Podcast

Rob Rose & Mark Landers founders of the Winning Difference 


“Kids are afraid of failing and afraid of being judged.  As coaches, we need to work with them to help them move past both of those fears and to be resilient in moments that they might not have been resilient before.”


FAIL stands for

First Attempt In Learning




Vol 3 #34 of the Educational AD Podcast

 Matthew Raidbard of Raidbard Sports Leadership


“How will the decisions you are making be viewed by people outside of athletics?”

“It is important for coaches to hone in on and communicate their definition of toughness to their athletes.  What is important to being tough as a student athlete?  That definition has changed over the years.  My definition of toughness today is understanding the difference of everyone on the team and accepting them, including everyone on the team and making them feel supported.  Those things are not easy to do in 2021 and we should not take those things for granted.”


“It is being able to communicate in a way that is clear and direct, not in a belittling way.  Let them know your expectations and standards and them hold them to those standards and expectations.  The standards can be high.  That instills toughness because athletes realize that you believe in them and that they can achieve the standards, but that it takes hard work to get there.  Otherwise, everyone could accomplish those high standards.”


“To get athletes to achieve, you have to instill empathy in your athletes.  Prioritize them being empathetic to what others are going through even if they don’t understand it.  Even if it’s not a position they’ve ever been in or they’ve ever faced, having empathy for it brings a team closer together and builds a strong positive character trait.   Emphasize what you feel is important through your actions.”

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