I cringe at the term toughness when it is thrown around in athletics, and particularly in distance running. I guess I am not very tough . I react this way for a couple reasons. First, I don’t think any athletic endeavor should be approached as a toughness contest. This is not the point of the basketball game, the long jump competition, or the foot race. The objectives of these are obvious: score more points than the other team, jump the furthest, and get to the finish line before the others. Nothing boils my blood like celebrating the distance runner who went out way too damn fast and blew up all over the track. Tommy sure ran a tough race……no Tommy ran a stupid race and paid the price. In many cases it probably cost his team too, so ya bravo Tommy. Secondly, why are we trying to focus athletes on the biproduct of discomfort that might be part of their pursuits? What kind of sense does that make? Let’s get ready to hurt…..gee, sounds fun sign me up. Why go into an event with such an anticipation of discomfort, an anticipation of something almost every human identifies as a negative experience? Why don’t we try to focus athletes on the joy and privilege of competing? On the execution of a sound strategy that if employed correctly will, by the way, diminish the discomfort experienced. We should accept the discomfort as a necessary biproduct but make the focus and the objectives something quite different.
Adding to my fascination of all this talk about toughness regarding competition, or racing, is the fact that I have not found it to have a high correlation to competition day success. Sure, we are dabbling in some semantics here, but in my experience my toughest athletes have not necessarily been the best competitors. I have found it is another specific trait that is a much better predictor of competitive quality, and that is confidence. Nothing reveals confidence, or lack thereof, like competition. Up against a worthy challenge whether that be in the form of opponents capable of beating you, a finish time near or beyond your potential, or a mountain adventure that stretches your comfort zone, you WILL need to be confident to succeed. Will toughness help? Yes, it will, as will an array of other traits. In my experience though, nothing trumps confidence when it comes competition time. Across the spectrum of sport, the best competitors out there are all highly confident athletes. When things get hard at crunch time, belief in one’s coach or preparation is not enough. The athlete capable of reaching their potential also needs to have belief purely in themselves, that they are good enough, that they are worthy of the moment and success.
What is the role of toughness then? Surely it is a valuable quality. Indeed, it is and just as necessary for the athlete as confidence. However, I have found toughness plays a more significant role in training rather than competition. Good training is focused preparation over a long period of time to work on maximizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses and to prepare one for the rigors of a particular challenge, and that WILL involve discomfort. There is the distress of some level of disruption to the rest of life, giving up that social opportunity because you need to go train. There is the irritation of having to fit training around other areas of life that must remain intact, getting up at 5:30 in the morning to get training in before work or class. There is the mental, emotional, and physical fatigue of battling through a hot summer or a cold and dark winter. There is the inevitable soreness after big efforts and the aches in the morning and the need to move right through certain ones that do not pose an elevated injury risk. There might be embarrassment when teammates perform better than you, or a coach critiques you. And yes, there will be physical discomfort (call it pain if you must) that inevitably manifests at a certain duration into high intensity efforts. Training is, at its core, applying stress and then allowing for recovery to seek adaptation. The world of material science tells us that toughness is precisely a material’s resistance to fracture when stressed. As a coach I love that definition. The toughest athletes handle stress, recover, and keep moving forward toward the next stress.
If confidence makes the best competitors, and toughness makes the best trainers, which is more important to performance? Both, of course, and I would argue they are equally valuable. All the quality training in the world will still leave you short on competition day if you are not confident. And someone oozing with confidence that has failed to prepare has no chance of achieving at their potential. Are there some athletes that measure highly in both confidence and toughness? Yes, and if they have any speck of physical ability those are usually the great ones. Most athletes I have worked with though are not strong in both these areas. There is usually an imbalance of some level, they are strong in one but not the other. So, what is to be done then? Coaching! Really damn hard coaching! Just as an athlete’s physical weaknesses can be diminished with work, so can their mental and emotional weaknesses. However, in all honesty it is much harder on the mental and emotional end. Training theory and physiology are checkers to the chess of psychology and sociology. I am not a sport psychologist, and I am not a physiologist; I am a coach, so I need to understand both. Certainly not every coach takes this approach. There are many who feel their role is to prepare the athlete physically and then if they can meet the mental and emotional challenges great, if not then it is on them. Frankly, that approach is a woeful disservice to the athlete. These endeavors are not just physically hard, so why would we try to prepare them solely in that manner?
Training is more about toughness and competing more about confidence, but both are critical traits for athletes to maximize. As coaches we should be willing to help our athletes develop in areas they might be lacking mentally and emotionally. How exactly can that be done as a coach, in an athletic setting? If training theory is checkers and sports psychology is chess, that is maybe akin to understanding a Jackson Pollock painting, it is much more nuanced. It certainly can be done though, and I look forward to sharing thoughts on that going forward.