Who Wins - Mental Toughness or Daily Discipline?
When I hear strength coaches talk about discipline, I often think about an example that Jim Collins gives from his book, Good to Great, where he describes the “rinsing your cottage cheese factor.”
He writes, “The analogy comes from a disciplined world-class athlete named Dave Scott, who won the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon six times. In training, Scott would ride his bike 75 miles, swim 20,000 meters, and run 17 miles - on average, every single day. Dave Scott did not have a weight problem! Yet he believed that a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet would give him an extra edge. So, Dave Scott - a man who burned at least 5,000 calories a day in training - would literally rinse his cottage cheese to get the extra fat off. Now, there is no evidence that he absolutely needed to rinse his cottage cheese to win the Ironman; that’s not the point of the story. The point is that rinsing his cottage cheese was simply one more small step that he believed would make him just that much better, one more small step added to all the other small steps to create a consistent program of superdiscipline."
I’ve often thought that discipline is the one virtue which set the very best athletes apart from those that were merely average. However, much has been made recently of developing mental toughness in our athletes in order to better prepare them for “when the going gets tough”. My friend, Brijesh Patel, Head Strength and Conditioning at Quinnipiac, has done a terrific job writing and presenting on this exact topic and has convinced me and a number of other coaches to integrate some of his strategies into our own programming. Whether it’s a grueling finishing exercise, an ungodly number of sprints, or work-capacity circuits that the Geneva Conventions would call abusive, the goal remains the same; push the athlete to a limit they are uncomfortable with so when the same uncomfortable situation arises in competition they are ‘mentally tough’ enough to persevere.
I remember the exact moment I asked Mike Boyle about training athletes in order to develop mental toughness. His response: “Being tough is showing up on time, every time. It’s about doing the little things all the time. That’s tough.” From that moment forward I became conflicted on whether these mental toughness programs/exercises were simply making my athletes tired (I mean, anyone can make a kid sweat, tired and cramp) or if I was in fact instilling an inner warrior mentality that would be unleashed at the time of competition?
I think we all understand the mental toughness part, but instilling a culture of “superdiscipline” as described by Collins means demanding and having our athletes touch the baseline each and every time during conditioning drills, closing out under control on a three-point shooter with hands up instead of “fly-by” which basically takes you out of the play pending a missed shot, “Walling Up” on your man with arms straight up and staying down instead of leaving your feet during a fake shot attempt, defending for the entire 35 second shot clock, showing up on time for a 2:00pm lift (that’s not walking in the door at 2:00 pm but rather being prepared and ready at 2:00pm), being the first on the floor at practice to get extra shots up AND having purpose to your shooting drills (putting up 300 shots vs. putting up 300 total shots with the goal of making 70 percent from the left elbow after a cross-over dribble), coming to the weight room 10 min early to address mobility and stretching needs outside the scope of training that day, waking up 15 minutes early so you can eat breakfast rather than show up for 6am lift on an empty stomach, or disciplined enough to pack snacks and plan your meals for the next day so you don’t begin afternoon practice on an empty stomach. Now THAT’S being “superdisiplined”.
So when the game is on the line, when you must get a defensive stop to seal a win, or when you have to stretch a ball screen all the way, was your success or failure due to your athlete’s mental toughness or a lifestyle of “rinsing the cottage cheese”?
Art Horne is the Coordinator of Care and Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Men’s Basketball Team at Northeastern University, Boston MA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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