Kazi & Mental Toughness: Basketball

In the final edition of our 6-part series on mental toughness, we examine basketball. We have previously written on mental toughness in runningsoccertennis, ultimate frisbee and bowling.

By way of introduction, here is how we define it:

What is Mental Toughness?


Mental Toughness not hard to identify but difficult to define. Inc magazine provides an interesting starting point in “4 Excuses Mentally Strong People Don’t Use“. These are:

  • I’d rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.
  • You only live once.
  • I don’t care what anybody thinks.
  • I deserve to be happy.

While these sayings aren’t necessarily bad, when used as excuses they tend to have deleterious effects. When mental toughness is defined as one’s ability to consistently demonstrate outstanding results in the most critical circumstances, then an excuse designed to shirk one’s responsibilities is counter-productive. In addition to the cliches above, we would humbly propose the following addendum:

  • Whatever will be, will be.

Now, there is probably a time and place for this. However, the mentally strong don’t use this as a way to avoid follow-through but rather as a comfort that when he has “worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted one the field of battle – victorious.”Not necessarily a victor in the  battle itself but a victor in knowing he has done all that he could. (h/t Vince Lombardi)

Mental Toughness in Basketball

No expose on mental toughness would be complete without a quote from the legend, John Wooden. So here we expound upon his three foundational principles to winning the mind game:

  • Don’t whine
  • Don’t complain
  • Don’t make excuses

Of course, reading these simple “don’ts” makes it seem obvious and dull. But how often have we seen these circumstances in professional sports.

It’s usually subtle; something like: “I’m not one for excuses but I was just not feeling too well today. Something was wrong” or; “the game was so close – it really could have gone either way.” Of course the game could have gone either way. If it couldn’t, you wouldn’t have bothered stepping on the court or the field.

But occasionally you will see blatant excuses in which the athletes simply cannot accept the fact that they lost within the confines of a proper game. Referees and umpires are a particularly convenient scapegoat but far too often the player or coach neglects to mention the fact that the game shouldn’t have been close enough to let one call decide it. We get it – you want a well-refereed match. But at the end of the day, the scoreboard says you lost. You can’t control the referee; you can only control your own performance. So what’s the point of blaming someone else?

Then, working backwards, you have the whine. Sometimes it’s accompanied with the cheese – my name for the whimper some athletes have when they want the audience to take pity upon them. Think Cam Newton in the 2015-16 playoffs.

If you want me to conform, I’m not that guy. If you want me to be that type of person, I’m not that. I am happy to say that. This league is a great league with or without me. I understand that. I am my own person. I take pride in that.

Sounds at least like he has a dose of humility, right?

Wrong. Actions speak louder than words and whimpering about the fact that you lost and failing to appear at the press conference is emblematic of mental weakness. If you can bear it, go back and watch the fourth quarter. Newton had lost any will to win, instead deciding to chastise his teammates and berate media and game officials.

LeBron James is an excellent example of mental toughness. He comes through with the big shots when his team needs it and always takes responsibility for losses. (Perhaps a little too much responsibility – you know you have teammates who will help you out right?)

So don’t whine. Don’t complain. Don’t make excuses. Everyone loses at some point and it sucks. But don’t pretend that you always win; then you are a loser.

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