Mental Toughness Wins Out

On the wall of Steve Brennan's basement office at home is a plaque: "If you think you can, or if you think you can't, either way you're right."

And therein lies the core of what Mr. Brennan is: an enthusiastic devotee and leader in the field of mental toughness. While there are plenty of sports psychologists, counselors, consultants, and team ministers, Brennan is one of a handful of people in America who specialize in mental toughness for athletes.

Indeed, there is no bigger clich in athletics - save, perhaps, playing one game at a time - than mental toughness. Alas, like the weather that many talk about and few do anything about, so it is with mental toughness. It is revered in the breach.

When the Nebraska women's basketball team lost this year early in the NCAA tournament, coach Paul Sanderford grumped, "We don't have that mental toughness to win the big games." In Arkansas, Razorback hoops coach Nolan Richardson recently watched his team lose two games in a row that it should have won. He then called a practice for 6 a.m. on a Sunday, saying, "If a guy can go to work after getting his tail kicked, it says a lot about [his] mental toughness."

Daniel Smith, a sports psychologist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who has also worked with US professional teams, including the Chicago Bulls and the Buffalo Sabres, says that "some [of the athletes] take mental training seriously and some do not. The benefit is usually proportionate to their level of commitment."

So what is it?

Brennan stares at his sign on the wall, crouches in the starting blocks, then explodes in a torrent of words: "It's a magical thing, but there is no magic. It's the concept all of us try to find. It's the ability to handle situations. It's somebody who doesn't choke, doesn't go into shock, and who can stand up for what he believes. It's what someone has who can handle pressures, distractions, and people trying to break their concentration. It involves focusing, discipline, self-confidence, patience, persistence, accepting responsibility without whining or excuses, visualizing, tolerating pain, and a positive approach."


But Brennan, author of six books, says nobody needs to have all these traits. "Having a few," he says, "will get it done." And not having any of these attitudes will ensure not getting it done. One study of 72 male college basketball players on eight different teams showed that those who employed two key mental skills - visualization and relaxation - along with practice, improved their free-throw shooting by 7 percent. Those who only tried one of the skills, along with practice, showed no improvement.

There are many morals here but Brennan, who has given 25 mental-toughness seminars around the nation over the last five years to high school, college, and pro athletes, says the main one is that as important as mental toughness is, nobody should think "you can dream your way to success."

Brennan defines visualization - arguably the most important aspect in developing mental toughness - as creating a "mental movie." Says Brennan, "You are mentally watching yourself perfectly perform an important skill or strategy. You are always successful in your visualization. You win every game. You always perform flawlessly."

Mental toughness is not just another '90s phrase and concept, like "centered" and "bonding." It's getting a rush of attention these days because, says Brennan, "it can handle just about anything that can be thrown at you."

The mental-toughness concept has evolved from when it was known by more earthy terminology: guts. The late, legendary football coach George Allen defined mental toughness as "being at your best when you're bleeding."

It is, according to experts, a habit and a quality of mind, a nobility of thought.

Another mental-toughness expert, Ken Ravizza, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton, contends that "peak performance is not about being perfect. It's about compensating and adjusting." He calls mental toughness "critical" at the higher levels of competition, because physical skills are closely matched.

'I can' and 'I will'

It can be the difference between a short career or a long one. A perfect example, says Ravizza, is longtime figure-skating star Todd Sand. Ravizza says Sand's longevity at the world level is, without a doubt, the ability to withstand injury, setbacks, and disappointment. Or, in two words, says Ravizza, "mental toughness."

Often when a performance can't be explained otherwise, the underlying reason is mental toughness. It is often the unspoken reason why the races don't always go to the swift.

Former Texas linebacker Johnny Treadwell provides what is widely regarded as College Football Exhibit A for mental toughness. Treadwell, now an Austin veterinarian, was playing for the then No. 1 ranked Longhorns in a 1962 game against Arkansas. Texas was trailing 3-0 in the third quarter and Arkansas was on the Longhorn 1. Treadwell gathered the team and loudly proclaimed, "Now we've got 'em right where we want 'em." Next play, Treadwell and fellow linebacker Pat Culpepper hit Arkansas back Danny Brabham with what many regard as the hardest tackle ever in the college game. Brabham fumbled, Texas recovered, drove the length of the field, and won, 7-3.

Says Treadwell, "This was mental toughness on the part of the whole team, which is mostly feelings. It's a super, positive attitude of 'I can' and 'I will.' "

Kim Woodring, the two-time all-American volleyball player at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, says mental toughness absolutely makes the difference between victory and defeat. Example: Last year, Wittenberg was playing the fifth and deciding game in a hotly contested match against Hope College (Holland, Mich.). But in the final game, says Woodring, "They gave up mentally. You could see it. They had a breakdown in team unity. They were frustrated with themselves and at their teammates." Wittenberg, of course, won.

"I'm always positive," she says. "Even if I'm losing. I talk positively to myself. I go on with the next play and don't worry about the last one. When I visualize, I always see the perfect pass, perfect hit, perfect set, perfect kill, perfect result."

Many athletes today clearly need mental weight lifting, suggests Brennan, including former tennis star Andre Agassi, whose game and resolve went south. Certainly golfer Payne Stewart, in the wake of his meltdown when he blew the US Open championship after building what seemed an insurmountable lead, is "dealing with a mental-toughness dilemma," says Brennan. Red Sox pitcher Bret Saberhagen, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, confessed the other day that marital and financial problems are traveling with him to the ballpark. On and on. All have plenty of physical talent but the mental toughness aspect of their athletic performance lags.

Rick Jensen, president of the Performance Enhancement Center in Boca Raton, Fla., deals primarily with anxiety-ridden golfers, many of whom haven't won despite having all the physical tools.

Mr. Jensen gives Tiger Woods raves for mental toughness, the example being Woods shooting a horrific 40 on the opening nine holes of the 1997 Masters that he ultimately came back and won. He nearly repeated his personal mental-toughness seminar at the British Open in July when he put on a final-round charge that almost propelled him to a win. This came after several days of play in which he groused and grimaced and carried on. Jenson says Woods is "young and he's learning."

Achieving mental toughness

Nobody, conversely, can think of a top-seasoned athlete who doesn't have all-the-time mental toughness. Poster boys include Jack Nicklaus, Wayne Gretsky, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird.

Joe Montana, says Brennan, "lifted the Kansas City Chiefs to a level of mental toughness they'd never had." Proof, he says, are the last-minute victories orchestrated by Montana, dating to his Notre Dame days as the Comeback Kid. And Brennan says the "king of the mind," former tennis star Bjorn Borg is "the quintessential mentally tough athlete." It was, says Brennan, illustrated by his businesslike, ice-in-the-veins attitude and his results, including second all-time in numbers of Grand Slam events won (11).

Happily, these skills can be learned. Brennan, who has two master's degrees, including one in performance enhancement, says that back in the '70s, "I became interested in whether there was any validity to mental toughness when I heard a coach speak on it at a clinic. It just seemed like it clicked." His interest solidified when his research came up with little on the subject and "I knew there was something out there."

Mental toughness is achieved, say the experts, by goal setting, positive attitude, visualizing successful scenarios, concentrating on the present and handling adversity properly. When a coach is screaming at a player, says Brennan, the athlete needs to think: "OK, after he gets over this tirade, then we'll get down to the learning part."

Like most skills, developing mental toughness takes training. Brennan says coaches should have a segment in practice devoted to it, just as they have a punt-return segment. There are things an athlete can do to develop his or her mental toughness, says Brennan, including:

* Devote at least five minutes a day to focusing on mental toughness, ideally just before falling asleep.

* Work on a relaxation program, including breathing exercises.

* Practice visualizing that perfect performance.

* Set goals, from instant to long-term.

* Be a proponent of positive self-talk.

Sighs Brennan: "It's a seductive world. It takes a mentally tough person to handle it. Being negative is a real energy drainer." Coaches generally understand, which is why they gravitate toward any perceived advantage. Mental toughness sits atop most lists.

Fred Akers, the former University of Texas football coach (86-31-2; two conference championships), would have his players stretch out in a hotel meeting room the night before a game. Akers would conjure up images, telling the players to think: "I will be electric. I will rattle their headgear." Some players took it to heart and worked on it. Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell was one who believed. Others focused on the coming movie they'd get to watch.

Brennan, also a high school and college basketball official, officiated at a game not long ago when a player badly missed a free throw that could have won the game. Laments Brennan, "He might as well have been wearing a sign: 'I lack mental toughness.' " An episode like this - choking, really - is an example of fear taking precedent over talent.

What makes the low-key Brennan effective are his own life experiences, which have provided him with plenty of mental-toughness opportunities. His dad, John, a cattle buyer, was killed when Brennan was 8. John left behind almost no insurance, three children, and a wife who worked as a minimum-wage school cook. "I had to have mental toughness in order to survive."

Along the way, Brennan failed in his quest to be student-council president at Ryan High in Omaha, Neb. He couldn't get a basketball scholarship to the University of Nebraska, was cut from the baseball team, was turned loose from his first coaching job in a staff reduction, and got fired from another. And twice in the '90s, he has run for the Nebraska Board of Regents and, well, you know.

Brennan and Jensen agree that a key factor is "overcoming past learning." An athlete always destroyed by defeat in the past will have a difficult battle getting back to the top of Mt. Mental Toughness. Brennan, for all his advocacy, says a downside of the mental aspect is "expecting too much of it, thinking of it as a cure-all and end-all."

No downside

True. A mental toughness giant with no talent won't succeed. Conversely, a person overloaded with talent but no mental toughness will have some success - but nowhere near what the talent should produce. But sports psychologist Dan Smith sees it as a classic win-win: "I see no downside to practicing mental toughness. It can't hurt. It can only help or have no effect."

The technique can be simple. Brennan - who is sure the next phone call will be news of a big deal - says that the best thing is to visualize the most stressful situation with which you may have to cope. Then, see a successful outcome. "What you are doing," he says, "is scripting your responses to situations before they happen - if they happen at all. It's the consummate life-survival skill."

The phone rings. A big deal? Brennan listens, then says, "No, I'm sorry, you have the wrong number."

Maybe next time, huh Steve?

"Sure." He smiles a very confident and mentally tough smile.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is

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