Webster’s Dictionary defines toughness as ‘the quality or state of being strong; the capacity for exertion or endurance.’ The Oxford English Dictionary, the gold standard of English language texts across the globe, says that toughness is ‘the state of being strong enough to withstand adverse conditions or rough handling.’
In America, toughness is viewed as a trait that is dependant on one’s ability to be either physically strong or emotionally resilient. We view people in a different light who put in 100 mile weeks on the roads, hit the gym for three hours a day, or can beat the hell out of anyone they face (whether it’s in the octagon or outside of a bar at 2:00AM). Football players, hockey players, endurance athletes are considered tough. We think of coal miners, iron workers, bricklayers, longshoremen, and factory workers as tough. Any profession that involves leaving the house at the same time each day, putting in a twelve hour shift, and having to hit the showers after you walk in the door - society views as tough.
Toughness also has a strong connection to masculinity - or the lack thereof. In most societies, you can’t be considered manly and still be considered strong. Men of a more sensitive nature, even if it’s momentarily, are weak or soft. Cry when you get hurt - soft. Show emotions when you get upset - weak. Treat women with respect - not manly. Don’t punch back - pussy. Women on the other hand who are viewed as tough are often viewed as too masculine or too strong or too fit or too in-shape or too professional or too tough. If they stand up for themselves in the workplace - they are shunned. On the athletic field, they are viewed not as women, for their earned or even natural born athleticism creates an aura that lacks femininity and is rather some type of obscure sexual or hyper-aggressive ‘being’ - (let’s not forget Don Imus and his notorious Nappy Headed Hoe’s comment directed at the Rutgers Women’s Basketball players in 2007).
(And let’s admit, that physically, no person deals with the exertion, concentration, and pain than giving birth to a child. The last time I checked, this is something that only a female can do.)
So the question that we have to ask ourselves as coaches is how should we really view toughness? How should it be defined? Is it purely physical or emotional? Does it have to do with your ability to push through pain or stand up for a strongly held viewpoint? When the over masculinization of toughness creates an atmosphere in which people who are connected to their emotions, show self-awareness, and stay committed to what they value - whether that is standing up to the bully or not dropping out of the race when they are in dead last - are viewed as weak, what do we teach young people? How do you create a culture where speaking your mind when it’s not popular, being inquisitive in order to seek improvement, and being committed to doing the right thing is accepted by all people and not viewed as odd or self-serving?
Toughness, I believe, has more to do with the strength of one’s character and having self-respect than their ability to lift weights, run long distances, or take a beating. I believe that toughness is not based on how much you train - it has everything to do with how you are trained. Once you fall down, it isn’t just the neurological pathways that have formed conditioned reactions that allow your muscles to pop you back up. What makes someone tough is their ability to first, obtain awareness of themselves and their core values, and secondly have the self-respect and character to eliminate distractions and excuses that lead others to repeated failure, continuous moments of self-destruction, and a life that is filled with goals that are unachieved.
Someone who has self-respect shows a morale grit that those who are viewed as tough based solely on their physical strength lacks. They might not have the natural talents that allow them to excel quicker in specific physical skills than their peers, but what they do rather is look at themselves in the mirror each night and know that they did their best to staying committed to who they are - which might not be very glamorous, but in the long run, is a better way to live than attempting to be someone else. Being continuously committed to your principals is a much greater challenge, I believe, than running an ultramarathon or playing in the third overtime of a football game. It’s more difficult because challenges to your values set come along every single day, not just on days of competition or practice. You are repeatedly asked by popular culture, by your friends, by your teammates - everyone - to stray from the person that you want to be, leave the path that you are currently on, and just do what everyone else is doing. Most of us go with them. Some of us stay on that path for a long time. Successful people realize may examine the path, but stay off of it because they know that it doesn’t lead them to where they want to go.
It’s great to have a team that is overflowing with talent. Talent, as one coach once told me, solves all of your problems. You can be the worst team in the world one season, spend the offseason recruiting like a lunatic, and be right back in the hunt again. However, as genetically gifted as a team may be, as athletic as they are when comparing them to the competition, the deemphasizing of commitment to character by a coach can send dreams out the window just as fast as they entered that person’s head. Winning cannot just take place because of a person or team’s physical gifts, winning begins with a coaching staff’s commitment to honestly discussing with players and parents how vital the importance of character, principles, and values are in creating not just the fastest or strongest person - but one who has the self-respect to make the right decisions in competition, practice, and everyday life.
Sports is the most frequently used tool that we use to teach young people about courage. Time and time again, we point out examples to athletes about how important it is to get back up after you fall and how to toe the line immediately after failure. Most parents who notice that their child may have a future in athletics or is attempting to get their kid to live out the dreams that they couldn’t, will stick them in front of YouTube and force them to watch training videos, pay for specialized coaches, pay for travel teams, and make their athletic experience the center of what their future will be - whether it is realistic or not. But rarely do you see coaches or parents, other than maybe a few minutes when they are trying to fill some dead time, discuss with honesty and with passion - the importance of self-respect.
Self-respect is the thing that makes someone get up when they fall down. It’s the factor that allows a person to push through being tired, to fight through pain, or to be a great teammate. People who continually fail and rise up again do so not only because they have been trained to do so, but because they want to give their best effort. They want to not let themselves down. They want to be the best version of who they are. They are also not afraid to ask. Asking for help or inquiring about what they are doing shows that they are concerned about what is happening in their training and their life. People who respect themselves don’t want to waste time - they value it. It’s not that they don’t believe in those who are coaching them, but they want to know what they are doing and why that will make them better. Being inquisitive presents a vulnerability that those with strong self-respect for themselves have. They are willing to admit they have flaws, either in their personality or in their game, that need to be remedied and are willing to put in the extra time necessary to improve. This vulnerability, although seen as a weakness in the eyes of most coaches, should be celebrated. It should be celebrated that an athlete wants to ask questions. Celebrated that an athlete is willing to put in the extra time. Celebrated that they are willing to show that they have made mistakes and want to improve - not demeaned for ‘not getting it.’
As I stated a few months ago in an article discussing the importance of training character, most of us only work with athletes for a few years and then they are gone. Some move on to other coaches, other professions, or end their athletic career with you. Whether this is the case or not, coaches should provide athletes with skills that not only improve their game, but the tools that build self-respect, character, and someone who lives a life that is connected to their values. Everything that a person does, should be connected to their values. These values should shine through when they fail, when they are hurt, when they are exhausted, or when they want to quit. Having the respect for themselves to continuously being who they are is not only a tactic that will make them better athletes, but better people. And if an athlete leaves your program with a stronger sense of self-worth, self-respect, and personal value, then no matter what the outcome of the competition is - both you and they, have won.