In 2009, Jay Bilas wrote an article for ESPN about toughness. It is mandatory reading for all coaches. In the post, Bilas talked about showing strength in your body language. Turn on the television and watch any sport at any level and you will see athletes who struggle in this area. I want to reference Bilas' comments along with some great insight from Geno Auriemma on the topic of body language.
My wife and I have both used Jay's article with our volleyball and softball teams for years. Take responsibility for your teammates, look your coaches and your teammates in the eye, move on to the next play, etc. For an eight month club volleyball season, we would take one of the things from the article and make it a key theme for the month. Typically, we start November with talking about looking your coaches and your teammates in the eye. With a shorter season like high school fastpitch softball, I still found a way to have eight themes we focused on over the course of two months. Use the information however you choose. The article is outstanding and this world needs tough athletes- as Jay Bilas defines toughness.
Jay Bilas played college basketball for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. He went on to play basketball professionally and coach with Krzyzewski at Duke. Bilas is a trial lawyer by trade and a popular college basketball analyst on ESPN. The article was originally entitled, "Defining Toughness in College Hoops." The article took the basketball world by storm and Bilas eventually turned the post into a book titled, "Toughness." When I searched for the article years ago, it was behind a paywall and quite difficult to find. I found it and at the end of this article I will include my version of the article which has applications for athletes across all sports.
Our household is deeply involved in the club volleyball world. My wife has coached numerous kids who have gone on to play Division I volleyball. And when she trains them at 14- or 15-years-old, they definitely need guidance on showing strength in their body language. Here is how Bilas described it:
"Show strength in your body language: Tough players project confidence and security with their body language. They do not hang their heads, do not react negatively to a mistake of a teammate, and do not whine and complain to officials. Tough players project strength, and do not cause their teammates to worry about them. Tough players do their jobs, and their body language communicates that to their teammates -- and to their opponents."
Teach your players to not hang their heads, to not reactivate negatively to a bad call or a mistake. Tough players project strength, and this world needs more tough young people. The perfect compliment to what Jay Bilas said on body language comes from a Geno Auriemma press conference at the 2016 Women's Final Four in Indianapolis. That year Geno and the Connecticut Huskies won their 11th national championship. Read what Geno said to a room full of reporters in talking about body language.
Enter Geno Auriemma:
"Recruiting enthusiastic kids is harder than it's ever been. Because every kid watches TV and they watch the NBA or they watch Major League Baseball or they watch the NFL or whatever sport they watch - WNBA, it doesn't matter- and what they see is people just being really cool. So they think that is how they are going to act. And they haven't even figured out which foot to use as a pivot foot and they are going to act like they are really good players. You see it all the time. You see it at every AAU tournament, you see it at every high school game. So, recruiting kids that are really upbeat, loving life, love the game, and have this tremendous appreciation for when their teammates do something well, that's hard. That's hard. It's really hard.
"So, on our team, we- me, my coaching staff- put a huge premium on body language. And if your body language is bad, you will never get in the game- ever! I don't care how good you are... When I look at my team, they know this, when I watch game film, I'm checking what's going on on the bench. If somebody is asleep over there, if somebody doesn't care, if somebody's not engaged in the game, they will never get in the game- ever! And they know that. They know I'm not kidding."
Thanks for reading. What follow is the bones of the original Jay Bilas article. Many years ago I found it and made it more general rather than basketball specific. It's a gold mine. Enjoy.
Defining Toughness in Sports
Enter Jay Bilas:
I have heard the word "toughness" thrown around a lot lately. Reporters on television, radio and in print have opined about a team or player's "toughness" or quoted a coach talking about his team having to be "tougher" to win. Then, in almost coordinated fashion, I would watch games and see player upon player thumping his chest after a routine play, angrily taunting an opponent after a blocked shot, getting into a shouting match with an opposing player, or squaring up nose-to-nose as if a fight might ensue. I see players jawing at each other, trying to "intimidate" other players. What a waste of time. That is nothing more than fake toughness, and it has no real value.
I often wonder: Do people really understand what coaches and experienced players mean when they emphasize "toughness" in sports? Or is it just some buzzword that is thrown around haphazardly without clear definition or understanding? I thought it was the latter.
Kentucky Men’s Basketball Coach John Calipari had his players post the definition of toughness over their beds because he believes that true "toughness" is the one thing that his team needs to develop to reach its potential. Toughness is something I had to learn the hard way, and something I had no real idea of until I played college basketball. When I played my first game in college, I thought that toughness was physical and based on how much punishment I could dish out and how much I could take. I thought I was tough. I found out pretty quickly that I wasn't, but I toughened up over time, and I got a pretty good understanding of toughness through playing in the ACC, for USA Basketball, in NBA training camps, and as a professional basketball player in Europe. I left my playing career a heck of a lot tougher than I started it, and my only regret is that I didn't truly "get it" much earlier in my playing career.
Toughness has nothing to do with size, physical strength or athleticism. Some players may be born tough, but I believe that toughness is a skill, and it is a skill that can be developed and improved. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo always says, "Players play, but tough players win." He is right. Here are some of the ways true toughness is exhibited in athletics:
Talk on the court: The toughest players talk on the court and communicate with their teammates. It is almost impossible to talk on the court and not be in a stance, down and ready. If you talk, you let your teammates know you are there, and make them and yourself better. It also lets your opponent know that you are fully engaged.
Get to your teammate first: When your teammate lays her body on the line to dive on the floor, the tough players get to her first to help her back up. If your teammate makes a mistake, tough players get to her right away. Tough players are also great teammates.
Take responsibility for your teammates: Tough players expect a lot from their teammates, but they also put them first. When the bus leaves at 9 a.m., tough players not only get themselves there, but they also make sure their teammates are up and get there, too. Tough players take responsibility for others in addition to themselves. They make sure their teammates eat first, and they give credit to their teammates before taking it themselves.
Finish plays: Tough players don’t give up on a play or assume that a teammate will get to the ball. A tough player plays through to the end of the play and works to finish every play.
Take and give criticism the right way: Tough players can take criticism without feeling the need to answer back or give excuses. They are open to getting better and expect to be challenged and hear tough things.
Show strength in your body language: Tough players project confidence and security with their body language. They do not hang their heads, do not react negatively to a mistake of a teammate, and do not whine and complain to officials. Tough players project strength, and do not cause their teammates to worry about them. Tough players do their jobs, and their body language communicates that to their teammates -- and to their opponents.
Be alert: Tough players are not "cool." Tough players are alert and active, and tough players communicate with teammates so that they are alert, too. Tough players echo commands until everyone is on the same page. They understand the best teams play six as one. Tough players are alert in transition.
Concentrate, and encourage your teammates to concentrate: Concentration is a skill, and tough players work hard to concentrate on every play.
Take responsibility for your actions: Tough players make no excuses. They take responsibility for their actions. No excuses. Shouldering the responsibility. That's toughness. No excuses. No explanations.
Look your coaches and teammates in the eye: Tough players never drop their heads. They always look coaches and teammates in the eye, because if they are talking, it is important to them and to you.
Move on to the next play: Tough players don't waste time celebrating a good play or lamenting a bad one. They understand that the game is too fast to waste time and opportunities with celebratory gestures or angry reactions. Tough players move on to the next play. They know that the most important play in any game is the next one.
Be hard to play against, and easy to play with: Tough players make their teammates' jobs easier, and their opponents' jobs tougher.
Make every game important: Tough players don't categorize opponents and games. They know that if they are playing, it is important. Tough players understand that if they want to play in championship games, they must treat every game as a championship game.
Make getting better every day your goal: Tough players come to work every day to get better, and keep their horizons short. They meet victory and defeat the same way: They get up the next day and go to work to be better than they were the day before. Tough players hate losing but are not shaken or deterred by a loss. Tough players enjoy winning but are never satisfied. For tough players, a championship or a trophy is not a goal; it is a destination. The goal is to get better every day.
When I was playing, the players I respected most were not the best or most talented players. The players I respected most were the toughest players. I don't remember anything about the players who talked a good game or blocked a shot and acted like a fool. I remember the players who were tough to play against. Anybody can talk. Not anybody can be tough.