What is Toughness?

What is toughness? Jay Bilas wrote an interesting article, “Defining Toughness in College Basketball”, for ESPN. I have edited his essay and adapted it for baseball with a few minor revisions. Almost all that is written below comes directly from Bilas’ essay.

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.

I often wonder: Do people really understand what coaches and experienced players mean when they emphasize “toughness”? Or is it just some buzzword that is thrown around haphazardly without clear definition or understanding?

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. Here are some of the ways true toughness is exhibited.

Talk on defense: The toughest players talk on defense, and communicate with their teammates. If you talk, you let your teammates know you are there, and make them and yourself better defenders. It also lets your opponent know that you are fully engaged.

Jump to the ball: When on defense, the tough defenders move as the ball moves. The toughest players move on the flight of the ball, not when it gets to its destination. And the toughest players jump to the ball.

Get on the ground: Dive for the ball. Make a catch, knock the ball down. Be tough enough to get on the ground for it.

Get to your teammate first: When your teammate lays his body on the line to dive on the ground or gets knocked down, the tough players get to him first to help him back up. If your teammate strikes out or makes an error, tough players get to him 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.

Get in a stance: Tough players don’t play straight up and down and put themselves in the position of having to get ready to get ready. Tough players are down in a stance as the ball crosses the plate, with feet staggered and ready to move. Tough players are the aggressor, and the aggressor is in a stance.

Finish plays: Tough players complete the play. They don’t give up on a play or assume that a teammate will do it. A tough player plays through to the end of the play and works to finish every play.

Throw yourself into your team’s defense: A tough player fills his tank on the defensive end, not on offense. A tough player is not deterred by an error. A tough player values his performance first by how well he defended.

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. Tough players listen and are not afraid to say what other teammates may not want to hear, but need to hear.

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 nine as one. Tough players are alert on defense and on the base paths. They are not spectators.

Concentrate, and encourage your teammates to concentrate: Concentration is a skill, and tough players work hard to concentrate on every play. Tough players go as hard as they can for as long as they can.

It’s not yours; it’s ours: Tough players don’t worry about where they are in the batting order or what position they play. When they get a hit, they understand that it is not “my” hit, it is “our” hit. Tough players celebrate when “we” score. When they make a putout, they understand that it is not “my” putout, it is “our” putout.

Take responsibility for your actions: Tough players make no excuses. They take responsibility for their actions. No excuses. Shouldering the responsibility. That’s toughness.

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 too much time celebrating a good play or lamenting a bad one. 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 acted like a fool. I remember the players who were tough to play against. Anybody can talk. Not anybody can be tough.

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