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Podcast #19: 5 Strategies to Help Students Become Mentally Tough

Justin_SuaRecently I had a great conversation with Justin Su’a, Head of Mental Conditioning at IMG Academy. We discussed the current state of student-athletes and ways we can help them (as well as any student) become mentally tough. Through many conversations with athletic personnel like Justin, I am seeing the same trends over and over concerning student-athletes. I hope you enjoy this discussion as much as I did.


Click Here to Listen

Here are a few notes from our discussion…

How has culture affected the “mental toughness” of young people of this generation?

Mental toughness is a phrase so many people use. When I think about it, it’s your ability to remain in control in any and every circumstance. It’s also your ability to push through things that may be boring. The culture plays a tremendous role in it. It’s interesting to see how this plays out. Young athletes want instant gratification. They want everything to happen now. We need to teach them to focus on the process, and results will follow.

It seems like resilience is diminishing in kids. Talk about the importance of resilience and what we’ll have to do to re-cultivate it.

A quote that I love to share is from Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” At the first sign of adversity, everything’s out the window. You’ll always revert to your dominant habits under pressure. One thing I think we can do to help these youngsters is having them frame their plan beforehand. Young athletes often judge incorrectly if left to judge by themselves. Helping them understand judging correctly will help their resiliency.

photo credit: striatic via photopin cc

photo credit: striatic via photopin cc

Walk us through your 5 strategies to help kids become mentally tough.

  1. Coach-ability. Being able to be coachable. Praise their effort and be specific with feedback.
  2. “How do I create the environment for my athletes to motivate themselves?” There are three Cs that we follow: competence, control and camaraderie. Let your students feel like they’re progressing at a task. The less control a student feels they have, the more negative they’ll be. Combine these two things with team building and friendships within the team, and this is a recipe for success.
  3. Providing the right frame. A coach can help their athletes focus on “getting better” rather than being “good.”
  4. Teach kids how to fail. Adaptability is huge. Kids should know they don’t need their ‘A’ game to succeed. Teach them to expect the best, but plan for the worst.
  5. Help them find the right attitude. Pessimism never breeds peak performance.

What difference do you see between Olympic athletes and novice athletes?

Their ability to deal with failure, hands down, and their ability to refocus after being distracted. They’re great at controlling themselves when they fail. They keep themselves motivated and focused always.

Check out Growing Leaders. If you’re new to the podcast or blog, visit our website to learn more about the resources Growing Leaders offers to equip those who lead the next generation.

What topic would you like for us to address on the next episode of the Growing Leaders Podcast? Leave a comment.


HabitudesForAthletesWant to prepare athletes for excellence in sports and life? Check out Habitudes for Athletes.


  1. charlene.fonseca on February 18, 2014 at 9:41 am

    I “loved’ this lesson from Growing Leaders. Talk about vision for all students! We have it right here.
    I had this thought yesterday that we teachers need to help our students learn how to judge correctly and today I read that “young athletes often judge incorrectly if left to judge by themselves.” An explanation of this aspect could be helpful.

    • Tim Elmore on February 19, 2014 at 1:57 pm

      For many students, the word “judge” is seen as a negative word. They almost run from it, thinking it implies superiority. I think to help students judge appropriately, we must first teach them that there must be a standard by which we judge—meaning assess or evaluate—what’s right and wrong; appropriate and inappropriate. To me, this means we must have some transcendent standard for which we have agreed upon, for society. When we leave morals up to each individual, we enter a slippery slope. It could lead to anarchy—where everyone makes up the standard for themselves. Recently, I heard a college student actually say, “I am personally against terrorism, but who are we to judge that it is wrong? For the extremists, they are taught that it’s the right thing to do.” This make sense, but it leads to huge problems, as you can imagine. Culture must agree to a set of standards. Adults must help kids develop a worldview that is mature. By this I mean it is: focused on service to others; humble; able to keep commitments; grateful for what others have given to them, etc.

      • charlene.fonseca on February 20, 2014 at 10:24 am

        So in essence, we are back to a “brick wall” of which ethical philosophy can we or do we teach…and for some, dependent on where we are teaching, “can” we teach philosophy that includes the ethics?

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Podcast #19: 5 Strategies to Help Students Become Mentally Tough