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Five Simple Practices to Build Stamina in Student Athletes

Tenacity vs. Talent

You can’t coach well unless you recognize raw talent. The beginning of any winning season is the recruitment of high caliber athletes to join the team. So we’ve become scientists when it comes to evaluating talent in our sport. For that matter, in any kind of performer—football, violin, tennis, singing, basketball, you name it.

But we often fail to assess and groom the quality of tenacity.

I’d like you to consider a statement: All things being equal, I will take tenacity over talent. There’s nothing more common than someone with talent who doesn’t possess the stamina to develop it. Pause and reflect: This generation of coaches and parents has convinced our young performers to focus on their strengths. That’s a good thing. However, students can have “over-sized gifts.” Their gift is so big they begin to wing it in every other area of their life. Their talent becomes a ticket to stop working hard. Many young athletes today have talent without tenacity.

Personal Stamina vs. Personal Strength

I’d like to challenge coaches, trainers and parents everywhere to shift their conversation with performers. No doubt, identifying one’s personal strength is important. But developing personal stamina is just as important. We’ve not done well in that category, because it’s not glitzy or glamorous. We live in a day of quitting when life gets hard. College transfers are common. Long-term commitment is rare.

Sometimes transferring is appropriate. But, often, it’s a lack of tenacity or stamina that makes young student athletes give up.

American novelist, John Irving, once said of his writing … “More than half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.”

Bingo.

Stamina is king. It’s more common than we realize in athletes like Stephen Curry, or Simone Biles, or Derrick Henry or Serena Williams. But it can be hard for a typical teen or a 20-something to see its importance.

I just read the latest on singer Meghan Trainor. You know her from her 2014 hit song, “All About That Bass.” What most of us don’t know is how many times the 22-year old heard the word “no” from her record label executives in route to a hit song. “I kept coming back and saying, ‘Is this one good?’” she said. In reply, she kept hearing, “Not good enough.” She eventually wrote three albums worth of music to finally get a good song. “I was doing exactly what everyone expected me to do, and I agreed—I could do better.”

When she finally released “All About That Bass” it won her two Grammy nominations and the “Best New Artist of the Year” award that year. Ahhh. It all looks so easy. But Meghan would say—it was all about stamina and tenacity. She’s now glad her mentors pushed her, and her record label told her to try again.

Randy Gravitt said, “Over the last few years it has occurred to me that much of what is accomplished in this world is due more to stamina than it is talent. That is a good thing for most of us.”

Five Simple Steps to Take

I’m sure you know of other steps to take, but try integrating these team habits:

1. Learn to value and reward the process.

Let’s face it. We all naturally value “wins.” Competitors understand the scoreboard. Our players know what we keep score on. We want “W’s” not “L’s.” But, what if we expanded their report card and valued the process, regardless of the game’s outcome. John Wooden knew: What gets rewarded gets repeated. He found ways to talk about and to honor tenacity; he taught the “process” to his UCLA players…and found the “W’s” tended to follow.

2. Practice the “add thirty minutes” principle.

Some of the greatest competitors in history practiced this. Whatever the practice time was, they added 30 minutes more. Michael Jordan continued shooting free throws an extra half hour after his teammates hit the showers after practice. It was a higher standard that gave him greater stamina. Try encouraging your players to set their own standards, beyond what you give them. Discuss what they come up with—and celebrate the second mile.

3. Tell stories of performers who privately displayed stamina.

Players bond over stories. I know a variety of NCAA head coaches who do this; they love helping their team focus on great narratives being lived out each season. They tell the stories of past All-American players who made the Olympic teams. These coaches actually invest time, push “pause” and tell stories. Players gravitate to them. Stories can drive a whole season.

4. Make practice tougher than the game.

Women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance has done this for 37 years at UNC. He’s a “velvet-covered brick” who insures his players know he cares for them—but warns them he’ll make practice harder than games. He rigorously trains his players to acclimate to specific stresses of high-speed, high-stakes, high-risk soccer. When game time comes, they’re tenacious. The stress doesn’t overwhelm them. In practice, he dials the stress way up; in games, he dials it way down.

5. Introduce your team to past stars who illustrate the reward of tenacity.

Sometimes, the only way athletes will learn something is to see it before their own eyes. I’ve watched Coach Mark Richt invite former players, sometimes those who’ve gone “pro” in the sport, to come tell their story, a story that wasn’t so glitzy or sexy. Young athletes hear about grit and stamina from someone they aspire to be like. The fact is: people do what people see.

Again Randy Gravitt reminds us of a simple truth about tenacity. “It is impossible for you to hit a home run every day. But it is possible for you to take a swing. Keep swinging long enough and you are bound to make contact at some point.” Let’s go build some tenacity in the next generation of athletes.

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Five Simple Practices to Build Stamina in Student Athletes