How Nick Saban Develops Grit in His Players

Coach Nick Saban came up with a new way to define mental toughness for his football team. During spring training, 2018, the national champion head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide told a story to his players.

While Saban was weather-proofing his Florida home, storm windows were being chosen and installed. During the decision process, he asked the workers how they knew one brand was stronger than another. The installers replied, “We measure the toughness of the window by the breaking point each window has.”


From that point on, Saban used this simple analogy to talk about mental toughness in his student athletes. “How much does it take to break you?” “How much ‘storm’ can you withstand before you buckle under the pressure?” These are  excellent questions when considering the grit level your team possesses. I also believe, however, that the issue goes deeper. What might take out one player,  could strengthen another one. It’s all about what is going on inside of each individual teammate.

When measuring the size of a player’s grit, I offer a new Habitude® to you.

Candles and Brushfires

Every one of us has blown out candles on a birthday cake. Unless they’re trick candles, it takes such a small breath to blow them out. It’s almost effortless. Why? Because the flame is small; measurably smaller than a brushfire.

I did a lot of my growing up in California. The state is famous for brushfires. In fact, over the last couple of years, miles of California real estate were taken out by huge brushfires that swept across the west coast. If you stop and reflect for a moment, those flames essentially become stronger and larger with wind. Consider this truth:

Lasting leaders grow big on the inside. Their heart’s size can be measured by how a hard storm affects them. The same wind that extinguishes a candle, extends a brushfire.

How curious is that? A candle can’t stand a harsh wind at all. A brushfire actually wishes for the wind. Strong winds literally make the fire bigger and stronger.

The principle is about:

  • Adaptability. Brushfire athletes can flex and bend with changing conditions.
  • Resilience. Brushfire athletes insert their will when winds of adversity blow.
  • Size and strength. Brushfire athletes may be small outside, but big inside.

Big on the Inside

We’ve all heard the phrase: It’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, but about the size of the fight in the dog. Consider the incredible athletes who are small in stature but who bring unreal resilience to their game. For example: Kyler Murray, potentially the number one pick in the 2019 NFL draft, is 5’ 10” and only 194 pounds. In fact, ponder this:

  • Barry Sanders was a 5’8” NFL running back and yet a 10-time pro bowler.
  • Pele was a 5’8” soccer player who was the athlete of the 20th century.
  • Mary Lou Retton was a 4’9” gold medal winning gymnast at the LA Olympics.
  • Joe Morgan was a 5’7” Hall of Fame Major League Baseball player.
  • Henri Richard was a 5’7” Hall of Fame NHL hockey player.
  • Gabby Douglas is a 5’2” gold medal winning Olympic gymnast.
  • Lionel Messi is 5’7” 5-time La Liga champion soccer player.
  • Becky Hammon was a 5’6” WNBA star who now coaches in the NBA.
  • Emmitt Smith was a 5’9” 8-time pro-bowl running back and NFL Hall of Famer.
  • Bethany Hamilton was a 5’7” surfer, when she lost her arm in a shark attack, but she became bigger and better for it.

You get the idea. What they lacked in stature, they made up for in strength. What they didn’t have in resources, they made up for in resilience. They have “brushfire” mental toughness. Setbacks seemed to make them bigger and better. This “brushfire mindset” is what we must breed in our student athletes.

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How Nick Saban Develops Grit in His Players