Jul 7, 2016
What Makes An Athlete Tough?

Mental toughness is what gets any athlete through the most intense and exhausting moments of the game. It can often be the edge that a player needs to succeed in tough situations, and that is why it is so important for coaches to understand how to get their team to be mentally tough.

In an article for strengthpowerspeed.com, Robert A. Panariello, MS, PT, ATC, CSCS, Founding Partner and Chief Clinical Officer at Professional Physical Therapy Athletic Performance Center who serves as a consultant to many NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, collegiate and university teams, coaches, and players, questions the traditional idea that pushing players to excessive fatigue builds mental toughness. 

“Excessive fatigue has an undesirable effect upon the body,” writes Panariello.

Though working an athlete to the point of fatigue and physical stress is crucial to improving performance, Panariello argues that too much fatigue can inhibit an athlete from fully developing mental toughness. He explains that excessive fatigue can lead to a reduction in concentration and alertness, muscle force output, effects on joint force couples, effect on joint proprioceptors, and recovery.

“The greater the fatigue state of an athlete the prolonged the period of time required for their full recovery. A consistent day after day ‘draining of the fuel tank’ will not allow for full recovery of the neuromuscular system, prohibit optimal athletic performance, and expose the athlete to possible overuse type soft tissue injuries (strains, tendonitis, etc.),” writes Panariello.

The article poses a fundamental question about the process of fostering mental toughness:

“If excessive fatigue is an adversary for optimal athletic performance and also places the athlete at possible increased risk of injury, why does there appear to be a ‘work the athlete until they are exhausted and vomit’ mindset in an attempt to make them mentality tough?”

Panariello poses this question to NFL Strength and Conditioning Coach Johnny Parker and former NFL Head Coach Bill Parcells. All seem to agree that mental toughness can only be achieved when the players have enough energy to stay alert and perform with appropriate neuromuscular and musculoskeletal system function.

“There is concern with the philosophy of working athletes to the point of exhaustion and illness as this may result in much more misfortune than just an athlete placing their head in a bucket,” writes Panariello.

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