Get our free Dream Team Assessment & weekly podcast episodes!

As seen (and heard!) on

how to build mental toughness

When Alicia discovered she hadn’t known how to build mental toughness

After 10 years of coaching, we were doing some great things with our program. We’d developed competitive teams but had never won the State championship. I read leadership books, shared inspirational quotes, and gave motivational speeches. As a team, we thought things were going pretty well, and I thought we did know how to build mental toughness… until that game.

It was the regional championship game. We were up 2-1 in the bottom of the 7th inning with one out and nobody on. In our minds, we had already counted it as a win. Then the wheels fell off. Two of our best players lost focus at just the wrong time and committed back-to-back mental errors. Just 9 pitches later, the game was over 3-2. We were crushed and honestly didn’t know what to do.

As luck would happen, that summer I took my first Sport Psychology class. Within the first 15 minutes it hit me like a ton of bricks: this was what was missing. Our team wasn’t mentally prepared to handle the pressure or adversity. They needed to learn how to build mental toughness every day. The professor mentioned the book, The Winners Manual by Jim Tressel, and from that book, notebooks were born.

We have used notebooks every year since to make sure we work on the mental game every day. We read books, share stories and experiences, and have daily discussions as a group. These notebooks have become a part of the system we use every year that the players have come to trust. It helps that we won our first State title that first year using the notebooks too 🙂

Now we have an even more actionable and comprehensive system (the Dream Team Blueprint), but we want to share the basics of how to create a system first!

How does “trusting the process” build mental toughness?

Have you ever talked to your players about trusting the process? Most likely the answer is yes, because it is SO important. Trusting the process is what gets us through the grind. If we trust there is a bigger plan in place that’s designed to help us grow, it’s so much easier to get through those tough days. However, it becomes a little harder to trust when most players and coaches couldn’t really tell you what that process is.

Some say it’s the process of getting 1% better every day. Excellent! How do you do that? Just showing up to practice every day and assuming we’re getting better isn’t enough. You see, our brains are pretty smart, but they need a lot more proof sometimes to build true confidence. So you have to give your players’ brains that proof with things like checkpoints, data that shows progress, and reflecting often on how far you’ve come.

How to build mental toughness with a system

Now, you could stop there and make good progress with your players. But we’re guessing if you’re here reading all of this, you’re the type of coach who goes the extra mile. If you want to go above and beyond with your process, you have to think about the season as a whole. Coaches who develop championship-level teams year after year know that they don’t begin as champions in the first couple games. They work up to that through a strategic process.

The Sport Psychology term is called periodization. Think of it as a recipe. We have most, if not all of the ingredients we need to develop an awesome athlete. But we’re not going to make a delicious cake if we throw all of the ingredients in a pan and toss it into the oven, right? You first have to measure the ingredients, then you mix them together in the right order. Next you can put it in the oven until finally you can sit back and watch the cake rise!

Now that you’re thinking about your favorite type of cake… let’s reel you back in 🙂 As coaches, our ingredients include drills for pitching, hitting and fielding, exercises for getting our team in shape and warmed up properly, and mental skills to help them perform under pressure. Our recipe, or process, has four phases: Teach, Repeat, Stretch, Test (TRST). Next we’ll show you what that looks like implementing this process all season!

Phase 1 | TEACH

The Teach phase is first and is all about learning. You teach your players how to build mental toughness by building up the basics. One part of it is teaching the mental and physical skills your players need in order to play their best. Mental skills include positive self-talk, focus, letting go of mistakes, etc. It’s not enough to simply tell your players what they should do. You have to teach them the techniques that will allow them to practice mental toughness- just like practicing fundamentals!

The other part is focused on developing and teaching this team’s winning culture. You as a coach will have certain expectations of how you want your teams to compete, but the culture has everything to so with this particular group of girls. The players have to define what this team is all about and what it’s going to take to get this team to championship caliber.

Phase 2 | REPEAT

Next, you teach your players how to build mental toughness by repeating the lessons over and over. Just as with any physical skill, repetition is what helps our minds remember what to do, so it eventually becomes automatic. You have to practice focus and self-talk just as often as you have to practice pitching and hitting. You also have to keep developing your culture by celebrating positive behaviors and correcting those that are counter-productive to the team’s mission.

You’ll get further if you repeat the lessons of a few chosen skills in different ways. If you try to cover too many things that you’re not prepared to teach, you won’t be able to dig deep enough to actually make the skills stick. You can get creative with your practices though!

For example, you can work on failure recovery as a team, individually, within drills or in a scrimmage. Each new way you teach the skill helps strengthen the skill in their minds, so keep repeating!

Phase 3 | STRETCH

In the Stretch phase, you teach your players how to build mental toughness by challenging them. You’ll know it’s time for this phase when your players start to gel and things begin to click. Teams that seem to peak early in the season and choke when it “counts” at the end have probably missed this step. That’s because it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you’ve made it. Yes, you’ve made it to the next phase, but if you want to peak when it really matters, you have to level up.

To stretch your players, you have to make it tougher. Challenge them with tougher drills and higher goals. Add pressure with consequences and time limits. We talk a lot about this in our interview on the NFCA’s podcast, The Dirt. There are countless ways to level up the pressure and intensity. Every time your girls start to get it and are performing more consistently, you’ll know it’s time to celebrate the progress and then stretch them some more!

Phase 4 | TEST

When you reach the final phase, it’s time to Test them. This honestly is one of the most difficult phases for most coaches, because it means you have to let them go. After all the hard work, preparation, blood, sweat and tears we’ve put in, it’s no wonder we have such a hard time with this! But we have to let them go, because when it’s game time and the pressure is on, they have to be able to rely on themselves out there on the field.

This doesn’t mean that you stop coaching though! It just means you let them lead. In this phase, the coach’s primary role is encouragement. If you noticed, the acronym for these phases is TRST- trust. You have to trust that you did all you could to prepare them so they can see and feel that you trust them to go out there and do their jobs. If you can master this, your players will be able to play fearlessly and leave it all on the field!

How to build mental toughness every day

Now that you have your overall system, you can start to build out your weekly and daily system. Don’t get too caught up in planning every detail though. Start with your overall themes and work through the process daily. This will allow you to keep your plan flexible enough to make adjustments along the way.

Begin by deciding what themes you want to focus on this season. Then loosely plan out the order you want to address them so they build on one another. It all depends on what this team needs, as we mentioned above. Choose 5-7 topics you want to cover throughout the season and always keep the team’s desired culture as the base of everything you do.

If you want to follow our specific process, we believe the best teams exhibit the 7Cs. We call these mental strengths:

  • Committed
  • Competitive
  • Confident
  • Courageous
  • Composed
  • in Control
  • Consistent.

This is the order we’ve found to work best in our experience. (For more on that, see our Dream Team Blueprint!)

How to build mental strengths with mental skills

To improve those strengths, we teach mental skills. We consider these the mental fundamentals, just like you teach spins to pitchers, bat path to hitters and backhands to fielders. These mental skills include:

  • connecting to your why & goal setting
  • developing a mastery mindset
  • positive self-talk
  • imagery
  • energy & emotion management
  • focus
  •  routines

We pair these skills with the mental strengths simply for the convenience of teaching the concepts, but again they are all helpful for each mental strength. Again, check out our Blueprint to see how these all fit together in our system. Or if you’re planning to run this on your own, we suggest focusing on 1-3 topics for the season.

How to build mental toughness by keeping things simple

This can all start to feel overwhelming quickly, so we like to use a weekly theme to keep things simple. Choose one main thing to focus on each week and then work that into everything you do! We suggest working together as a staff or whole team to finalize the topic for the week first, based on what you did the previous week. Then look at what physical skills you need to work on and figure out how to work on both at the same time.

Example: Letting go of failure

In order to stick with the process, you’ll design your practices based on the phase of the season you’re in. If your theme of the week is “letting go of failure,” here are some examples of what you could do in the different phases:

Teach: Teach your players a failure recovery routine. Every time they mess up, they practice pausing, taking a deep breath and resetting for the next play or pitch. Each individual’s routine will be unique to what they need.

Repeat: Do this activity in individual hitting drills, team defense, pitching bullpens and live at-bats. Reflect on what’s working and what they could do better.

Stretch: Level up the intensity! Add a consequence when they make a mistake that they must complete before going into their recovery routine. Keep pushing them past their comfort zone here.

Test: Take a step back as a coach and encourage teammates to work with each other to recover faster after mistakes. If it gets out of hand, you can step in and help them refocus, but allow them to work through it themselves as much as possible.

As you can go through this process for multiple mental skills, you’ll see your girls improve quickly. Stick with the process all season and you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the end as you watch your girls take charge, excel and TRUST their preparation and each other.

Teach your girls how to build mental toughness by having and sticking to a legitimate process!

Now you know what it takes to create a process for the entire season that will lead to your girls trusting their training and each other. There are no guarantees for success, but this is as close as we can get as coaches. Here are some takeaway tips as you work on your own system:

  • If you feel overwhelmed, limit the topics to the most important for your team right now
  • Going deeper with each skill is more important than covering the most topics
  • Stick to your system, but be flexible with the material/timeline
  • Make sure you implement it on the field every day!

Want some extra guidance and resources on how to build mental toughness?

Now you know HOW to build mental toughness every day in the most effective way. If deciding on and planning out all of the lessons sounds like it would take more time than you have, check out our services!

Dream Team Blueprint– mental training lessons, activities & drills
So you don’t have to spend extra time searching for and choosing which resources to use and simply follow our proven, comprehensive, step-by-step plan.

Coaches’ Mastermind– with Mel & up to 4 other coaches
So you can get personalized feedback and ideas to pack your practice plans with even more actionable mental training- without going over your time limit!

Team Consulting– with Alicia
So you don’t have to spend practice time teaching the concepts, but instead can focus on Repeating, Stretching and Testing your players on the field.

To learn more about our Dream Team Blueprint & higher levels, head here!

We hope this was helpful and now you feel confident moving forward with an actionable mental training process!

mel & alicia



The Purpose of Coaching


Getting Buy-In


Developing Mental Toughness With Drills

Mental game drills from some of DI softball's best pitching coaches


How to get mentally tougher in softball

45 minutes of mental toughness tips and tricks!


How to Do More Mental Training | Mattawan High School Series

Episode #1- Mattawan Intro


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


Get our free Dream Team Assessment & weekly podcast episodes!