Mental Toughness

Playing AFL requires the physical and technical skills but also requires mental skills or mental toughness. When preparing for a game, much more time is spent training the physical and technical skills of the game. What we understand about developing the mental side of the game is still relatively misunderstood.

  • Player - Body Language
  • Coach - Goal Setting
  • Team - Leadership
Player – Body Language

Players have high expectations to perform and can get very down on themselves when they have made errors, are not getting a touch or have had goals kicked on them. This is understandable because every athlete wants to be perfect every time they go out and play.  That is what is expected.

The difficulty with this is that no one has ever played the perfect game and never will. When a player makes an error you see the following changes in body language:

  • Head down
  • Yells at self
  • Yells at others
  • No communication/talk
  • Runs around all over the place
  • Doesn't run hard enough
  • Gives up on opponent

Players tell me lots of things that are all examples of how disappointed they are in themselves for not performing to their expectations. The more interesting thing is that as well as body language becoming very negative the player's self talk is even more negative.

Basically players in this situation are in their own head space being negative about themselves and their abilities rather than just playing the game. Understanding this pattern of behaviour and then changing the pattern of emotions and thinking that lead to the pattern of behaviour is the first step in developing mental toughness.

Understand how you respond to situations in the game. Talk to your coach, another player, a senior player or your parents about this pattern of behaviour as a first step. You may then consider seeing a sport psychologist to help you understand this pattern even better – and change the pattern of behaviour.

Coach – Goal Setting

Most coaches that I speak with want intensity in every training session but then get frustrated when the quality of the training is poor. Poor training quality affects the intensity and the goals the coach wanted to achieve. Because of this cycle bad habits are formed.

In your training sessions set a goal of consistent intensity throughout the training and inform the training group that you will be measuring this every 5-10 minutes. Every 5-10 minutes of the training session give your group a measure of their intensity – be honest in your appraisal – if it is a 5/10 then give one behaviour you would like them to execute to take to another level.  For example:

  • "I want more patience with how you are executing your kick as you rushing it a bit"
  • "I want you to run full pelt for 10 paces every time you release the ball"
  • "I want every person to yell at the top of their lungs while we complete the drill as you are all too quiet"

After a couple of weeks you may only need to rate intensity a few times over the whole session. If you want intensity at training it is your responsibility to teach your training group how to achieve this goal.

Team – Leadership

The terms “leadership” and “leadership groups” are very common place in AFL Clubs nowadays. The process of choosing leadership groups and the leadership behaviours that set the standards for an AFL Club is time consuming but the time spent is worth the effort for the AFL Club when trying to enhance the team culture.

At lower levels, the leaders of the group are often the better players, especially in junior competition. Leadership skills and acknowledging how good leaders act and behave on and off the field is a very important activity that can easily be facilitated by the coach or someone well recognised at your club.

Creating a list of behaviours that set the standards of behaviour for your group and acknowledgement of what being a leader requires can enhance the self worth of your playing group. Coming back to your list each week and praising the efforts of players and coaches and staff involved in the team is a great way to build the culture of your club.