Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Value of Mental Toughness

Comparisons are natural. People size up people they like, they don't like, they want to like, they want not to like...and those that are like them or not like them or they want to be like them...ugh. Critics and fans love to analyze past and present athletes with the "who is greater?" dilemma.

Regardless of the motivation, I like the insight Michael Jordan provides about Kobe Bryant's development as the most complete basketball player in the world. To become the best (MJ talks about his philosophy in the sidebar video ->), athletes take aspects of other people's games and apply those characteristics and skills to their own. It's an equation of observational learning, modeling, vicarious skill building, and dedicated application.

Further, the talk of mental toughness is an exceptional truth that embeds the star as it hovers the basketball universe. Lindy's Pro Basketball 2008-09 has the story via BallerBlogger and 20 Second Timeout:

...it becomes quickly obvious that Jordan respects Bryant, without even a hint of condescension. After all, Jordan respects anyone who does the work, who has the mental toughness, to climb the heights. Bryant's done the work and displayed the toughness...
...Winter has repeatedly emphasized that Scottie Pippen's role in the success of the Bulls cannot be overestimated; on the flip side, Winter and West both criticized the lack of mental toughness of Bryant's current supporting cast, a weakness that became glaringly apparent during the 2008 NBA Finals. "The Lakers just are not mentally tough"...

The last comment reminds me of the Bulls gallop to greatness in 1991, which showcased the basketball antithesis of this past season's runner-up from LA. David Halberstam writes in Playing for Keeps:

Winning in the NBA more often has to do with psychological qualities than physical ones. Veteran coaches and players know that the margin of difference comes more than anything else from superior mental toughness. Quality players on great teams know how to win, how to finish a game, how to block out a hostile crowd on the road; they speak of the ability of great teams to bend the will of lesser teams to their own. If these phrases sound to the outside world like clich├ęs, within the league they have achieved the status of gospel. In a season as long as the NBA's, where one game runs into the next, where mental fatigue is often greater than physical fatigue, what sets the great players apart is a capacity, in the dogs days of February, on the road, when their bodies ache, to see a game against a lesser opponent as being important and to bring a high level of preparedness to it. Greatness in the NBA does not just require great skill, it demands the ability to go out and play hard night after night, and the ability to inspire one's teammates to play hard as well. That was what set players such as Bird, Johnson, and Thomas apart -- not only their fierce will but its effect on the their teammates. By 1990, the Bulls and the Pistons looked about even; in fact, if anything, in terms of pure talent, the Bulls looked superior. But so far, the Pistons owned the Bulls because they managed to get inside the heads of the Chicago players.

The one thing a championship-level team liked least to do was to give off any sense of vulnerability to a contender, particularly one that imagined its fortunes on the ascent. And so issues of mental toughness were critical: Were you mentally strong enough to expose the weaknesses of a rival team and emphasize to that team its own weaknesses before that team exposed your own vulnerabilities?

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