How to Develop “Mentally Tough” Players With Geno Auriemma

By Don Kelbick

Mental toughness, what is it? Aside from being probably the most overused phrase in coaching, can anyone really describe it? I am not sure you can. I have been coaching for a long time and I can’t figure it out.

I get very concerned when people use some traditional terminology without examining its meaning. Too many times, I have seen coaches torturing players in the name of building mental toughness. They take the fun out of the game, wear down their players then blame them when things don’t go right. I would like to give you another way to look at mental toughness.

Confident players are mentally tough. Players who believe they will attain success in the end regardless of what they go through on the journey are mentally tough. These players are bred of success. There can be no understating the benefits of experiencing success. Putting your players in the position where they can experience success will pay dividends.

I was really struck by some comments that were made by members of the University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball Team, after they won their most recent championship. I don’t normally watch a lot of women’s basketball. There is nothing wrong with it but they play a different game and I really don’t like it. But, UConn is different. At the time, I was speaking to a good friend who is an assistant for a Div. I women’s team so I thought it was appropriate to watch. In case you missed it, UConn scored 12 points in the first half. That is the lowest point total in a half in the history of the women’s Div. I championship playoffs. It seems to be ironic when the best team in history turns in the lowest scoring half in history. After they came back to win the game, I watched the player interviews afterward. A lot of the questions centered on the first half and how they turned it around. To a player, they all said they were unconcerned because their coach, Gino Auriemma, creates an atmosphere of success no matter where they go. They all said that he convinces them that if they continue to do the right things, regardless of the situation, they will come out successful. He is a tough, demand coach but there is never a time where he makes them feel that they can’t accomplish what he asks. Everything in their program revolves around the belief that they can be successful. Philosophy, basketball drills, game plan, etc, all center on rewards of success and not penalties of failure. They always want to make the next play.

We should all learn from that. If you want to build mental toughness, the foundation is success. Reward, don’t punish. Catch players doing the right thing as opposed to jumping on them for the wrong thing. Teach them to crave success, not fear failure.

It shows on the court. That is coaching. That is mental toughness.


  1. Tim — April 15, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    Excellent observations and solid point of view on how to foster mental toughness. Certainly a much more productive – and fun – method of coaching than the following the conventional wisdom which suggests that you need to break a player down before you can build him/her back up.

    I’m wondering, though, if you can elaborate a bit more on what you mean when you say that the women “play a different game”. I was struck by the comment and am wondering how you would compare/constrast the style, nature, etc. of the women’s game vs. the men’s.


  2. Don Kelbick — April 18, 2010 @ 9:03 pm


    It was certainly not meant as a derogatory comment.

    Women play a different game. Men”s play has become one based on speed and athletic ability. Surly they lack fundamentals but due to strength and speed, the games is faster and above the rim.

    Women’s play is more fundamentally sound but lacks the athleticism that I am partial to.

    That is except for UConn

  3. Daryl — June 23, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    Could you elaborate on some ways to build reward structures into drills and practices. While I try to build in competition in my drills it seems the losers are punished. (pushups, sprint, etc.

  4. Marius — March 30, 2013 @ 9:48 am

    Hey Coach, great stuff! Appreciate your work!

  5. Brian Sass — March 30, 2014 @ 7:51 am

    I saw Auriemma speak at the Two-Man clinic at Main South last spring. He had a lot of great stuff.

    When it came to building confidence, he addressed a change he had in when he installed things with his team.


    He said he used to install first defense, then offense. He did that because that is what most coaches had done. But the offense became a struggle because it was behind the defense in terms of development. The defense would always come out ahead in practice and it would take a long time for the offense to catch up.

    He now works strictly offense and no defense at the beginning of his seasons. They haven’t worked on defense during offensive drills and scrimmages. This allows the team to have initial success and feel positive about how it works, and what shots it will get them in games.

    After they have gotten good at offense, THEN he installs and works on defense. When they have success stopping the offense, the thought process becomes “Hey, we are stopping and defending good offense.”

    That echo’s exactly what Coach Kelbick has here. He used his installation process and order to create feelings of success in his team. That feeling helps them to be confident and achieve greater success on the court.

    I myself started doing things in this order at the Jr. High level. It made a difference. When I taught defense first, learning offense was like banging my head against a wall. The kids had trouble developing faith in the system because the defense was so far ahead. Letting them work the offense first, have success, then learn how to defend it worked better all the way around.

  6. Joe — March 31, 2014 @ 10:58 am

    Good stuff, Brian. That is very interesting and makes sense.

    I’ve always developed defense first, because it helped our teams compete at a higher level in a shorter amount of time.

    Our offense always takes longer to develop. However, maybe it takes longer to develop because of our focus on defense at first.

    Hmm… I have to think about this one some more.

  7. Brian Sass — March 31, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

    Thanks Joe,

    The thing I noticed was that defensive teaching assimilates faster (just my observation). So teaching it second, it still caught up to the offense more quickly than the offense caught up to the defense when I taught defense first.

    It was again about positive experience and success. Offense first gave the kids success and positive concepts of what they were doing. When we started teaching defense, every defensive success became “Hey! We are stopping a good offense!”.

    That positive experience allowed them to grow more confident in the defense as it was being taught. I believe (again, JMO) that defensive skills assimilate faster than offensive skills. This could be because offensive skills are more wide ranging and varied. Plus they are more complex. This methodology sung to mesand what I had experienced.

    Plus we were able to practice everyday for 10 days before our first game. At the middle school level, that helps immeasurably.

    Brian Sass

  8. Ken Sartini — April 6, 2014 @ 8:27 pm

    Hi guys…

    I had the same problems… we used to do defense first all the time… by the time we got to offense the kids were a little tired but pumped up to stop the O. I got sick of that real quick… finally told my assistant that we were switching and why.

    He understood and agree. Funny, he was in charge of the teaching the D. We always went back and forth on each other ( kids ) got pretty physical at tmes.
    Had to slow them down and remind them we were on the same team.

    The kids hated to lose, even to each other. You would have thought it was the Super Bowl at times…. but both sides loved to play defense. So as the guy running the offense I had to make sure that they could actually run it vs a good D.

    Once they learned it, the defense had a hard time stopping our open post offense, even though they knew it as well as the starters….. even when we put out 6 defenders.

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