7 Habits of Truly Tough Players -
Jay Bilas' Toughness

By Tony Adragna

Jay Bilas has talked about toughness for many years. He’s even written an entire book on the topic. He talks about multiple habits that ‘tough’ players have. His definition of toughness is probably vastly different from a lot of your players.

Bilas doesn’t define toughness as pushing guys around. He doesn’t define it as being the strongest guy on the court. It’s not thumping your chest after a big play, or taunting an opponent after a big dunk. Those habits are what Jay Bilas calls "fake toughness".

As Bilas puts it...

“Toughness has nothing to do with size, physical strength or athleticism. Toughness is a skill, and it is a skill that can be developed and improved."

Bilas points out 31 different habits that tough players have, but if you could get everybody on your team to adopt the seven habits highlighted below, your team will be on the fast track to becoming tougher.

7 Habits of Truly Tough Players

1 - Talk on Defense

For whatever reason, kids want to talk everywhere except for the basketball court. If you go into the lunch room on any given day, you can probably find your players talking and screaming to their peers.

But the second they step on the basketball court, theirs mouths remain shut.

By talking on the defensive end, your players let their teammates know that they are there, and it makes everybody on the floor a better defender. Not only does talking on defense make your team better, it lets your opponents know that you are fully engaged in the game, which can be an intimidating factor.

2 - Get on the Floor

The first player on the floor is typically the one that comes up with a loose ball. Too often, players want to try and scoop the ball and score. But when the player that dives for the ball gets possession instead of the player that tried to scoop it, the player that tried to scoop got out-toughed.

If you can create a culture of every player on your team diving for loose balls, not only will you have a tougher team, you’ll have more possessions and chances to score.

3 - Sprint the Floor

Sprinting the floor on offense and defense isn’t flashy or glamorous, but it’s what tough players do. Sprinting the floor in transition can get your team easy baskets, even if there isn’t anything easy about it. As Bilas notes, “easy baskets are hard to get.”

By sprinting the floor, you’re able to attack a defense before it can get set up and keep the defense on their heels. It also forces your defenders to sprint to keep up with you, which can wear teams down.

Again, sprinting the floor isn’t going to make a bunch of highlight reels, but it’s what tough players do.

4 - Play So Hard, Your Coach Has to Take You Out

This is something that a lot of players struggle with. They don’t like to be uncomfortable. They shouldn’t want things to feel easy. They shouldn’t be pacing themselves.

They should be playing so hard that their coach has to take them out so that they can rest before putting them back in the game.

There is never an excuse for not giving 100% of everything you’ve got on the floor. But there aren’t a lot of players that do that, and that’s because they don’t like to be pushed outside of their comfort zone.

If you can get your entire team to play so hard that you have to take them out, you will be one of the toughest teams to play against, regardless of what level you’re coaching at.

5 - Show Strength in Your Body Language

Body language is such a strong indicator of how things are going in a basketball game, but it shouldn’t be that way.

How many times have you seen your kids hanging their heads when things aren’t going your way? Or yell at a teammate for making a mistake? Complain to officials when a call doesn’t go their way?

The habits listed above are all negative body language. Tough players don’t do those things.

Instead, tough players’ body language communicates confidence and security, and the rest of their teammates feed off of that.

6 - It’s Not ‘Your’ Shot, It’s ‘Our’ Shot

There is not a selfish bone in a tough player’s body. They are not worried about their individual stats, or ‘getting theirs.’ They are worried about getting the TEAM the best shot on every possession.

That may mean that they set 10 screens in a possession, they may pass 25X more than they shoot. But if it’s for the betterment of the team, they don’t care.

It’s not something most players would refer to as ‘toughness’, but it fits Jay Bilas’ definition perfectly.

7 - Look Your Coaches and Teammates in the Eye

We talked about body language earlier, and this point coincides with that. Bilas notes that tough players never drop their heads.

They let their coaches and teammates know that what they’re saying is important by looking them in the eye. It’s something so simple, but also something that seldom happens with teams.

Creating a culture of toughness isn’t something that is easy to do. It’s easy to let players slip through the cracks.

Developing culture happens one small action at a time. By focusing on these seven behaviors, your players will begin to understand what toughness truly looks like in the game of basketball.


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Jon Dyer says:
3/1/2017 at 7:08:19 PM

I think the key to Tony's post is the work 'HABIT.' Not all athletes bring toughness to the table so helping develop these key elements of toughness as a coach is important.
Repeating and motivating these habits at trainings with your players every training session is key to helping players undertaking them in games 100% of the time.
I believe good coaches weave and create situations through their training sessions for these to be introduced, practised, repeated and encouraged.
Like Coach Longmuir says, all of these skills and characteristics benefit the player in life skills and building resilience in tough situations.


Coach Longmuir says:
3/1/2017 at 12:46:13 PM

These are not just good habits for your team to be successful these are life long habits that all good coaches and teachers should strive towards every day. These habits turn young boys into strong men, they help develop outstanding citizen's and leaders for our communities, city's and country. We should not have to worry about wins when we teach these habits, that will take care of it's self, and when we lose we will be able to stand tall and except the result for we know that nothing was left on the floor! So these are the true habits that we should give all young men and women for a successful life. I truly believe this is how we create a great successful society through sports.


James Toler says:
3/1/2017 at 12:20:34 PM

I agree with the toughness concept. I am in my third year of coaching 2-5 graders and have never had such a rewarding experience or so much fun. Breakthrough basketball has been a great resource for me and out school program.
Here in North Little Rock Arkansas Lakewood Elementary we have made quantum leaps and I have always directed new coaches to use your site. Going forward I plan to buy cds for the coaches to mandatorily watch them. I played basketball coaches baseball etc. but this site was critical for me. I will be moving up next year to middle school but breakthrough basketball will be in our pockets. Jim Toler


Colin says:
2/23/2017 at 9:48:46 PM

Tony, these habits are very thought provoking as to how they would impact the success of a team directly, but I could not agree more that each of them does. As an ex basketball player myself, I understand that mentality is a huge part of the game and that seems to be a lot of what Jay Bilas is getting at with his list of habits. The biggest role in becoming tough is having a tough attitude and this stems from the ideas Bilas lists such as body language and thinking about the team first. Another very important thing in acquiring these traits is giving full effort all the time. If a player can bring a tough attitude and 100% effort every time he/she steps onto the court, he/she has mastered the first step in becoming a truly tough basketball player.


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