How to Build Mental Toughness in High School Athletes: A Coach’s Guide

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Mental toughness in sport can help coaches and athletes maintain consistency and motivation to achieve goals. And, especially at the high school level, coaches play a crucial role in helping athletes develop mental toughness.

At this critical developmental stage, coaches can shape their athletes physically, socially and psychologically.

Coaches who want to help build mental toughness in high school athletes can incorporate specific strategies into their training and philosophy, such as: creating a positive coaching environment, using effective communication, incorporating mental skills, and being intent with training sessions. 

Create a Positive Coaching Environment

The environment athletes compete in shapes their development of physical and mental skills. The coach’s philosophy, how the coach models behaviors, and adding in time for fun are important for creating this environment.

  • Coaching Philosophy — The coaching philosophy — which includes the coach’s values, leadership style and purpose — helps keep the coach accountable while upholding the expectations of the team throughout the season. This helps build mental toughness and molds the culture of the team.
  • Practice What You Preach — It is important for coaches to exemplify the desired behaviors for athletes to optimally develop mental toughness. Coaches can work on their own mental toughness through education of mental skills, rehearsal of those skills, and letting athletes see this growth to model development. (Example: Incorporate breathing into coaching routine.)
  • Activities Outside of Sport — Scheduling team bonding, such as team dinners and fun activities, can help create the positive coaching environment needed for mental toughness to grow. It also allows the coach to better understand athletes by getting to know them outside the sport setting.
  • Time to Take a Break — Knowing the athletes is also important for the positive environment needed for mental toughness development. If there are physically demanding practices or competitions and athletes appear sluggish or distracted, incorporating mental and physical breaks is important. (Example: Incorporating extra recovery time, team-building activities, or relaxation techniques.)
Volleyball players holding hands in a line

Communication Is Key       

Communication on the coach’s part can go a long way when it comes to the development of mental toughness. It is the coach’s responsibility to articulate and communicate effectively in order to cultivate a trusting, understanding and respectful coach-athlete relationship.

Frequent communication accompanied by positive encouragement and honest feedback allows for a mutually beneficial relationship to grow. Examples include:

  • Worksheets — Fill out worksheets with athletes on “controllables” in sport or give scenarios of mistakes for athletes to write responses to those mistakes and how to overcome them.
  • Ask Questions — In training, if athletes make a mistake, ask them to provide more efficient strategies to perform the skills or better decisions for the situation to stimulate critical thinking and independence.
  • Give Autonomy — Athletes want to feel important and feel they have a say in decision making. Giving athletes the power to choose which activities to perform, having an open line of communication, and giving athletes the responsibility to take charge of team energy, motivation, and accountability will help them think critically on their own and feel validated.

Mental Components

Mental skills in sport provide an extra source of preparation and development for success. Introducing mental skills at the high school level can be beneficial for solidifying techniques throughout four years for use at the higher sport level or other performance-related areas in the athletes’ lives. 

  • Breathing can help with focus and relaxation, particularly in critical moments.
  • Visualization/Imagery allows athletes to mentally rehearse a skill or reactions prior to physically performing the skill or experiencing the situations in sport.
  • Self-talk can build self-confidence and ease anxiety associated with sport.
  • Goal-setting can keep athletes accountable and motivated to accomplish wanted outcomes.
Mental Skills Infographic

Instruction and Drilling

Coaches can strategically incorporate opportunities for mental toughness development in training through specific drills. Coaches have centered training on physical development, but allotting time for mental development can help athletes further develop the “one more” mindset and the consistency of mental toughness.

Coaches can implement mental preparation into training in several ways, such as:

  • Create adversity through challenges, high intensity drills, and conditioning to prepare athletes for adverse situations in games and give them the confidence and resiliency needed to push through hardships in competition.
  • Establish a competitive mindset through challenges such as conditioning after practice, scrimmages, and partner or group drills.

Yet, it is important for coaches to have that foundation of a positive environment in order to have honest feedback and also for athletes to feel supported during those challenging times.

Strategies Journal Cover

To learn more about fostering mental toughness in high school athletes, read our article, “Strategies for Developing Mental Toughness in High School Athletes,” in the January/February 2020 issue of Strategies.

Additional Resources


Madison Hunt
Madison Hunt

Madison Hunt earned her M.S. in sport and exercise psychology from Long Beach State University. While there, she was a research assistant for a study on mental toughness. She has consulting experience at the high school, club, and collegiate levels, where she introduced mental skills to aid performance and well-being. She can be reached at mquinnhunt@gmail.com.

Courtney Novak
Courtney Novak

Courtney Novak received her B.S. in psychology from Ursinus College and her M.S. in sport and exercise psychology from Long Beach State University, where she worked as a sport psychology consultant for high school and college level teams. While enrolled, Courtney was a varsity high school lacrosse coach who utilized her sport psychology knowledge to develop mental toughness in her athletes.

Leilani Madrigal
Leilani Madrigal

Leilani Madrigal, Ph.D., CMPC, is an assistant professor in the Kinesiology Department at Long Beach State University. She has published both qualitative and quantitative research concerning mental toughness and factors associated with psychology of injury. She can be reached at Leilani.madrigal@csulb.edu.