Redefining Mental Toughness


The part of my game that I always seemed to struggle with most was the mental component. For majority of my career, everyone kept telling me the same thing, “to be good at goalie you have to be mentally tough.” Now that I’m a coach, I know mental toughness isn’t exactly what they meant. What many coaches mean is that you need the ability to know that even though a goal just went in or five goals, that it’s okay and those goals don’t take anything away from your ability to save a shot. You are still just as capable five goals in as you were when the game started. I’m not trying to create a new “politically correct” term here, I just think we need to descriptively discuss more of what it is we’re looking for in our goalies, and our players in general. What I mentioned above is what people have perceived to equal toughness, when in reality you can’t use one word to combine everything you’re looking for here.

The Problem

When you hear the word tough, other words that come to mind are usually strength, grit, perseverance, endurance, etc. Therefore, adding mental with the word, a lot of times leads people to think they need to be some sort of emotional shield. That being mentally tough isn’t letting anything affect you. This is troublesome for both girls and boys alike, as it leads emotions to been seen as weakness. This was my theory of why many goalies I know (including myself), and why a lot of boys and men develop mental health problems later on. This type of thinking is more associated with boys, which makes sense when you breakdown gender norms in society a bit. 

Going back centuries, sports have been the ultimate sign of strength and masculinity for men. It makes sense then that when girls began to play, they felt compelled to develop these qualities into their play. Hence sayings like “there’s no crying in sports”, “pain is weakness”, or when boys get upset, coaches say “stop being a girl” or insert other derogatory terms referencing femininity. The perception is that emotions/crying are reserved for girls, and it makes us weak. It’s also the perception then as well that men are strong because they don’t do this (wrongly so), and such weakness isn’t welcome in sports.

Given this logic, it would make sense then, that the most masculine or “toughest” position on the field would inherit these feelings as well. Goalies therefore, must be the strongest and toughest of them all. Feelings and emotions? Those are weaknesses and not displays of toughness, so they are not allowed. I cannot tell you the number of times after I would have to take a lap around the crease or maybe a tear fell from my face that people would ask, “aren’t you used to it by now?” or when I’d make a comment about a bruise, friends/teammates would say, “well you chose it”. Yes, I chose to play goalie, but I’m not going to sit here and pretend that getting hit in the quad or arm (or the dreaded skimmer) with a 60+ mph shot doesn’t hurt, because it does. How about you try to “get used to that”? No one else wants to. We take it, and sometimes, yeah, we’re going to say it hurts because it does, and we’re allowed that. We might take our lap and shed a tear, but as soon as we’re good we’re going right back in there to repeat the process over and over and over again, for YEARS. Literally sacrificing our bodies many times, for the team. As goalies, we’re arguably doing the toughest job out there, as we take the heat physically and literally. 

I could write forever on gender roles and dynamics in our country and especially their relation in sports, but I’ll get back to mental toughness. I wanted to see if I could validate my thinking in any way. So, I did a survey, and had 65 responses. I’ll post the age/gender breakdown below, but when asked “How would you define mental toughness/what does mental toughness mean to you?”, the words in the image above were the most commonly used words (bigger words used more frequently).

You can tell from these words, they’re mostly vague and harsh descriptions like handle, push, strong, focus, and control. There were some that were closer to the mark though, like this response: “Mental toughness is the ability to maintain a stable mindset throughout a practice or game, not allowing mistakes to distract you and bring you down. Mental toughness is being completely present in the current moment and focused on the next shot. Mental toughness is recognizing that skill is not fixed, bad games don't define you, and hard work will get you where you want to go.”

I wanted to dig deeper, to know, how players would rate their mental toughness, their perceived importance of it, if they practiced it, and how they did if they did. 

The Answers

Q: How much would you say your mental toughness effects how you play?
Choice 1: 81-100% - 43.8% of respondents
Choice 2: 61-80% - 32.8% of respondents
Choice 3: 41-60% - 15.8% of respondents
Choice 4: 21-40% - 5% of respondents
Choice 5: 0-20% - 2.6% of respondents

Q: How would you rate your mental toughness (1-10 scale where 10 is best)?
10 – 2.1% 
9 – 9.2%
8 – 40%
7 – 26.2%
6 – 10.8%
5 – 7.7%
4 – 3.1%
1-3 – 0%

Q: Do you practice mental toughness?
Yes: 69.4%
No: 30.6% 

Q: If you practice mental toughness, what do you do? If you don’t how do you think you could practice it?
Sample responses:
• “Understand that you can’ control everything, on and off the field. Be prepared to view things and focus on solutions (future saves). Move on in everyday events to move on after a bad play.
• “Having the best shooter take shots on your weak spots. The spots you normally miss. Having them take shot after shot no matter how many times you miss.”
• “When I practice mental toughness, I tell myself how to do well and what I struggle with and what may help that.”
• “I am honestly not too sure how I could practice it, except for always keeping a positive mind set.”
• “I used to have people throw lacrosse balls at my helmet to show myself that the ball doesn’t hurt you with your helmet on. This got me to get over my fear of flinching when it comes towards my head.”

Interpreting the Results

From these results, although limited, we can see that goalies tend to all believe having “mental toughness” affects at least 50% of our playing abilities. I was curious to see how mental toughness was self-reported for boys vs. girls and although the number of boys that responded were significantly less, the averages were nearly identical. Even though most agreed that mental toughness is important, still 30% of responders don’t practice it. I think even those that think they’re practicing mental toughness aren’t really doing it. When you practice it, you do it outside of when you need it, just focusing on your mentality. So, what does practicing mental toughness look like?

Practicing Mentality

In order to practice having a stronger, more resilient mindset, you have to practice outside of lacrosse practice when you can focus solely on the skill at hand just like you would practice anything else. A great time to do this is either first thing when you wake up or before you go to sleep.

1. Meditation – meditation is a great exercise to work on re-centering your focus, which is exactly what you have to do after you get scored on. There are a ton of apps out there, that will take you through guided meditations. The best part about meditation is that it teaches you to watch your thoughts like clouds passing in the sky, you’re not interpreting their shape or size, you’re just watching and letting them go by. If your thoughts start to wander, you just bring your focus back to your body and breath. The key isn’t to never let your mind wander, but the more you are able to bring your attention back, it’s a sign that you’re getting better at it. I usually set a 10-minute timer on it when I do it and utilize the Calm app.
2. Mindfulness – mindfulness can be seen as a type of meditation, and it’s one of my favorites. However, this is a term that people discuss many times abstractly and don’t explain so much on the tactical side of how to do it. Mindfulness is the idea of staying present in the moment, in whatever you’re doing. This is vital as a goalie, to not be thinking about the past, or the future, but what is going on right then. How can you practice this? For me, I started small. On my short walk from my car to the office I would practice by focusing on my senses, what I’m feeling in my body, what I’m seeing, what I’m hearing, and smelling. Then, I try to practice with my morning coffee, feeling the warm cup in my hands, enjoying the amazing smell, swirling the coffee in my mouth and really tasting all the flavors of it. You can come up with your own small ways to practice, these are just what I came up with that are small and manageable.
3. Visualization – this can be seen as a type of meditation, but it can help reset your mind when you can visualize yourself being successful in different situations. You can do this before and during games and practices. Again, this is something you should practice so that when there are distractions during games you will be able to easily concentrate from practicing. A good way to practice this in school is for exam prep!
4. Mantras – Mantra’s are another great option to use to improve your mindset before and during competition. I’ve never done this personally, but I know that it can work for people. The idea is you create a short saying, absolutely must be something positive that helps you to reset. Again, you want to practice using this for various circumstances, not just when you’re in the cage.
5. Yoga – some of my goalies have gotten into yoga, which gives you a set time to practice your mental skills, many times teaching breathing techniques, and helping with mindfulness. Additionally, yoga is great for stretching, and strengthening different muscles, which goalies need!

I hope these five tips help you practice improving your mental game. This skill is just like anything else you do, the more you practice, the better you will be! Feel free to reach out with any questions you may have!

Demographic Breakdown

Female: 84.1%
Male: 15.9%
High School: 50.8%
College: 22.2%
Post-Collegiate: 19%
Middle School: 7.9%
**60% of respondents have played goalie for 4 or more years.