On the home stretch: mental toughness and NCAA rankings
On Mental Toughness
We’ve reached the home stretch of the season, and every game carries conference championship and NCAA tournament implications. These high-pressure games bring to mind an overlooked aspect of Division III soccer and sports in general: mental toughness.
Watch any sporting event—Premier League, MLS, Ryder Cup, MLB (Roll Tribe), NFL, NHL—and you’ll see players and teams make mistakes and lose games on the mental side. Golfers miss gimme putts, shortstops commit errors, and quarterbacks throw interceptions. Division III soccer is no different; goalkeepers drop crosses, defenders make bad passes or lose track of their guy, forwards miss open nets. Sometimes it’s bad luck, or a bad bounce, but these mistakes often stem from a lack of mental toughness.
Vince Lombardi described mental toughness as the qualities of sacrifice and self-denial, combined with a “perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in.” Bobby Knight said “mental toughness is to physical as four is to one.” Bill Russell said concentration and mental toughness are “the margins of victory.” My definition: mental toughness is the drive to do whatever it takes to be successful, with the discipline to prepare before and the focus to handle adversity during the game.
Many people think of mental toughness as an inherent skill, something that you’re born with or just “have,” but I disagree. I see it as five parts, and you can develop each one.
Practice. They say practice makes perfect for a reason. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers sometime, which suggests that greatness comes from a combination of natural ability and 10,000 hours of practice. Think about that. If you played soccer for one hour, every single day, from age 3 to 21, you’d only reach 6,935 hours. The great players you see in D-III this year have put in the time. Practice builds the foundation for mental toughness, because it’s much easier to do something in a game that you’ve done hundreds or thousands of times before. You know you can do it, so you don’t wonder if you can do it.
Discipline. If practice is the foundation of mental toughness, discipline is the key. Mental toughness is not a switch you can flip on once a game starts. Sure, you can love the pressure or not get nervous, but if you aren’t disciplined, it won’t matter. It’s hard to show up early to practice, to stay late, to sacrifice while your friends are out having fun. It takes discipline to eat right, to do off-season workouts on your own, to get your work done. But that discipline translates to games. When you’re fit, it’s easier to track back 80 yards to cover a runner. You won’t make a mental mistake from fatigue. That discipline also helps you keep your composure, so if you go down a goal, you don’t panic. Finally, when you know you’ve worked harder than the other team, you play confident and loose.
Desire. Desire is the driving force behind mental toughness. Practice and discipline are essential, but you won’t be able to develop either without a burning motivation to do well. It’s what makes you practice on your own, or get up at 5 a.m. to run while everyone else sleeps. It’s what pushes you to run through a 50-50 when the other guy just sticks a toe in. It’s what shuts up that voice in your head telling you to stop, that you’re too tired to or sore to keep going. Guys like Michael Jordan, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Michael Phelps were all gifted, but the thing everyone brings up when they talk about them is desire, the competitive nature that pushed them to do all those things. In close games, you can often tell who wants it more, and that team usually wins.
Attitude. Don’t confuse this with confidence. Plenty of confident people are mentally weak; they don’t know what to do when something goes wrong. Think about Mike Tyson, who dominated everyone until Buster Douglas put him under pressure and then knocked him out. Mentally tough people, on the other hand, thrive in adversity because of their attitude. In particular, they aren’t afraid to fail. Fear of failure is a motivator, don’t get me wrong. I’ve dealt with it, particularly in sports. But that fear strangles you, adds pressure, and makes it even harder to just be yourself and play well. Once you get rid of that fear, however, you don’t think about what could go wrong. You focus on the process and you feel confident that you’ve put in the necessary work. Control the things you can control, as they say, and everything else takes care of itself.
Experience. This is the final ingredient. Think about the last five national champions. 2015 Amherst had been close for years, led by seniors and a coach who knew what it would take. 2014 Tufts was the same way, as they’d been labeled a talented team who couldn’t figure it out for a few years before putting it all together. 2013 and 2012 Messiah, while not senior-heavy, had institutional experience; everyone in that program knew exactly what it would take to reach the top. And 2011 Ohio Wesleyan was a senior-laden team that had been one half away from the Final Four the year before. You build mental toughness through adversity and experience.
People develop mental toughness through experience in many ways. It might mean a difficult childhood, or a personal loss, or watching your parents sacrifice for you. I was lucky growing up, so I developed mental toughness through sports—getting benched, playing on a losing team, missing the last penalty kick. You can pick up this experience anywhere, but the key is that it has to matter. If there are no stakes involved, you won’t feel pressure, and you won’t be prepared to handle adversity when it hits you during a game. Experience is the part of mental toughness that lets you push through pain and mistakes and tough situations, because you’ve seen what it takes to overcome them.
I coached middle school basketball for six years, serving as the assistant for my old middle school coach. We ran our program on four letters, M.T.X.E., for “Mental Toughness, Extra Effort.” We coached a bunch of 13- and 14-year olds with minimal life experience, but using those four letters and the five parts of mental toughness I talked about today, we made an impact. Today, I watch those kids play in high school or college, and I see “M.T.X.E.” written on their shoes. Everyone gets the “extra effort” part—you just have to work harder. But what so few athletes understand, and even fewer develop, is the mental strength it takes to be successful. As the season reaches its climax, I guarantee the teams and players that have developed these skills will be the ones left standing.
Thoughts on NCAA Regional Rankings
Things got real this week with the release of the NCAA regional rankings, the ones that actually matter. That’s not to discount the D3soccer.com rankings, which are fantastic, but we have no say in who makes the NCAA tournament. The regional rankings, however, will determine who receives the coveted at-large bids come Selection Monday. If you haven’t, check out Chris Shirk’s comprehensive article explaining everything you need to know about the rankings. My thoughts:
Don’t Panic. This is the first edition, and the rankings don’t include the important record-versus-ranked component because nobody was ranked last week. Expect major shuffling once that metric comes into play.
Strength of Schedule, Again. The strength-of-schedule (SOS) metric gets on everyone’s nerves. I get it. The home/away multipliers, which make a road win over an average team worth more than a home win over a great team, are ridiculous. Much of the schedule is out of a coach’s control. Even a good schedule on paper can morph into a weak SOS if some teams struggle. The committee gives the metric too much weigh. You name the complaint, I’ve heard (or thought) it.
The one complaint I have sympathy for is that SOS punishes weak conferences and regions more than strong ones. In a weak conference, your SOS drops with every home game, and you don’t have away games against good teams to balance it out. For many good teams in weaker conferences, a low SOS means they must win the conference tournament (and automatic NCAA bid) or they’re out.
That scenario is playing out only minutes from me with Capital University. The Crusaders play in the OAC, normally a one-bid conference dominated by Ohio Northern. Capital has been terrific all year, with an opening-day loss to Calvin the only real black mark. But it seems impossible at this point for Capital to get an at-large bid because their SOS is 0.500, and the OAC’s overall weakness means Capital probably won’t get much higher. It’s hard to fault Capital, because they didn’t schedule cupcakes. They played Calvin and Hope at neutral sites, Denison and Thomas More away, and Ohio Wesleyan at home—all teams I expected to have good-to-great seasons. Yet four of those five have underperformed, and Capital could somehow go 16-2-2, with their only losses to Top 10 Calvin and Ohio Northern, and still miss the NCAA tournament. Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen.
Work To Do. Glancing at the rankings, few teams are safe. Mass-Boston (#2 in New England) will drop because they won’t have the ranked wins to compete with NESCAC teams. Calvin has no margin for error and needs the MIAA’s automatic bid, as they’re barely ranked in the Central and the SOS is likely to drop even farther. The East is completely up for grabs, while the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes are filled with teams with low SOS metrics, meaning at-large bids will be hard to come by. The West, for once, seems to have avoided SOS issues, but a lack of ranked wins could haunt Colorado College and others. The South Atlantic is loaded, but only eight teams are ranked, meaning good teams like Kean and Rutgers-Camden could deserve an at-large bid but won’t get one because they aren’t even ranked.
Despite all of this, every team still controls its own destiny. Beat the ranked teams left on your schedule and do well in the conference tournament. Win the automatic bid, and these rankings become irrelevant. For now, teams only need worry about winning the games in front of them.
Ryan’s Boxscore Top 10
1. Chicago (14-0-0, D3soccer.com No. 1)
2. Trinity (Texas) (15-0-0, No. 2)
3. Messiah (12-0-3, No. 3)
4. Rowan (13-1-1, No. 6)
5. Rutgers-Newark (16-2-0, No. 18)
6. Ohio Northern (14-0-3, No. 5)
7. Kenyon (12-2-0, No. 8)
8. Tufts (7-3-2, No. 24)
9. Amherst (11-1-1, No. 4)
10. Franklin & Marshall (10-1-3, No. 7)
Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Ryan Harmanis.