Thursday, April 4, 2013

What Is Toughness?

I had the privilege of meeting ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas Tuesday night when he visited Durham and discussed his new book about toughness - what it is, how it's displayed and how the top college basketball coaches in the country develop tough players and teams.

Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court

Bilas knows basketball. He played for Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and helped the team reach its first Final Four in 1983 and national championship game in 1986. He was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks and played professionally in Italy and Spain, then later returned to Duke as an assistant coach. The Blue Devils won two national championships in 1991 and 92. An Emmy award-winning analyst, he's covered college basketball for ESPN since 1995.  
But he also understands that toughness exists in every industry. His own experiences as a trial lawyer and actor (he co-starred with Dolph Lundgren in Dark Angel in 1990) add valuable depth to his definition. 
Bilas shared 34 examples of toughness as it applies to basketball in an article in 2009 (subscription required) before expanding it into a book. Some of his "tough traits" include playing so hard your coach has to take them out, taking and giving criticism the right way and showing strength in your body language.
What's the definition of "toughness" as it applies to the iron game? What makes a lifter tough? Post a comment and let me know what you think!  


  1. Toughness is a word that gets dished around a lot, so it can be tough to define since we use it in many situations.

    On a theoretical level, I think it comes down to believing in yourself. The examples Bilas lists (body language, taking and giving criticism, playing hard) all have their roots in believing in who you are as an athlete and a person. The distinction here is between self-confidence and arrogance, but that's another discussion.

    So that's the theory side of it.

    When it comes to practicing it in real life, however, I think it comes down to consistency. Tough lifters and athletes are more consistent than others. They don't miss workouts. They don't miss assignments. They don't shirk responsibilities.

    I think if many of us were honest with ourselves (even those of us who consider ourselves to be good athletes) we would find that we're much less consistent than we want to be. Ultimately, being tough comes down to doing the things you know you're supposed to do on a more consistent basis.

  2. I see toughness in the iron game, strength game, lifting game, whatever you want to call it - even in just about anything really - as day in and day out commitment. Showing up and doing your best. Not when you feel like it, not once a week, but every time you train. Coupled with this is lifting intelligently and having the discipline or toughness to constantly try to improve. So much like what James said.

    A lifter lacking toughness fails to push through adversity. Gets down. Looks for the quick fix or the quick gains instead of the long term perspective and improving what needs improved. Sometimes being tough is taking weight off the bar or taking a day off. Sometimes it's re-thinking your program. Sometimes it's staying the course.

    Toughness is having the commitment to day in and day out do the right thing to keep improving over the long haul, even when it is hard, you don't feel like it, or you want to do something else.

  3. I'm not entirely sure I'm qualified to answer this question anymore since I'm currently about as tough as a schoolgirl who drinks juice boxes infused with puppies and rainbows...but I'll do my best.

    Ultimately, toughness is rooted in the mind. James and Matt both talk about commitment and consistency, which I agree with, but you don't become committed or consistent with a weak mind. How many workouts have you missed because your mind, not your body, told you you were tired? How many reps have you missed out on because your mind said "9 reps is enough. Don't worry about the 10th"? Probably thousands for most people, including myself. And 99% are due to weakness of the mind, not the body.

    I would say this Wikipedia entry about Marathon Monks showcases toughness of the mind and body both inside an out.

    "...but from day 101 onwards the monk is no longer allowed to withdraw; he must either complete the course or take his own life."

    Imagine the toughness of athletes if they had to approach their workouts in this same fashion. "If I don't get up for this 6:30am workout, I have to kill myself. Hmmm...I think I'll go set a PR."

  4. Obviously it is hard to be tough. So far it looks like you have to be consistent, do exactly what you say you will do, deal with adversity and never let your mind get the best of you.

    Transitioning into a manufacturing supervisor roles gives me an even larger appreciation of toughness. From a simple view, Manufacturing is very simple. You are told to make X number of parts by X date at X cost. Do that and you are successful.

    I work with a lot of people who are not tough, and never want to be tough. Even simple tasks of being to work on time, coming to work everyday, and doing the same thing (typically four hours of work) in an 8 hour day.

    Tough is setting hard to achieve targets and dealing with the adversity that comes with it. A stretch goal forces people to do more than they ever have, expose and fix more problems than initially identified, and requires a team to work together.

    Tough people respond to such challenges by giving more effort, pushing themselves past their physical and mental limitations and refusing to make excuses.

    People who are not tough never believe they can achieve the stretch target. Already they have been defeated mentally. After this they proceed to spend most of their time searching for excuses and giving minimal effort.

    Find tough people and make them part of your team. If not, any time you try to get better all you will receive is negativity, disfunction and excuses.