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What is Toughness?

September 10, 2015

“Defining Toughness”
By Jay Bilas


I have heard the word “toughness” thrown around a lot lately.  Reporters on television, radio and in print have talked about a team or player’s “toughness” or quoted a coach talking about his team having to be “tougher” to win.

            I often wonder: Do people really understand what coaches and experienced players mean when they emphasize “toughness” in basketball?  Or is it just some buzzword that is thrown around haphazardly without clear definition or understanding? 

            Toughness has nothing to do with size, physical strength, or athleticism.  Some players may be born tough, but I believe that toughness is a skill, and it is a skill that can be developed and improved.  Michigan State coach Tom Izzo always says, “Players play, but tough players win.”  He is right.  Here are some ways true “toughness” is exhibited in basketball:


1-      SET A GOOD SCREEN: The toughest players to guard are the players who set good screens.  When you set a good screen, you are improving the chances for a teammate to get open, and you are greatly improving your chances of getting open.  On the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, Bob Knight made Michael Jordan set a screen before he could get a shot.  If it is good enough for Jordan, arguably the toughest player ever, it is good enough for you.

2-       SET UP YOUR CUT: The toughest players make hard cuts, and set up their cuts.  Basketball is a game of deception.  Take your defender one way, and then plant the foot opposite the direction you want to go and cut hard. 

3-      TALK ON DEFENSE: The toughest players talk on defense, and communicate with their teammates.  It is almost impossible to talk on defense and not be in a stance, down and ready, with a vision of man and ball. 

4-      JUMP TO THE BALL: When on defense, the tough defenders move as the ball moves.  The toughest players move on the flight of the ball, not when it gets to its destination.  Tough players don’t let cutters cut across their face- they make the cutter change his path.

5-      DON’T GET SCREENED: No coach can give a player the proper footwork to get through every screen.  Tough players have a sense of urgency not to get screened and to get through screens so that the cutter cannot catch the ball where he wants to.

6-      GET YOUR HANDS UP: A pass discouraged is just as good as a pass denied.  Tough players play with their hands up to take away vision to get deflections and to discourage a pass in order to allow a teammate to cover up. 

7-      PLAY THE BALL. SEE YOUR MAN: Most defenders see the ball and hug their man, because they are afraid to get beaten.  A tough defender plays the ball and sees his man.  There is a difference.

8-      GET ON THE FLOOR: Too many times possessions are lost because players bend over at the waist to try to get a loose ball.  The first player who gets on the floor is the player who tends to get possession.

9-      CLOSEOUT UNDER CONTROL: It is too easy to fly at a shooter and think you are a tough defender.  A tough defender closes out under control, takes away a straight line drive and takes away the shot.  A tough player has a sense of urgency but has the discipline to do it the right way.

10-  POST YOUR MAN, NOT A SPOT: Most players just blindly run to the low block and get into a shoving match for a spot on the floor.  The toughest post players are posting their defensive man.  A tough post player is always open, and working to get the ball to the proper angle for a post feed.  Tough post players seal on ball reversal and call for the ball, and they continue to post strong even if their teammates miss them.

11-  RUN THE FLOOR: Tough players sprint the floor, which drags the defense and opens up things for others.  Tough players run hard and get “easy” buckets, even though there is nothing easy about them. 

12-  PLAY SO HARD, YOUR COACH HAS TO TAKE YOU OUT: The toughest players don’t pace themselves.  They play outside of their comfort zone.

13-  GET TO YOUR TEAMMATES FIRST: When your teammate lays his body on the line to dive on the floor or take a charge, the tough players get to him first and help him back up.  If your teammate misses a free throw, tough players get to him right away.  Tough players are also great teammates.

14-  TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR TEAMMATES: Tough players expect a lot from their teammates, but they also put them first.  Tough players make sure their teammates eat first, and they give them credit before taking it themselves.

15-  TAKE A CHARGE: Tough players are in a stance, playing the ball and alert in coming over from the weak side and taking a charge.  The toughest players never shy away from taking a charge.

16-  FINISH PLAYS: Tough players don’t just get fouled, they get fouled and complete the play.  A tough player plays through the end of the play and works to finish every play.

17-  WORK ON YOUR PASS: A tough player doesn’t have his passes deflected.  A tough player gets down, pivots, pass-fakes, and works to get the proper angle to pass away from the defense and deliver the ball.

18-  THROW YOURSELF IN YOUR TEAM’S DEFENSE: A tough player fills his tank on the defensive end, not the offensive.  A tough player is not deterred by a missed shot.  A tough player values his performance first by how well he defended.

19-  TAKE AND GIVE CRITICISM THE RIGHT WAY: Tough players take criticism without feeling the need to give excuses.  They are open to getting better and expect to be challenged and hear tough things.

20-  SHOW STRENGTH IN YOUR BODY LANGUAGE: Tough players project confidence and security with their body language.  They do not hang their heads, do not react negatively to a teammate’s mistake, and do not whine and complain to officials.

21-  CATCH AND FACE: Tough players catch, face the defense, and make the right read and play, and they do it with poise.  Tough players don’t catch and dribble, tough players catch and face.

22-  DON’T GET SPLIT: Tough players get shoulder to shoulder with a teammate and do not allow an opponent to split double teams.

23-  BE ALERT: Tough players are alert and active, and tough players communicate with teammates so that they are alert, too.  Tough players echo commands until everyone is on the same page.  Tough players understand the best teams play five as one. 

24-  CONCENTRATE, AND ENCOURAGE YOUR TEAMMATES TO CONCENTRATE: Concentration is a skill, and tough players work hard to concentrate on every play.

25-  IT’S NOT YOUR SHOT, IT’S OUR SHOT: Tough players don’t take bad shots, and they certainly don’t worry about getting “my” shots.  Tough players work for good shots and understand it is not “my” shot, it is “our” shot.  Tough players celebrate when “we” score.


26-  BOX OUT AND GO TO THE GLASS EVERY TIME: Tough players are disciplined enough to lay a body on someone.  They make first contact and go after the ball.  And tough players do it on every possession. They understand defense is not complete until they secure the ball.

27-  TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR ACTIONS: Tough players make no excuses.  They take responsibility for their actions. 

28-  LOOK AT YOUR COACHES AND TEAMMATES IN THE EYE: Tough players never drop their heads.  They always look coaches and teammates in the eye, because if they are talking it is always important to them and to you.

29-  MOVE ON TO THE NEXT PLAY: Tough players don’t waste time celebrating a good play or worrying about a bad one.  They understand that basketball is too fast a game to waste time and opportunities with celebratory gestures or angry reactions.  Tough players move onto the next play.  They know that the most important play in any game is the next one. 

30-  BE HARD TO PLAY AGAINST, AND EASY TO PLAY WITH: Tough players make their teammates’ job easier and their opponents’ job tougher. 

31-  MAKE GETTING BETTER EVERYDAY YOUR GOAL: Tough players come to work every day to get better, and keep their horizons short.  They meet victory and defeat in the same way.  They get up the next day and go to work to be better than they were the day before.  Tough players hate losing, but are not shaken or deterred by a loss.  Tough players enjoy winning but are never satisfied.  For tough players, a championship or a trophy is not a goal; it is a destination.  The goal is to get better every day. 




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