Pursley Pep Talks: Mental Toughness Is a Habit

Swimming World will publish a collection of coaching perspectives written by Alabama head swimming coach Dennis Pursley. This is the 10th installment of a series that will be rolled out throughout the coming months.

There is little dispute that mental toughness is a key component of competitive success. Sometimes, however, we make the mistake of assuming that we will respond to a challenge with mental toughness when really needed, but we need not be concerned about it in all other situations.

We plan to rise to the occasion on the main set each day, but are content to train in our comfort zone on the other sets. Or we may expect to respond to the challenge successfully in major competition, but we are content to settle for less than our best in less significant competitions. If we take this approach to preparation, we will likely be disappointed with the end result.

Aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness, stroke efficiency, strength and power and every other component of race preparation must be gradually developed through countless repetitions in training. Mental toughness isn’t any different. It will likely fail us when it really counts if it has not become a habit. When faced with a major challenge, we will most often revert back to our habitual tendencies.

We all know of athletes who personify this attribute. They seem to give 110 percent to everything they do in training and competition: they make no distinction between the main sets and the other sets, the major competition and the other competitions, their best events or their other events, their good days or their bad days. Regardless of the circumstances, they always race tough.

Through habitual reinforcement, mental toughness becomes an ingrained part of who they are. These are the athletes who will almost always win the close races. These are the athletes who will almost always perform well under pressure. These are the athletes whom we should all strive to emulate.

About Dennis Pursley
After getting his start as a volunteer coach on Don Gambril’s first Alabama staff, current Alabama head coach Dennis Pursley has gone on to one of the most extraordinary careers in the sport of swimming, a career that led him to be named one of the 25 most influential people in the history of USA Swimming in 2003.

Pursley has helmed coaching staffs throughout the world, including stops as the first head coach of the Australian Institute of Sport, the inaugural director of the United States National Team and most recently the head coach of Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic squad. Pursley returned to the deck in 2003 as the head coach of the Brophy East Swim Team in Phoenix Ariz., before becoming the head coach of British Swimming in 2008.

Pursley and his wife Mary Jo have five children, Lisa, Brian, David, Steven and J.J. Lisa and David have joined him on the Alabama staff.