Building a Mentally Tough Culture

A mentally tough culture is built on trust, faith in the competence of others, effective and reliable leadership, high expectations, group solidarity, putting the team first, and finding intrinsic enjoyment in accomplishing the mission

Sports teaches young people many life lessons. It also provides a stage for portraying many elements of the human condition. At many levels, but especially at the professional tier, high-performing sports teams can model important lessons to be learned by businesses and organizations. Two examples are the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Royals. The Royals made their first World Series appearance since 1985 last year (2014) and won the World Series in 2015. The Patriots won the Super Bowl in February 2015 and made it to the AFC Championship earlier this year. Both of these organizations are world champions. Both of these organizations have a mentally tough culture. Here are some ways this developed.

Trust. Trust builds at a very slow and gradual pace. Yet it can be destroyed in the blink of an eye. It is nearly impossible to develop a mentally tough culture if group members do not trust one another. Trust can have many facets. Who or what can be trusted? It is believing fellow members have everyone’s best interest at heart. It’s like the cop show where the partners each know the other one has their back. Players on these world championship teams trust one another. They also have trust in the leadership, team philosophy, processes, and systems such as the playbook and game plan. A great deal of research on group performance has been conducted on a concept related to trust—cohesion. For many researchers, cohesion is divided into two categories: task and social. Social cohesion is basically interpersonal attraction or how well people in an organization like each other. When an organization has high social cohesion, you see coworkers socializing after hours. This type of cohesion is important for organizations such as a fraternity or sorority, but studies have found it doesn’t lead to higher group productivity or performance in very many settings, including sports teams and business groups. Task cohesion is when processes, systems, and people work like a well-oiled machine. Sports provides many obvious examples. The football play requires all of 11 men to execute their assignments. A single member can derail the whole play if they miss their assignment. Also, general football job functions are divided into Offense, Defense, Special Teams. Trust among and between these units make a team mentally tough. Baseball involves more one-on-one match-ups, but things such as executing a double play or advancing runners require task cohesion. Crucial to trust and task cohesion is the fact that each group member perceives his or her teammates as being competent. In many post-game interviews, Royals players commented on their faith that they knew someone would step up.

Team comes first. Players on world champion teams such as the Royals and Patriots don’t see themselves as superstars. They understand their role and know no one is indispensable. The Patriots will ask players to do things outside of their regular position. For instance, you might see an offensive lineman in the backfield, taking a handoff on a goal line play. Even more important, at practice, players are expected to contribute by playing on the scout team. On the baseball side, you might see a Royals player bunt at an unexpected time. Players are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win.

Leadership. The importance of trust already has been discussed. The players on these teams trust the leadership. Patriots players believe in coach Belichick’s plan and that he will prepare them for each game, set them up for success. Royals manager Ned Yost has the trust of his players. Players for both of these coaches have complete confidence in their leaders and know these leaders stay the course rather than constantly change directions. Yet at the same time, they adapt to the situation and opponent.

High Expectations. Players on the Patriots and Royals teams are expected to be prepared for each game. This might be a general expectation, such as being in top condition or taking care of their body. It might be mental preparation, such as studying film. These players also are expected to practice hard and perform at a high level, executing without mistakes. In short, they are the best because they are expected to act like the best.

Circle the Wagons. There is a high level of solidarity within the Royals and Patriots organizations. For completely different reasons, both organizations feel like it is “us against the world.” Like Rodney Dangerfield, the Royals feel as if they don’t get enough respect. They leverage this into competitive determination or what some call having a chip on their shoulder. The Patriots know that every team wants to knock them off of their throne. Probably no other team has a greater impact on the NFL competition committee, which revises rules to create an even playing field among the teams.

The More We Win. Added fun or added pressure? Several years back, I was an assistant coach on a college football staff. We had a very good team and racked up victories week after week. We knew we were going to the playoffs. But something changed in the team dynamic. Players no longer seemed relaxed or focused. It was like something was bothering them, distracting them. We finally lost a game to an inferior opponent. As we walked to the locker room, the head coach turned to me and said the loss was probably a good thing because it took the pressure off. In some ways, he was right because the players seemed more relaxed and we resumed our winning ways, except that we blew it in the national championship game. Especially in the 2015 MLB playoffs, the Royals kept winning and winning. The more they won, the more fun they seem to have. You could see the playful banter in the dugout. You could see them supporting one another. The Patriots are the same way. They might not outwardly show they are having fun, but they are. At the root of this is that the players on these teams love the game.

A mentally tough culture is built on trust, faith in the competence of others, effective and reliable leadership, high expectations, group solidarity, putting the team first, and finding intrinsic enjoyment in accomplishing the mission.

Robert Troutwine, Ph.D., is a co-founder of The Right Profile, LLC, and a sports psychologist who is known for his work helping professional sports teams evaluate and develop athletic talent. His TAP360 System is used by teams in the NFL, MLB, and NBA, and numerous college athletic programs to evaluate and develop athletes. He has worked with more than 20,000 elite athletes and combat units. For more information, visit

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