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What is Mental Toughness and Do the Timbers have it?

I can't think of another industry where cliches are more used than sports. Politics, maybe, but they got their own thing going on. Sometimes the cliches are spot on and sometimes they are just used by broadcasters, managers, players and sports as a shortcut. Reporters readily accept them so the interviewee doesn't actually have to answer a question when feelings are still very raw.

There is one one cliche that has been used frequently in conjunction with this season's Portland Timbers. It is the phrase "mental toughness". In Portland's case it is used because of the late game struggles they have had and the fact they have given up late goals at an alarming rate. For example:

"Sometimes when you're playing in big games, you make a mistake and people go into shells. We need to be mentally tougher." - John Spencer after the 2011 loss to LA Galaxy

"You can't teach mental toughness. I'm not saying we don't have the heart ... but we need to stand up to pressure." - John Spencer April 26th O-Live article.

But what is mental toughness? Is it just a weasel word, or is it a real? If it is real, is it measurable? How can it be improved? Or is Spencer right that it can't be taught?

To answer those questions I decided to try and write down my feelings on the phrase "Mental Toughness" and asked Andrew his what his thoughts on the phrase.


I am really torn between two worlds. I believe Spenny has a different definition of mental toughness than I do. Especially if he is saying you can't teach it. If I had time and the ability to have a longer interview with him about this concept I bet we would find that my definition of mental toughness and his definition of heart are the same thing.

Is there a mental side to the game? Of course there is. Do I believe it can be taught? I think it can. Is it hard to teach professionals and even amateurs? Yes it is probably the hardest thing to teach and sometimes it is not taught by someone but by in game situations and experience.

The Portland Timbers are not necessarily a young team but I would say they are an inexperienced team, especially concern the rigors of an MLS season. However inexperience can only explain some of what has occurred late in games and only for some of the players.

In the end I believe Spencer is right that he can't teach heart or the desire to win but you can teach the mental side of the game or at least the mental approach to the game of soccer. Sports is also riddled with examples of great players, like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, or Muhammed Ali, who had that quality throughout their careers. However, there are other examples of athletes who had to develop the mental side of the game. Evan Longoria is an example of someone who went through that process.

Watch this video to see how
Evan Longoria developed Mental Toughness.

In the end I believe there is something more to the phrase mental toughness then John Spencer thinks. How much more is up to your own personal opinion. My opinion is
if we accept that mental toughness can be taught and developed what does this mean for the Timbers players? If the coach doesn't think they can improve their mental toughness will they ever improve? It's not too late for Coach Spencer to consider the alternative.


The idea of "mental toughness" is probably rooted in reality for John Spencer, but I think his liberal use of the term is pretty much meaningless. I think he uses it to push his team to remember their training and keep their wits about them during matches, and to remind them that their success on the field is up to them. It's another way of saying, I can train them and coach them and help them with their fitness, but it's up to the players to execute on the field.

To some extent, it's also become part of the team's narrative this season. The management has built a team of quality players, but they don't have their confidence yet and are therefore not succeeding on the field. Give them a chance, they say, to develop that mental toughness, and this team will win games and maybe get to the playoffs.