Developing "Mental Toughness" for the Road: One hypothesis

Submitted by glewe on September 8th, 2014 at 6:13 PM

I think that best practice in educational theory may offer some insight as to why we suck on the road.This will not be an exhaustive discussion on why we suck on the road, to be sure, but I hope to offer some insight.

I will preface the conversation with two points:

  • Hoke talks about mental toughness and physical toughness a lot. My intention here is to call into question what our team's "mental toughness" looks like. Many have already done it; I attempt to offer some level of explanation based on how much I'm aware of Hoke's teaching/coaching styles and philosophies.
  • Leadership, under Hoke, seems to be defined using an "active constructive," "positive psychology" method of team- and relationship-building. Hoke's players will run through a wall for him; it seems that they are not, however, able to play effectively in hostile environments (specifically the offense). I intend to draw comparisons between coaching styles/philosophies under Bo and under Hoke.

And a couple definitions, in case you are unfamiliar:

Positive Psychology: a movement of psychology, largely led by psych researchers at U-M and UPenn, which attempts to be constructive in developing students' awareness of their abilities and their willingness to persevere

Active Constructive response: A way of responding to a student that suggests either implicitly or explicitly that they can do something that they are trying to do

Active Destructive response: A way of responding to a student that suggests either implicitly or explicitly that they cannot do something that they are trying to do

My conclusion is drawn from having built an awareness of what practice looks like under Hoke. I have attended one or two practices, and I have read press conferences from players + coaches, and I have seen the released practice videos by MGoVideo. I have observed the following:

  1. The coaches have historically been very high energy, doing a lot of encouragement and pushing via yelling. Yelling is not, in itself, active destructive.
  2. The coaches have always seemed highly positive toward the players for doing a good job, and their responses to players who screw up has always seemed encouraging, constructive, etc. I recall one specific example where Hoke said to a player, "You came up like a big pincher bug. You don't wanna do that. Come on. You're better than that."
  3. Devin Gardner has spoken of fans that are difficult to tolerate when on the road, especially when he is on the sideline.
  4. The primary tactic for coaching to hostile environments has, it seems, been limited making the environment noisy and creating other neutral environmental factors.

These different points suggest two things:

  1. That positive psychology is the primary tactic used in coaching under Hoke.
  2. That our quarterback (a lynchpin to our offense, which is cited specifically to suck on the road) has made special note of the hostility of opposing fans.

Positive psych encourages relationship building between coaches and players, and ultimately is considered a more effective educational strategy. This makes sense considering the commitment that Hoke's players have to him, and the level of recruitment Hoke has been able to achieve.

Based off of reading some of Bo's work, my understanding is that the way that he coached was different. Bo tells stories of using active destructive responses routinely. Rather famously, he routinely called Jim Brandstatter "the worst tackle in intercollegiate football." Woody Hayes is described as coaching in a similar (albeit more physically abusive) way. Active destructive is in many ways the opposite of active constructive: It is designed, essentially, to make you feel that you can never accomplish what you are trying to accomplish. This differs sharply from the techniques that it seems Hoke and co. are using to teach, and I wonder if, specifically, it affects road performance. Bo, in contrast to Hoke, went 14-5 on the road in his first four years as coach. Compare this to Hoke's existing 7-13.

My hypothesis is this: Because our coaches spend their energy primarily building a psychologically positive environment, they have lost a valuable aspect of the otherwise ugly response form known as active destructive: put differently, they have lost the "mental toughness" built by working and growing through hostility. Away stadiums are entirely hostile environments; if the hostility is not noticeable from the crowd because of distance from the sideline, it will be noticeable from the opposing team. If a practice environment fails to produce hostility, it seems unlikely that its players will be able to keep their heads when they face real hostility.


Just to be clear: I fully embrace positive psych and believe strongly in its efficacy, educational and otherwise. But I suggest that simulating hostility--not just simulating a hostile environment--may be useful to develop what Hoke calls "mental toughness." Furthermore, I do not suggest that the verbally and physically aggressive tactics of Bo and Woody must necessarily remain relevant today in order to produce great football teams.

I doubt data exists on how many teams have incorporated positive psychology into their practices, and I doubt data exists on how many teams have incorporated active destructive responses into their practices. Therefore, my thoughts will remain a hypothesis. But I think it is worth considering whether one of the reasons we fail to compete on the road is because our coaches have failed to produce hostility in practice, thereby failing to prepare our players to encounter that hostility.

Obviously, there are many limitations on my hypothesis and the "data" (anecdotal information, really) supporting. This is likely not the only reason for our failures on the road, but may help to explain a part of why we fail when put in these situations. In fact, active destructive responses do not need to be the default as they were in Bo's practices. Simply, it is possible to create a hostile environment where coaches are emulating active destructive comments to players in order to adjust them to the reality of hostility.

Furthermore, I accept and acknowledge that this is not a comprehensive look at coaching tactics given that I am missing a lot of information. Much further investigation into the tactics used to build "mental toughness." Bo also pronounced that one should never yell at a player in a game, which seems to reflect more of a positive psychology.

I would be interested to see what research might yield about the numbers of our OL and QB would look like on the road.

An alternative (or supplementary) hypothesis might note that our record on the road against ranked teams features a greater disparity than against unranked teams. "Mental toughness" may go out the window when players feel unprepared or discouraged by being overpowered, overrun, and outperformed, which may be more resultant of poor development.

It is worth noting that Bo had many players quit when he became coach. This could be because of the seemingly "inhumane" treatment of the active destructive response. In addition, it is worth noting that Bo often failed in high profile away games (namely bowl games), and that Bo and Hoke are limited samples. There are also numerous confounding variables, such as scheme, development of talent, et al.

One thing remains certain: Many changes must happen if we hope to compete, and especially if we hope to compete on the road.

tl;dr I hypothesize that one reason for our road gaffs may be the apparent absence of simulated hostility in practice. I find this argument compelling, but acknowledge that defaulting to active destructive responses as in the days of yore are not necessary to make a good football team.



September 8th, 2014 at 6:43 PM ^

A good friend of mine played under Bo, and he made it sound a bit more complicated than that, but still plays to your point-

He said Bo was a master at knowing how to motivate any single player. Like with education, players respond differently to various styles of motivation; some required a more positive response to good plays as opposed to tearing them down on mistakes, whereas others needed to be torn down first and built back up.

My own experience showed one-size-fits-all approach does not work. I hope that these coaches acknowledge that and will find the right combination to light fires under the appropriate asses.

Class of 1817

September 8th, 2014 at 7:29 PM ^


(Clap clap clap.)


And from what I understand of our coaches, what the players express, and the culture that has developed around Hoke, I am totally in agreement.

My own two cents as a former coach also says that it just looks like this team needs a serious ass whoopin'. 

Of course, nothing is that simple, but I can't imagine running the entirety of the stairs in Michigan Stadium or 31 x 100 yd sprints (one for each ND point) could do this team any harm. So I hope that's happening right now in practice.

I thought a lot about that '69 team that had a lot of kids quit on Bo. Or the year Woody told Bo not to go too hard on his he drove them into the ground even worse. And how those teams were full of tough SOBs, win, lose, or draw...they always had fight in them.

Outside of occasional Hero Ball and last year's OSU game...I haven't felt like I've truly seen a Michigan team fight for it in a few years. And I can't help but think that comes from the culture created by the coaching staff.


September 8th, 2014 at 7:49 PM ^

I read a piece on Nick Saban and it talked about his use of a psychologist to evaluate what motivates every player. So a player who responds better to screaming and berating will get that treatment more so than a guy who needs a more positive constructive approach. I've seen my son both blossom and wither under various coaches, and I think it's the single most important factor in how a team performs, especially in younger people. I don't know how that translates into professional sports. 

Blue in Time

September 8th, 2014 at 8:27 PM ^

Thanks for the interesting analysis. I think your view would be more tenable, from an evidence-based perspective, if we didn't struggle as mightily as we do at home, at times. I did a (very) rough calculation of the average point differential in our road loses under Hoke, excluding Saturday's game at ND, and it comes out as something like this: an average 11-point differential against all road opponents, and an average 9-point differential when you exclude Alabama as an outlier.

So, you put that together with some pretty poor and inexplicable performances, and it suggests that our woes on the road are fixable. 

You wrote, "But I think it is worth considering whether one of the reasons we fail to compete on the road is because our coaches have failed to produce hostility in practice, thereby failing to prepare our players to encounter that hostility."

I think you may be right, but I also think we have to come into away games with fewer mental complications (the Borges Formula, showing the coaches that you know how to execute technically), and more of a back-street brawl mentality (like MSU, and 'Bama do). This assumes that we know what we're doing in terms of technique and execution. We should, and it should show as we brawl.

I checked our home wins under Hoke from 2011-13, and 7 of those wins were at the average of our road loss differentials (9 games). So, 7 games at home were won with an average point differential of 11, and 9 (including Alabama) games on the road were lost with an average 11-point differential. Now whether that lightens the view or darkens it, I can't say, but I think it's something we can work and improve on, especially with Nussmeier and Mattison calling the shots.


September 8th, 2014 at 8:17 PM ^

your wrong on the comment that bo failed in high profile away games. did he lose some yes, but dont ever lose site of the fact 95% of the losses were close and his teams were always prepared and played hard and competed. plus he had to lose some games or he would have had the greatest coaching record ever. how you lose also matters.


September 9th, 2014 at 12:02 AM ^

being on the road?   And since they played 10 games against Big 10/ SEC schools, 9 of his away losses should be due to a MAC team being outclassed.




Swayze Howell Sheen

September 9th, 2014 at 5:54 AM ^

Methinks you are on to something, and it explains more than home vs. road, but rather simply explains one of the things that is missing with teams under Hoke: motivation. Bo knew how to get players to play hard. As one player said (can't remember which book this was in, and I'm paraphrasing): the game was the easy part; it was practice that was hard. 

Hoke is the ultimate player's coach: nice guy, wants players to learn, gives lots of positive feedback. But it's not clear this translates well to being an elite coach. Which top college coach seems like a "nice guy"?

Anyhow, the psychology of football coaching is a fascinating topic. It would be interesting to do an in-depth look at this across many coaches. I'd be curious if you could find anybody like Hoke who has succeeded at a high level.


STW P. Brabbs

September 12th, 2014 at 10:16 AM ^

Also, though I personally don't like the guy: Pete Carroll. 

I suspect that Les Miles might fit into the 'players' coach' mold also, though I don't know much about how he runs practices.  As an outsider, it would seem like it might be hard not to giggle being yelled at by that kooky bastard, but who knows. 


September 9th, 2014 at 7:41 AM ^

Bo was the ultimate authoritarian. If you screwed up in practice, you and everyone else on the team knew it. He wasn't out to belittle or embarrass you, but rather, correct an error whether it be mental, effort, or technique. You busted your ass because you didn't want to get called out. Bo's way of encouraging you was with playing time. You knew only the best were getting on that field. Validation of that was in victories and championships.

I coached football for 10 years. I wasn't the most knowledgeable O or D schemer, but I knew how to get the best effort from my players by using what I learned from Bo, Lloyd, Moe, Jim Hermann, and Jerry Hanlon*. Active destruction, as you term it, has won a lot of football games and a lot of wars.

*NODODY rode his players harder than Hanlon, yet few are held in higher regard.


September 9th, 2014 at 8:00 AM ^

yesterday, and thanks for the learned addition to the line of thought.

Bo got more from his players because they knew in no uncertain terms when they weren't doing it right. My son is not the best at the nuances of specific form. He got a dose of Coach Hanlon at youth football camp a few years back. It was interesting to see his back straighten, his head come up (the specific coaching point) and the added effort on the next snap. (JV football drives me nuts because the coaches pay all their attention to varsity, thus lazy habits in form are allowed to develop.)

Anyway, outwardly it appears there is something to this discussion. However, for all we know they do go hard on the players when stressing them. And I agree with the first poster that it needs to be nuanced.



September 9th, 2014 at 3:33 PM ^

I think your point on Bo's sideline demeanor was lost. Bo had a mean demeanor on the sideline--to anyone BUT his players. In Bo, co-written by him and Mitch Albom, he talks about how he never yelled at a player on the sideline. His idea was that they are already mad enough at themselves for their mistake.

That said, and I wasn't alive in the Bo era, I think Bo probably made sure they fixed their mistakes or else he took them out of the game.


September 9th, 2014 at 8:56 AM ^

simulating the away environment, and did for ND. I think that four systems in four years has to be hard, even for a very bright kid like Gardner. It is the overall level of continued UNCERTAINTY that has been a killer. And while I like Hoke, I don't see a real canny intelligence there, one that projects to simple confidence with the kids: a 'we got this' attitude that is the outgrowth of hard work, brains, and mastery of a system. 



September 9th, 2014 at 8:56 AM ^

During his tenure at Michigan Bo hired a large number of highly capable assistants, many of whom went on to become head coaches themselves. At least four of them—Carr, Nehlen, Miles, and McCartney—got their teams to national championship games, with three of them winning. Several other of his coaches, such as Young, Harbaugh, Smith, and Moeller, had significant stretches of success.

Hoke has been a head coach for 11+ years, and there is relatively little evidence that he's as adept as Bo was at identifying and hiring top-notch assistants.

Evil Empire

September 9th, 2014 at 11:29 AM ^

I tallied up the Bo assistants who'd gone on to be head coaches and the same for Lloyd.  Even allowing for Bo's HC career being twice as long, the differences were stark.  Lloyd's former assistants that became head coaches are Hoke, Mike Debord, and Ron English.  I think that's it, save Stan Parrish who had a very up-and-down HC career before and after working for Lloyd.  Hoke was certainly more successful than the other three, but that's not saying much. 


September 9th, 2014 at 10:31 AM ^

If I am going to generalize Hoke reminds me of a lot of parents these days (I coached travel soccer a long time) who are in the "everyone deserves a medal, participation awards for everyone, rah rah rah, cheer cheer cheer" and "you cannot get down on a kid or say anything mildly negative because it will ruin him for life!" mentality.  Of course that is different than tearing a kid down a lot but they say a lot of people entering the workforce nowadays have difficulty with performance reviews because they are not used to being criticzed in any way their entire childhood/early adult years.  Hoke seems like one of those parents to me.

I cannot think of a coach like Hoke in terms of sideline demeanor who is successful at the college level.  I don't confess to studying them all.  Maybe Bowden like that at FSU?  He was also a "CEO" coach but I mean this is one great outlier in a sea of stern/type A personalities.  At the pros the only guy who maybe was similar was Steve Mariucci who was fine in a great system at 49ers but his Lions sucked.  Type B guys who Hoke strikes me at don't seem cut out as HCs IMO.

Waters Demos

September 9th, 2014 at 12:45 PM ^

As a MSU alum, I'll note that what you've identified is precisely what makes M unintimidating.  Hoke doesn't seem very competitive, and does not appear to hold players accountable, instead vying for the same positive reinforcement that they have received all their lives.  That also makes him a good recruiter - who wouldn't want to play for a man who only ever tells you how great you are, and never offers any criticism?  Net result: soft players, soft team.  


September 9th, 2014 at 2:25 PM ^

I'll thow in my $0.02, but it seems as if others are seeing the same. Hoke is probably too nice. I think he cares, for sure, about his players. But, maybe coddles them a little too much. It's pretty obvious that his demeanor gains the trust of recruits and their parents, but perhaps doesn't translate to the toughness, mental and physical, needed to win on the field. I'm also now questioning the CEO style of head coach. In tough times it's nice to see the head coach take the bull by horns and take control of the team. Hoke doesn't appear to do this much.


September 9th, 2014 at 2:30 PM ^…

Let me know what you think and follow me there if you are so inclined.

Leadership Thoughts: Lots have been made about the football coach at Michigan. In his 4th year, he is struggling with a team of young, supposedly talented individuals. Hoke has been a prolific recruiter. As both an assistant and head coach, He has brought a lot of talent to Ann Arbor and excels at recruiting kids and selling parents. He maybe the ultimate player's coach, a friend, but that does not always translate into taking players to a different level and molding a team. . . That's an altogether different skill entirely.

Now, Herb Brooks is one of my favorite all-time coaches. As a player, you may not have liked him; actually, you probably hated him . . .but he made you go beyond your limits and made you better. People call this a "hard edge" and I'd propose that most successful coaches and CEO's will have a "hard edge" to them of varying degrees. Check out this brief 2:50 video of what he did and why he was successful.


September 9th, 2014 at 3:52 PM ^

I've been wanting to see Brady Hoke challenge his team for a while now. He doesn't have to verbally abuse his players, but he does need to call out when their performance is completely unnacceptable, instead of coddling them. Nick Saban is a perfeccionist who voices his displeasure with his players often, yelling at them to be better. You don't really see that from Hoke too often.

Take last year after the Akron game for instance. We almost lost to a horrible MAC school, and Hoke said to the team after the game "It's a win, we've got a lot we need to work on but give Akron credit for fighting hard." He was obviously trying to keep their confidence up after a poor performance, but a more appropriate response would be "That is one of the worst efforts I have ever seen in all my years of coaching, we're lucky to get out of here with win because we sucked and that was unnacceptable!" That's what Bo would have done; That's what Saban would have done. They would have reiterated it to the media afterwards. If you watched the HBO 24/7 series last year with the Red Wings, after a bad loss, Mike Babcock - probably the best coach in hockey today - came storming into the locker room, kicked the HBO cameras out of the room with profanity, and proceeded to rip his team a new asshole. Despite the Red Wings numerous injuries last season, he didn't use those as an excuse for their poor performance and kept challenging them every night that they had to be better.

This team needs an attitude adjustment in order to be tougher on the road. They need to get angry, get pissed off. Brady Hoke should be trying to get his players to play because they have something to prove to him and everyone else.


September 9th, 2014 at 4:17 PM ^

Interesting insights, hadn't thought about it from an educator's perspective before.

However, since I'm an English geek, what this reminds me of more than anything else is Rudyard Kipling's poem "The 'eathen," which chronicled the life of an enlisted British Army recruit "from Gawd knows where" who, thanks to the application of pointed encouragement by his NCOs and fellow soldiers gets his act together:

The young recruit is silly - 'e thinks o' suicide.
‘Es lost 'is gutter-devil; 'e 'asn't got 'is pride;
But day by day they kicks 'im, which 'elps 'im on a bit,
Till 'e finds 'isself one mornin' with a full an' proper kit.
Gettin' clear o’ dirtiness, gettin' done with mess,
Gettin' shut o' doin' things rather-more-or-less

And because the recruit is hammered into getting his act together, he rises through the enlisted ranks to Colour Sergeant (think staff sergeant) where he holds his men together through example and prior training to win the battle:

An' now it's 'Oo goes backward? " an' now it's " 'Oo comes on?
An’ now it's "Get the doolies," an' now the Captain's gone;
An' now it's bloody murder, but all the while they 'ear
'Is voice, the same as barrick-drill, a-shepherdin' the rear.

E's just as sick as they are, 'is 'eart is like to split,
But 'e works 'em, works 'em, works 'em till he feels 'em take the bit;
The rest is 'oldin' steady till the watchful bugles play,
An' 'e lifts 'em, lifts 'em, lifts 'em through the charge that wins the day!

Now, I normally dislike "sports as wars" analogies because I think that's fundamentally insulting to people who fought in or were affected by real wars, but Kipling's poem from 125 years ago is still relevant today when we talk about taking young, undisciplined men and making them part of a team that's going to be asked to function in a hostile environment. 

To finish off my Kipling tangent, compare and contrast the above with his poem "That Day" about a unit that broke and retreated because of poor training and discipline:

We was rotten 'fore we started -- we was never disciplined;
We made it out a favour if an order was obeyed;
Yes, every little drummer 'ad 'is rights an' wrongs to mind,
So we had to pay for teachin' -- an' we paid!



September 9th, 2014 at 10:08 PM ^

The time to be hard is when the team is winning, because winning makes you soft. 

This was a team loss. But if players aren't held directly accountable for mistakes, it suggests the coaches believe they must be protected from harsh realities, like children. 





September 10th, 2014 at 9:37 AM ^

I really like all the hypothesis here, and it seems to ring true. With all the historical data about Bo and all the people around Brady who could give some insight, I wonder how much he could really do some soul searching through research. A tiger can't change his stripes, but he's going to have to change something fast or he's gonzo. I have a vice president who leads with an iron fist, and it works. It's pretty obvious that he has made it far with being intimidating in a way that doesn't seem threatening.                                                                              Sometimes you really need to shake the foundation to wake people up. This doesn't really motivate me as much, but I feel like it's a good way to motivate 100-400 people as a group. I hope they can really move on and set their sites on the B1G. Who knows, maybe Everett will win the Heisman? Maybe that's the best team we'll play this year? The B1G sure looks like crap, so there's always a chance we can take it down.

I dumped the Dope

September 10th, 2014 at 11:16 AM ^

That Saban uses a psychologist to figure out what he needs to do to his players to maximize their output...we could do the same...its only money...we seem to have that resource.

I recall Hoke's post game speech (probably the last one released to the public) after Akron in which he said more or less "we will prepare you better next time" meaning...Sunday full contact practice instead of letting the players lick their wounds for a day.  I personally thought he was pretty mad for what you typically see.

I agree with the overall point you need a workmanlike attitude in an away game, someone has to come out and set the tone for the game.  Maybe some pregame fighting is good (kidding) but it seemed to fire up the team against Ohio last year.

The strategy I've wondered about is getting the "1s" to practice against something like an NFL practice squad, more or less made up of older stronger faster players just like having to play against your older brother and his friends.  Everyone's game has to improve and then you trot out on Saturday and are blowing the other team off the ball.  There are probably NCAA rules which prohibit this type of practice but I think it would work wonders.  We can go train with SEALs so maybe training with a special practice squad would have merits too.


September 10th, 2014 at 3:01 PM ^

Not what this program needs.  Oh sure, if there is a real coach present Huggy Bear can have a small office where players can go for a hug and a cry, but when it comes time for football and getting tough, a tough coach is what is needed.


September 10th, 2014 at 3:27 PM ^

 This is who Saban has used for years and interestingly enough Jimbo Fisher used him last year at FSU. Google him and sign up for his free Monday morning email. I'm not advertising for him, I just think he's great at inspiring. Faith based also. Go Blue! Go Brady Hoke!