Not Enough Tough(ness)

Nov. 18, 2010

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Today, we’re rolling out a combo job on Georgia Tech’s men’s basketball team and the football team. Both have scuffled.

They have some commonalities.

To my eye, although neither suffers these issues all the time, they’re similar as follows:

Neither team is so talented as to show up and win with cavaliereffort, at least not against most opponents. They both need to playwith extreme passion – as the football team did at Virginia Tech,and the basketball team did in the first half Wednesday againstAlbany. They are hit and miss in the toughness category.

Tough to write that, and by it I don’t mean that the Jackets lack the physical ability to respond to rough play, although that is an asset and every team could use more like Joshua Nesbitt in this regard.

More to the point, the Jackets could stand to muscle up between the ears. Here, too, Nesbitt is a fine example. He is so absolutely loathe to losing that it makes him uber-competitive and hyper focused.

Focus has been fleeting on the football team, and although the sample size remains small on the basketball team, there’s evidence of distraction there as well.

To be more blunt than usual, I don’t see enough pit bulls on these teams, players who HATE to lose so much that it triggers controlled inner, uh, near rage.

I’m not saying there are no tough guys. Sean Bedford and Brad Jefferson, for example, are going to commit their absolute max whether it makes them bleed or gives them a headache.

Iman Shumpert played Wednesday with the requisite chip on his shoulder, and so did most teammates.

Yet there seems to be a sporadic shortage of this intangible.

Your definition of toughness may differ; it’s a wide-open word.

I’m looking for players who, when adversity strikes, buckle up and grind, players who get up when knocked down and fight back without being intimidated by what’s already happened, nor hesitant in thinking about what might yet take place.

It’s about not losing one’s head, and remaining on task no matter what.

“[Toughness] has a physical and a mental component,” Bedford said. “I think mentally is where it’s more important because it’s one thing to play though pain and keep focus when things aren’t going well. Physically, it’s just that one aspect; you have to bite your lip and keep going.

“But when you’re getting hit in the mouth, you’re sore, something hurts, or things aren’t going your way, that not only weighs on you physically but adds to the mental. I think mentally it’s tougher.”

The basketball team has through three games appeared intermittently passionate. There’s enough talent on that roster to be more competitive than the Jackets were through their first two games, and the second half of the third.

The football team was wired in Blacksburg. Last Saturday against Miami, eh, not so much, or should I say not as often.

There’s a line between playing tentatively and therefore ineffectively because you’re over-thinking or concerned that you might be about to mess up, and making a mistake by being too aggressive.

Lads, err on the side of the latter. Grind always, glide never.

“I don’t think we’ve been as physically tough as we were last year,” Bedford said. “Last year, we really had a never-say-die attitude. There wasn’t a game where we felt like we couldn’t win regardless of the circumstances. That’s not to say that this year anybody is quitting, but I don’t think we have the same confidence that comes from mental toughness.”

Tech’s football coach will tell you that to some degree toughness is inherent; it’s more a part of the DNA than it is something that can be taught like ABC’s.

“Some individuals have that toughness and some do not,” Paul Johnson said.

Recall what I just theorized about staying on task being an important part of being mentally tough? Presumption is the bane of focus.

Brian Oliver said that before Tech’s 80-63 basketball loss at Kennesaw State Monday, “I think as a team we went in [to KSU] like, `Yeah, we’ll be able to beat them.’ “

Bad idea. One of the greatest mistakes in sport is to presume.

No team, these two squads included, has a right to assume anything. Quite the opposite mindset should be in play. Expect adversity at every turn, but not with a paranoid bent, and win against it.

The Jackets have allowed their minds to wander, and it’s not difficult to see. Linebacker Steven Sylvester said, “There’s definitely been a couple games where we could have been a lot tougher.” Johnson this week said Tech went to Kansas earlier this season apparently counting on victory.

He also said that when he was at Georgia Southern, the Eagles motivated themselves greatly by simply not wanting to be part of a team that finally lost a home game to snap their seasons-long string.

That’s pride. Everybody has it. Some draw from and defend it more ardently than others. The football and basketball players need to tap into theirs, and up their personal antes to a man.

“We can be mentally tougher,” said basketball coach Paul Hewitt. “Mental toughness is more important than physical toughness.”

If you have a different definition of toughness, bring it to stingdaily@gmail.com. Some — but probably not all — other ideas welcome.

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