'Mental toughness is a real thing': UK sports psychologist talks March Madness pressure

NCAA Morehead St West Virginia Basketball
Posted at 4:24 PM, Mar 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-09 18:22:35-05

LEXINGTON, Ky (LEX 18) — As both of Kentucky’s basketball teams embark on the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, set to begin next week, there’s one person on campus whose role is clearly defined, and whose impact on the teams and its players could be significant.

Dr. Marc Cormier is a University of Kentucky sports psychologist. He credits the sport of golf for allowing his profession to take off with athletes from virtually every sport. The term “mental toughness” is thrown around a lot, especially during March, and Dr. Cormier knows that it’s a living, breathing element and a big part of success or failure.

“Performance is like a pie. A big part of that pie is your physical strength, your physical skills, and your tactical skills,” he said. “The rest of that pie is then divided into other categories that also can contribute to that success. One of those is mental skills. So the term, mental toughness is a real thing,” he continued, before adding that mental toughness can be taught.

Dr. Cormier works with student-athletes at UK, so he couldn’t comment on specific players or teams, but he did say a big part of his work is helping athletes to better manage lofty expectations. Even those who play for a basketball team that is expected to win it all every year.

“Looking at things as less of a narrow-minded way of saying, success is winning and winning is success,” he explained, later detailing that finding smaller victories along the way can be just as impactful and important to winning. He then offered a poignant analogy for the NCAA tournament to depict the incredible amount of pressure the event can place on an 18-19 or 20-year-old kid.

“Imagine you going into work and your boss telling you, if you have a couple of mistakes, or if you sub-par perform today, that’s it for you,” he stated.

That’s what makes March Madness one of America’s prized events of the year. Its sudden death nature is alluring, but it can be difficult to manage for a young student-athlete or even a veteran professional athlete.

“In any situation where you don’t have the ability to go back, sit down, talk as a team, watch some film and go back the next day and try again, is going to cause individuals to sort of second-guessing. Which is why we try to be very proactive and plan for the next thing. There’s really no off-season for (that).

Because building mental toughness is part of the entire athletic package.

“It’s a little sliver of the pie, but if that sliver is missing, you don’t have a whole pie,” Dr. Cormier said.

Dr. Cormier also warned against riding the wave of momentum that, for example, the UK women’s team might be feeling right now from that stirring win in the SEC tournament. That’s because the opponents and the venues are about to change.