NASHVILLE — A question about how to instill toughness prompted Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings to recall working with one of his former players.
"Derrick Byars said before he transferred from Virginia, all he was told was that he wasn't tough enough," Stallings said here Wednesday.
Rather than do the drill-sergeant fire breathing usually associated with coaching, Stallings tried to subtly encourage Byars to play with more grit. Arching his eyebrows, the Vandy coach noted that Byars became the Southeastern Conference's Player of the Year for the 2006-07 season.
"That was a great lesson for me," Stallings said. "It's not always the best tack to go at a guy and go at a guy."
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Kentucky Coach John Calipari has questioned certain players' toughness repeatedly this season. His track record, which includes the 2012 national championship, shows how consistently rewarding his approach can be.
Calipari seemed to pick at that toughness scab during the SEC's weekly teleconference Monday, two days before the start of the league's tournament.
In lauding how Willie Cauley-Stein gained confidence through productive play, Calipari mimicked how another player might wilt under the responsibility to produce. "'You yell too much at me,'" he said before answering this would-be complainer, "You can't play. You stink. It doesn't matter what the fans yell at you. What media writes about you. It has no effect on you. You have to have confidence."
Whether toughness and confidence can be instilled in a player, or how the process works brought a number of responses from SEC coaches here for the tournament.
"A lot of it is innate," Stallings said. "As a coach, you can help a guy to be tougher."
That toughening can come through "the daily grind" of a season.
The Vandy coach suggested a less-is-more approach might work in some cases.
"The more you talk about toughness, the worse it is," he said. "The more you focus on it, the more difficult it is to make happen. By telling them, you have to be tougher, you have to be tougher, what you're telling them is they're not tough enough. I think I made that mistake early in my coaching career."
When asked how he shifted his approach, Stallings said he adopted an attitude of "I'm going to help them become tougher without them knowing it."
He said he used drills to instill toughness without talking about what he hoped to achieve. Or asking during a review of game video if a certain play contained enough toughness.
On the competitive level associated with college basketball, "A kid will want to modify his behavior," Stallings said. "Developing it and working on it and encouraging it is a lot more productive than criticizing it.
"After a while, (a player hears) 'I'm not tough enough, I'm not tough enough, I'm not tough enough, he thinks, "I'm soft.' "
Georgia Coach Mark Fox noted that the process of instilling toughness had to begin with a player's trust. The player must believe the coach's demands are more than venting frustration.
Fox defined toughness as an intangible involving mental, physical and competitive realms. "The ability to push through when your emotions and feelings are totally different," he said. "For any athlete, that's very important because you're going to face adversity and fatigue, and you've got to be able to adapt."
LSU Coach Johnny Jones noted how drills, especially early in a season, can help a player become tougher. By March, a coach knows if a player is tough or not, he said.
Not that a coach won't try to reinforce the need for toughness whenever and however the opportunity arises.
Tennessee Coach Cuonzo Martin, so intent on creating an atmosphere of toughness he did not smile on the cover of UT's media guide last season, distributed plastic hard hats to his players before last weekend's regular-season finale. Someone happened to stop by his office with the hard hats. Thus was born what Martin called a "great gesture."
Martin endorsed the often stated view that it's easier for a coach to control a competitive player than light a fire in a passive player.
"You want to reel them in if they're out of control," he said. "But it's hard to rev a guy's engine."Of the latter, Martin said, "That might not be the guy for your program. If you have to consistently make a guy play hard, that's tough."Tennessee's strong man around the basket, sophomore Jarnell Stokes, was not surprised when Martin handed out hard hats.
"That's like his favorite saying: 'Bring your hard hat,'" Stokes said. "That's just who he is. He can't help it."
Kentucky vs. Arkansas or Vanderbilt
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Nashville TV: WKYT-27