7 Habits of Truly Tough Players –
Jay Bilas’ Toughness

– By Tony Adragna

Jay Bilas has talked about toughness for many years. He's even written an entire book on the topic. He talks about multiple habits that ‘tough' players have. His definition of toughness is probably vastly different from a lot of your players.

Bilas doesn't define toughness as pushing guys around. He doesn't define it as being the strongest guy on the court. It's not thumping your chest after a big play, or taunting an opponent after a big dunk. Those habits are what Jay Bilas calls “fake toughness”.

As Bilas puts it…

'Toughness has nothing to do with size, physical strength or athleticism. Toughness is a skill, and it is a skill that can be developed and improved.”

Bilas points out 31 different habits that tough players have, but if you could get everybody on your team to adopt the seven habits highlighted below, your team will be on the fast track to becoming tougher.

7 Habits of Truly Tough Players

1 – Talk on Defense

For whatever reason, kids want to talk everywhere except for the basketball court. If you go into the lunch room on any given day, you can probably find your players talking and screaming to their peers.

But the second they step on the basketball court, theirs mouths remain shut.

By talking on the defensive end, your players let their teammates know that they are there, and it makes everybody on the floor a better defender. Not only does talking on defense make your team better, it lets your opponents know that you are fully engaged in the game, which can be an intimidating factor.

2 – Get on the Floor

The first player on the floor is typically the one that comes up with a loose ball. Too often, players want to try and scoop the ball and score. But when the player that dives for the ball gets possession instead of the player that tried to scoop it, the player that tried to scoop got out-toughed.

If you can create a culture of every player on your team diving for loose balls, not only will you have a tougher team, you'll have more possessions and chances to score.


3 – Sprint the Floor

Sprinting the floor on offense and defense isn't flashy or glamorous, but it's what tough players do. Sprinting the floor in transition can get your team easy baskets, even if there isn't anything easy about it. As Bilas notes, 'easy baskets are hard to get.'

By sprinting the floor, you're able to attack a defense before it can get set up and keep the defense on their heels. It also forces your defenders to sprint to keep up with you, which can wear teams down.

Again, sprinting the floor isn't going to make a bunch of highlight reels, but it's what tough players do.

4 – Play So Hard, Your Coach Has to Take You Out

This is something that a lot of players struggle with. They don't like to be uncomfortable. They shouldn't want things to feel easy. They shouldn't be pacing themselves.

They should be playing so hard that their coach has to take them out so that they can rest before putting them back in the game.

There is never an excuse for not giving 100% of everything you've got on the floor. But there aren't a lot of players that do that, and that's because they don't like to be pushed outside of their comfort zone.

If you can get your entire team to play so hard that you have to take them out, you will be one of the toughest teams to play against, regardless of what level you're coaching at.

5 – Show Strength in Your Body Language

Body language is such a strong indicator of how things are going in a basketball game, but it shouldn't be that way.

How many times have you seen your kids hanging their heads when things aren't going your way' Or yell at a teammate for making a mistake' Complain to officials when a call doesn't go their way'

The habits listed above are all negative body language. Tough players don't do those things.

Instead, tough players' body language communicates confidence and security, and the rest of their teammates feed off of that.

6 – It's Not ‘Your' Shot, It's ‘Our' Shot

There is not a selfish bone in a tough player's body. They are not worried about their individual stats, or ‘getting theirs.' They are worried about getting the TEAM the best shot on every possession.

That may mean that they set 10 screens in a possession, they may pass 25X more than they shoot. But if it's for the betterment of the team, they don't care.

It's not something most players would refer to as ‘toughness', but it fits Jay Bilas' definition perfectly.

7 – Look Your Coaches and Teammates in the Eye

We talked about body language earlier, and this point coincides with that. Bilas notes that tough players never drop their heads.

They let their coaches and teammates know that what they're saying is important by looking them in the eye. It's something so simple, but also something that seldom happens with teams.


Creating a culture of toughness isn't something that is easy to do. It's easy to let players slip through the cracks.

Developing culture happens one small action at a time. By focusing on these seven behaviors, your players will begin to understand what toughness truly looks like in the game of basketball.