Power comes in many forms and has many sources. But what does it mean to be strong? We have some ideas. Check back throughout the week for more information.
“Mental toughness” in sports is a concept so stressful that it feels like it’s been around forever. But it was only in the 1980s that performance psychologist Jim Loehr popularized the term. In the relatively short period since then, what we talk about when we talk
Talk about the mental strength of athletes has been distorted into oblivion and, in many cases, used to get rid of legitimate mental health concerns.
“If you turn on ESPN, somehow you will hear this term at least five times a day,” says Andreas Stamatis, an associate professor of exercise and nutritional sciences at SUNY Plattsburgh who studies the concept and is working with other researchers toward a more comprehensive understanding of the term. “Now, what do they mean by that? That is another question.”
Stamatis uses the following definition, although recognizing that there is still some disagreement among his colleagues: “It is a resource that can give you the necessary skills
Fight off any adversity as you move from point A to point B. “Unlike determination, which is a characteristic that enables you to overcome small obstacles, such as going
Going to the gym every week so you can bench press 300 pounds, mental toughness is a skill that can be refined and applied to bigger goals, like making the Olympics. Think of it this way: Grit is a building block in the bigger picture of mental toughness.
However, most coaches, fans, and members of the media either do not know or disagree with the work that Stamatis and others have done to define the term. It is often used to denote anything from “passing through a clutch” to playing bravely through an injury.
The mockery of athletes’ lack of mental strength has become a convenient shortcut to deeming them unworthy of competition on the larger stages.
“Because we make a 24-hour news cycle, and because the sports machine beast is so much about feeding opinions and feeding this machine, we often make very quick judgments about people we don’t know,” says Jemele Hill. Former ESPN character who is writing now Atlantic Ocean. “We tend to fall into metaphors very easily by labeling people as poor or underperforming. Sometimes these labels stay the same.”
Stamatis reports that most strength and conditioning coaches he’s worked with agree that mental toughness is important, but not about what it is.
Go to follow
It’s also arbitrary we as a community of athletes apply it to: “Footballers are strong. That’s what we say,” Stamatis says. “No one says that about divers. Why? That’s a good question. What does it mean if I choose to dive? Does that make me ‘mentally weak’?”
The problem is not just semantics. Taking the wrong lessons from mental toughness or using them as a mask to push athletes away can effectively harm them. After a recent spate of high-profile Division I college athlete suicides, North Texas goalkeeper and former Vanderbilt soccer player Sarah Fuller tweeted, “Something needs to be done to better understand and help student-athletes.” [sic] Mental safety. What is being done now is not enough and the constant pressure to be “mentally tough” year after year after exhausting. It hurts to see all that we lost because of this expectation.”
In 2020, reckless Fox Sports website Skip Bayless debunked Cowboys signal caller, Dak Prescott, for not being mentally tough – in the wake of his brother’s suicide. “I don’t sympathize with him when he says in public ‘He was depressed,'” Bayliss said. “Look, he’s the quarterback on Team America.”
Read more from SImatter of strength
Coaches and fans are also guilty of pushing the “mentally difficult” novel. “It just gets beaten up,” Fuller says. “If you’re struggling . . . it’s connected in some way maybe because you’re not trying enough or maybe you’re not good enough, because your teammates are showing up and working hard.”
Stamatis is quick to argue that mental toughness—as a tenet of positive psychology—is an inherently good thing. Studies, which measure quality largely through surveys of athletes, show that it is positively associated with better mental health and more self-compassion. It is also positively correlated with more success in this field.
Mental toughness also works as a good Trojan horse: Stamatis says that in sports, workshops touted as mental toughness often go better than similar
Workshops on how to develop good mental health, due to the heavy stigma that still surrounds the latter. Stamatis discusses with the athletes how to work on building resources such as self-efficacy, optimism, attention regulation and emotion regulation, as well as how to cope with adversity.
At its core, then, at least as correctly defined, mental toughness is a useful concept and a valuable resource – something that the media, fans, and athletes all should be talking about.
Read more stories of power issues:
• Who still has milk?
The strong man rethinks what it means to be strong
• Reinventing Yama, the world’s heaviest sumo wrestler