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Redefining Mental Toughness

Chances are if you’re an athlete, coach, or involved in the sports world in some shape or form you’ve probably heard the words: mental toughness.

The two words I love to hate.

When I’ve asked athletes what mental toughness is, I usually get common answers like these:

· Someone who doesn’t let what’s going on outside of sport affect them

· Pushing through the pain

· Forgetting about your problems and putting performance at the forefront

· Not letting something sad or upsetting ruin your performance

Sound familiar?

As someone who works in mental health in athletics I have found the term mental toughness become problematic. From my own experiences as an elite athlete, as well as what I’m seeing today, I think the term mental toughness is getting confused with stuffing down our emotions and avoiding them altogether. As this may help us in the short-term, the consequences of avoiding, and coping with our emotions in a negative way, drastically over-rule our instant gratification. I like to tell my athletes that we all have a glass jar inside of us. Whenever we don’t want to deal with something heavy, uncomfortable, or sad, we put it in our glass jar. At some point if we keep relying on this mechanism to “cope” with all of our stuff, the glass jar breaks, and we’re left picking up the pieces. For most people, this is the time we seek help; when we’re at the breaking point.

I’m wondering if there’s a way we can still be mentally tough while also allowing ourselves to feel what’s coming up for ourselves. Being a great athlete doesn’t mean we have to shut ourselves out from our feelings in order to perform at our highest level. With the bar continuously being raised for elite athletes, athletes are performing at such an incredibly high level. Imagine how well they will perform when they are authentically themselves.

So where do we go from here?

I think that looks different for every athlete. This is the part when things get uncomfortable and requires us to do the work. For some, it might start with simply talking about vulnerability with people they trust. What is vulnerability to me? Do I feel safe being vulnerable? For others, it might begin by unpacking their glass jars.

At the end of the day, redefining mental toughness involves everyone. It involves the athletes, the coaching staff, support staff, and our culture surrounding athletics. If you take anything out of this post, I hope it encourages you to reflect on your experience with mental toughness and how you can redefine mental toughness in your own space.

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