Hopefully you caught my previous article on developing mental toughness but, if not, go back and catch yourself up after this one.
Often, the term ‘mental toughness’ conjures images of a tenacious athlete grinding and toiling through grueling training a la Rocky Balboa’s Siberian training montage. We tend to view mental toughness as pushing through pain. That ignoring the physical discomfort in order to finish a game, race, or workout is not only normal but necessary for us to become mentally tough. No pain no gain, right?
In fact, this type of hypermasculine approach to physical training, health, and wellness is detrimental to our well-being.1-4 Let’s take a closer look.
No Pain, No Gain
Sport ethic is a term used to describe the mentality that one is simply expected to play through pain, “shake it off,” “suck it up,” or “rub some dirt on it.”1
To some extent, I am simply another sport ethic statistic.
I grew up playing baseball and was passionate about the game. I loved the smells of freshly cut grass and new leather. The feeling of connecting bat on ball just right. The competition and comradery with my teammates. I loved playing baseball.
When I was in my senior year at Shaler, I was determined to train hard, play well, and get to the playoffs. I was also hyper aware that a typical high school baseball season in Western Pennsylvania is very short in the grand scheme of things; typically just 20 games over about 3 months.
That is a short window to capitalize on. Especially when you’ve been playing and training your whole life. I felt a lot of pressure from my parents, teammates, friends, and coaches to play well and win!
But no one placed more pressure on me than me.
And I didn’t tell my coaches when I was hurt. I couldn’t.
The season was almost a third of the way gone when I pulled my quad sprinting to first base. So, when I pulled up lame, I bit my lip, returned to the dugout to strap on my catcher’s gear and said nothing. This is sport ethic in action.
You can probably guess that it didn’t end well. Although my strain fortunately didn’t turn into anything permanently disabling, I was not quite myself the rest of that season physically or mentally. I just never found my groove again. And it took me several years to even want to revisit playing baseball competitively.
There is plenty of evidence showing that athletes who are injured experience significantly more depression than uninjured athletes.1-4 In some cases, the psychological response to injury may lead to a cascade of negative behaviors or more serious underlying mental health issues.4-5 For some, that depression can linger a lifetime. For others, it can lead to self-harm and suicide.5
All in all, I was fortunate to finish my high school baseball career with nothing more than a strain, some pain, and some frustration.
Which is better than a lot of other athletes who play through pain can say.
Baxter Holmes wrote an incredibly eye-opening piece for ESPN on the unnecessary rise of youth basketball injuries if you want to dive down a rabbit hole of a system needing an overhaul!6
I share my light cautionary tale for those of you reading who this moment may be going through this struggle of whether to exercise prudence. And potentially for the parents of young athletes striving to succeed.
The higher the stakes (think professional or Division 1 athletes), the less likely athletes are to report injuries.1 Unfortunately, for the other 95-99% of the population, pushing through injuries for the sake of being tough, just isn’t worth it.7 There is no scholarship for us. There is no multi-million-dollar contract to justify the pain. It’s simply for the love of the game. Or for fear of appearing weak.
And, even when there are life-changing financial benefits on the line, the long-lasting physical and psychological fall out may still not be worth it. Just look at so many young and old athletes dealing with all kinds of joint pain, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)6, suicide, and depression, e.g., Serena Williams, Mike Webster, Drew Robinson7 and Muhammad Ali.
When it comes to physical fitness, training is a marathon more than a sprint. It is imperative that even when competition calls for intensely specific training, we recognize the short- and long-term benefits to training for longevity and durability. That spending 10 more minutes on “those boring PT ankle exercises” will actually be more beneficial than hammering in 10 more minutes on the pavement.
That brings us back to the question of “What now?” that so many athletes are faced with post-competition.
When the lights fade and we are left with ourselves, the focus shifts.
How Can You Help?
Athletes should feel empowered to seek necessary help. Lowering the barriers to support is an excellent first step.
Another powerful strategy lies in helping athletes to see their desire to play through pain in relation to the BIG picture. 3-4
Studies have shown that athletes who are told stories of the possible long-term daily implications of playing through pain and injuries are less likely to play through injuries.3 Two major ways of attacking this are to expose younger athletes to more mature ones willing to share their experiences of playing through pain while also helping them find enjoyment in other areas of life. Many young athletes struggle to see life beyond the game they love.
Being a personal trainer, I work with adults who are dealing with the fallout of old injuries every day. Many of them would have behaved differently in their youth had they known the long-term impacts. And all of them have found other aspects of their lives to be passionate about.
Some are world-renowned university professors changing the lives of their students and many others through their research.
Others have found meaning through their roles as parents, caregivers, and being supportive members of various communities.
It is up to us as coaches, parents, trainers, family members, and as a collective society to work together in understanding that we can play a positive role in understanding what mental toughness is and what it is not.
Mental toughness does not mean we should ignore the beautiful “Check Engine” signals our body attempts to send in the form of pain. Rather, it entails seeing the robust marathon that life is as opposed to a short-lived sprint. As with most training, pushing too hard, too early in the process will only lead to long-term setbacks.
So lace em up! But remember to kick them off and feel the ground beneath you from time to time too…
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
- Berg EC, Migliaccio TA, Anzini-Varesio R. Female football players, the sport ethic and the masculinity-sport nexus. Sport in Society. 2013;17(2):176-189. doi:10.1080/17430437.2013.828699
- Madrigal L, Robbins J, Gill DL, Wurst K. A pilot study investigating the reasons for playing through pain and injury: Emerging themes in men’s and women’s collegiate rugby. The Sport Psychologist. 2015;29(4):310-318. doi:10.1123/tsp.2014-0139
- Sheffield LW, Stutts LA. No pain, no gain? The influence of gender and athletic status on reporting pain in sports. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 2020;14(3):270-284. doi:10.1123/jcsp.2019-0022
- Margot Putukian. Mind, Body and Sport: How being injured affects mental health. NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA. Published November 5, 2014. https://www.ncaa.org/sport-science-institute/mind-body-and-sport-how-being-injured-affects-mental-health
- Passan J. “I’m meant to be alive”: How Drew Robinson is learning to live. ESPN.com. Published February 2, 2021. Accessed March 3, 2021. https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/30800732/san-francisco-giants-outfielder-drew-robinson-remarkable-second-act