Why Mental Toughness Shouldn’t Be Prioritized in Sports

Mental toughness has long been regarded as an important component of peak athletic performance. Tough athletes accept challenges and numb agony (in exchange for trophies or medals), and they’re lauded for it by sports organisations, the media, the occasional pushy parent, championship-hungry coaches, and possibly themselves. But, according to study, psychological toughness typically comes at the expense of mental health, which means it’s not something we should be applauding, among other things.

“Those who perform well—or belong in sport—embody some level of mental toughness, but toughness is a narrow and monolithic concept that does not allow athletes’ diverse identities and experiences to exist fully,” says Leeja Carter, PhD, executive board member of the Association of Applied Sports Psychology. Prioritizing mental toughness over all else might lead to disregarding the onset of an injury or remaining silent while dealing with mental-health issues, both of which can have disastrous consequences. Dr. Carter goes on to say that “dispelling ‘toughness’ as an ideal component of peak performance is vital to building a more adaptive and flexible understanding of mental health in sport.”

“Toughness is a limited and monolithic term that denies athletes’ different identities and experiences a full expression.” —Sports psychologist Leeja Carter, Ph.D.

An athlete’s sole focus on performance—and thus their identity—can shift the scales in favour of solely valuing wins no matter the cost, allowing mental health concerns to grow and thrive in the background. According to a 2015 study published in Current Sports Medicine, depression was twice as common among collegiate athletes in the United States as it was in the overall population. While the study doesn’t go so far as to blame the pressure placed on athletes to win and optimise at all costs, the link is undeniably strong.

And it’s possible that the emphasis is already shifting. Gymnast Simone Biles highlighted the link between mental and physical health in an Instagram Story following her withdrawal from the team finals and individual all-around competition at the 2020 Olympics. Along with Biles, great athletes like as tennis player Naomi Osaka and swimmer Jacob Pebley have been helping to alter the long-held association between mental toughness and a champion mindset by withdrawing from major contests to focus on their mental health.

This information isn’t brand fresh either. Efforts to control, eliminate, or suppress these internal states may actually have the opposite effect, according to a 2004 study published in Behavior Therapy, contrary to long-held belief that “negative thoughts and emotions must be controlled, eliminated, or replaced for athlete-clients to perform optimally…efforts to control, eliminate, or suppress these internal states may actually have the opposite effect.” In other words, the longer mental health issues are ignored, the more pronounced, serious, and potentially harmful they become.

So, what should take the place of the toughness emphasis? Dr. Carter recommends “goals, flexibility, adaptability, and a positive mindset.” These are essential elements of a healthy mentality for anyone pursuing a fitness goal, and they’re all intertwined.

“Objectives are crucial,” Dr. Carter says, “but it’s also necessary to keep those goals and mindset flexible.” Maintaining flexibility and adaptability in the face of unforeseen but likely difficulties encourages exercisers to view their fitness path as fluid, including a variety of situations. When things don’t go as planned, staying flexible will allow you to regroup and handle problems.” What is the last and most important ingredient? She describes a positive mindset or mantra as a way to stimulate an athlete throughout a competition or difficult training session.

Furthermore, according to the 2004 study, athletes can improve their performance by learning mindfulness techniques and practises that encourage in-the-moment responses and nonjudgmental acceptance of their experiences. These abilities can be used in almost any training or game-day situation, whether it’s dealing with negative self-talk, inconvenient weather, or keeping a clear head to respond to a coach’s request.

Maintaining optimal mental health necessitates that the athlete be open with themselves, honest about how they are feeling, and have the self-compassion to be vulnerable, regardless of the stakes. It may appear to be the polar opposite of mental toughness, but it is critical for athletes of all types to improve. “Any decision that prioritises one’s personal safety, health, and care is a positive one that should be commended,” Dr. Carter says. This is true for athletes of all levels.

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