We love seeing athletes persevere through anything because of their persistent desire to win. Without revealing any signs of weakness, they get through injuries, losses, and grueling workouts. This level of mental toughness is highly regarded in sports however, this can seem like a total contradiction to mental health, where we also want athletes to be vulnerable and share their feelings and weaknesses.
Mental health took a spotlight in the 2020 Olympics when Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in World Championship history, took a step back from competing to put her “mental health first”. She stated, “I do not trust myself anymore”, after missing a landing on a high-level vault and withdrawing from team and individual competitions.
A similar decision was made by Naomi Osaka, the current top-ranked women’s tennis player, who withdrew from the French Open due to her mental health. Because of this, she was fined $15,000 for not fulfilling an obligation to speak at the French Open press conferences. Osaka later shared on social media that since the 2018 U.S. Open, she has been suffering from depression and anxiety and her symptoms increase before speaking with the press.
What’s the message here? Well-being and safety take priority over winning.
Historically, mental toughness was defined as pushing through all obstacles or the ability to relentlessly pursue excellence past one’s limit, no matter the cost. Somehow mental toughness was confused with pushing away emotions and sometimes avoiding them completely. This can be helpful in the short-term; however, the repercussions
Each of us have different levels of distress tolerance. When we are unwilling to address things that are heavy and uncomfortable, we may have the tendency to put them away in a dark box in the back of our consciousness. After a while of relying on this coping mechanism, Pandora’s box opens flooding us with everything we’ve avoided. Often at this breaking point, people finally seek help.
There is still stigma surrounding mental health issues however, many public figures are sharing the reality that they have mental health challenges, and that it’s okay. It takes an enormous amount of strength to do what Biles and Osaka did when the world was pressuring them to “suck it up”.
Athletes are performing at seemingly unimaginable levels compared to just a decade or two ago. What if their performance improved even more if they were able to be more authentic with themselves and the world?
Mental toughness and mental health are not opposites, rather they are two essential ingredients for success, but we may want to redefine what it means to be mentally tough to move forward.
Maybe instead of “toughness”, what we actually want to aim for is mental poise. The term mental poise, originally coined by Moore in the Mindfulness Acceptance and Commitment protocol for sport performance, is defined as “performance in the service of goals and values” (2009). Rather than pushing past your physical and mental limits until you are in agony, it is the acute awareness of the present moment, personal limits, and the limits of the environment. When you have mental poise, you are aware of when your performance is at its peak and when your efforts start to become counterproductive to your well-being and to the well-being of others.
Mental poise is not a false sense of confidence. It is understanding yourself and knowing what you are capable of. This fosters trust that you can handle any circumstance, though it can only come by educating yourself on mental health and consistently working on your own mental health. It may be that those that are mentally healthy have mental poise as a byproduct of that self-awareness.
The process of redefining mental toughness requires contributions from everyone involved, from the athletes, coaches, and the culture of sport. Most athletes are well-versed in pushing well past their limits. Thus, they will benefit from guidance in better understanding what their actual limits are to prevent burnout and injury.
As discussions around athletics become more intersectional, examining how individual variations interact with culture and institutions, we will be able to give more athletes an open, safe, and collaborative atmosphere in which they can flourish. As athletes, we must accept our humanity and remember our value is not tied to our achievements alone. We can value results and medals, but we don’t have to place them above all else. Giving yourself permission to take time off and care for yourself is one of the most valuable coping mechanisms you can have.
It takes courage to prioritize one’s mental health and honor your limits when outside pressures put performance and financial gain above well-being. Together we can change the stigma around mental health and provide support to those that advocate for their mental health. It’s okay to get help to become your best self.
I hope this perspective leads to reflection on your own experience and helps you redefine what mental toughness means to you.
Moore, Z.E., (2009). Theoretical and empirical developments of Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) approach to performance enhancement. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology 3(4). doi: 10.1123/jcsp.3.4.291