A common question that I get from coaches is: How can I make my athletes more mentally tough? For as big of a buzz word as mental toughness is though, the concept is a black box. In this post, I’ll open up that box and bust 4 harmful myths about mental toughness. Dispelling these myths is vital for coaches to actually help young athletes develop mental strength and support their overall mental well-being. Before we get there, however, it’s important to consider our current context. That is, why are coaches concerned about developing mental strength in this generation of youth athletes?
Research on Generation Z athletes and preliminary findings from a study I’m conducting with athletic directors across Michigan offer insight. This response from one coach (also an athletic director) echoes the perspective of other sport leaders and (partially) resonates with me in my coaching:
“Today’s generation of youth is, for lack of a better term, soft. It’s not necessarily their fault. The environment that they are growing up in is different. Everyone gets a participation trophy. Kids just are less willing to work hard, to work through failure, and grind it out. And parents aren’t letting kids fail. In the classroom and on the court, parents pave the path for their kids. ‘Helicopter parents’ who used to hover have become ‘snowplow’ or ‘lawnmower parents’ who push all the adversity out of the way so that kids never get the chance to learn how to deal with pressure and failure.”
Like this coach, I work with some parents who get out the snowplow at times. I also work with caring and level-headed parents. Consider that parents, like players and coaches, don’t live in a vacuum. The pressure that parents face navigating the youth sport system (the privatized one with a high price tag and year-round training option only) is challenging. We need to confront these challenges through a lens of contribution rather than blame. Coaches need to work with parents and players (and administrators) to ensure that every youth athlete has an empowering sport experience.
So, how do we help young people learn to grow in/through adversity in sport?
First, we need to define mental toughness. And I’ll pose the same question to you as I do to coaches who bring up the topic: How do you define mental strength?
Better yet, engage in this quick reflective exercise: Think of a time when you felt mentally tough. What was the situation? What were your thoughts/feelings/actions in response to that situation?
Now compare your practical knowledge to one prevalent definition within sport psychology. Mental toughness regards values, attitudes, cognitions, emotions, and behaviors that refer to an individual’s ability to thrive through positively and negatively construed challenges, pressures, and adversities(Gucciardi et al., 2009).
This definition is dense. But the complexity and nuance are important to unpack in order to fully understand what mental toughness is and how coaches can best support athlete mental strength and well-being. Let’s debunk some commonly held myths about mental toughness in sport (and life) in order to work through, and from, this new definition.
Myth 1) Mentally tough athletes always think/feel positive thoughts/emotions
Mental toughness involves observable and less visible behaviors such as thoughts and emotions. But people who show mental strength DO NOT always think self-affirming thoughts or feel 100% confident. More positivity does not translate into more mental toughness. Being overly positive and unrealistic in our thinking can undermine our performance and motivation; when we set unrealistic expectations for success and continually fall short, we are less likely to work hard and persist through challenges. Instead, mental strength requires realistic beliefs about our abilities. It requires trusting in and focusing on our individual process—on improving rather than proving oneself— regardless of the situation.
Mentally strong people are also aware of “negative” thoughts and emotions. They thrive through positive and negative situations, which can be external (e.g., game conditions) and internal (e.g., fearing failure). Athletes who show mental strength have the courage to acknowledge and examine negative thoughts/emotions to gather information about their situation. For example, if a player feels frustrated because of team conflict, that athlete shows mental toughness by attending to their “what” (emotion) and “why” (reasons for the feeling) rather than suppressing their frustration (which likely makes team dynamics worse). Mentally tough individuals don’t ignore negativity. They embrace all aspects of their experience to move forward and act in accordance with their values (e.g., use team conflict to strength group relationships).
Myth 2) Mentally tough athletes are not emotional or sensitive.
This myth harkens back to Tom Hanks’ memorable line from A League of Our Own, “There’s no crying in baseball!”. Being mentally tough does NOT mean that you feel fewer emotions or are less emotionally sensitive. As debunked in myth #1, mentally strong people are deeply aware of their emotions. Mental strength requires that we are willing to acknowledge and validate our emotional experiences. In doing so, we recognize that emotions are a common aspect of being human: we are not the only one, and are not wrong for, feeling sadness, guilt, and fear. By mindfully processing emotions, mentally strong athletes can then decide how to best move toward accomplishing their goals. That is, they can consider why they feel the way that they do, and whether/how those emotions are helping or hurting them achieve their aims.
Myth 3) Mentally tough people push through more (physical) pain.
Mental toughness is NOT measured by the number of wind sprints an athlete can push through. I think, or at least I hope, that coaches are steering away from running youth athletes until they puke as their method for building mental toughness. This old-school approach is not only unintelligent but irresponsible. I am not suggesting that all fitness training is bad. But improperly training athletes and risking their physical/psychological health while claiming that you’re “building character” is abusive.
Mentally strong athletes train hard and smart. Training hard and smart means guiding athletes to push their physical limits in developmentally appropriate ways, and also setting boundaries to ensure long-term performance, development, and well-being. Mentally tough athletes understand that proper rest and recovery are a part of their training process. They are disciplined, consistent, and patient. And, they have the humility and courage to step out of the game if injured when “just playing through it” for the short-term glory jeopardizes their long-term goals.
Myth 4)Individuals working through mental health issues are mentally weak.
Mental health issues are becoming more prevalent and visible across competitive sport levels. Advocacy efforts of professional athletes (e.g., Kevin Love, Missy Franklin, Michael Phelps) have helped spark open conversation about mental health issues. These efforts are important because mainstream sport culture celebrates a “no pain, no gain” mentality and silences talk about mental health. Given increases in mental health issues among Generation Z athletes (and youth generally), talking about mental health and disrupting the notion that mental health struggles and toughness are incompatible is critical.
Mental strength includes (learned) attributes and skills that enable individuals to thrive in performance situations. Everyone has the ability to improve their mental strength, but the process to do so is unique to each person. While athletes with mental health issues may experience more adversity that hardly means they are mentally weak. In fact, athletes actually demonstrate and develop incredible mental strength through, not in spite of, their mental health struggles as Michael Phelps describes here.
Practical tips for building mentally strong athletes
Coaches are in an ideal position to challenge myths about mental toughness in order to help youth athletes build mental strength and change sport culture. Here are 4 practical tips to do so.
- Work with, rather than around, parents.
We can work with, rather than around, parents by proactively communicating our approach and setting boundaries. We need to explain our “what” (philosophy), “why” (rationale), and “how” (boundaries that are necessary for us to coach effectively). When coaches do so, we give parents a framework for how to get involved in ways that align with our efforts to support their young athlete’s developmental process. In conversations with parents, encourage them to let their kids fail. More than this, convey to parents and players that failure is necessary for learning and growth. Failure as necessary feedback conveys that “success” is not just about the outcome (i.e., winning) but about committing to a young athlete’s individual process—to becoming the best version of one’s self and getting better each day.
- Create a “brave” space for athletes in training and games.
Coaches cultivate brave spaces by creating (optimally) challenging situations in which athletes are on their “learning” edge. For athletes to learn to embrace physical and mental challenges and uncertainty, coaches need to praise moments when players have the courage to take risks and attempt difficult tasks. We need to narrate that these moments are prime opportunities for growth so that athletes see value in pushing past their comfort zone. Brave spaces also have boundaries, and coaches must help athletes set these. We need to teach athletes how to train smart and listen to their bodies. Along with giving athletes encouragement to test their limits, we must emphasize that recovery is a part, not the absence, of training.
- Encourage athletes to become aware of their thoughts and emotions.
Invite athletes to view these internal experiences—whether they appraise them as positive or negative—as normal and potentially useful for achieving their goals. Guide athletes to define their values and long-term goals. Regularly check in with players and pose reflective questions to help them consider why they feel or think the way that they do, and whether/how those thoughts or emotions are helping or hurting them achieve their goals. Help them become aware of and responsive to their own (and others’) emotions instead of suppressing them or avoiding perspective taking.
- Leverage social media to help athletes develop mental strength.
Social media impacts how our young people view failure and their development of mental strength. Social media is often used as a platform to make ourselves appear perfect. We rarely post (or view posts) of failure or adversity and more often see images of championship celebrations and college signing day. While I don’t want to discourage people from celebrating their successes, coaches can help athletes understand that social media largely shows the “positive” parts of others’ process. As coaches, we can use examples of professional athletes working through adversity to start conversations with youth athletes. We can also think critically about what we post (and invite athletes to do so), by asking the question: Is my post an effort to prove myself (and appear perfect) or capture my process?
How we construe a situation as “positive” or “negative” is subjective, not always clear cut, and dependent on context. We tend to describe experiences in an either-or, not both-and, fashion (e.g., we are either happy or sad). Rigid categories give us clarity but don’t always capture the contradictory nature of our emotional experiences. Practically speaking though, we can appraise an experience as more—or less—positive or negative. For example, returning to play from an athletic injury might be construed as less favorable, or “negative”, whereas playing an opponent of lesser ability might be construed as a more favorable or “positive”.