Mental Toughness in Sports: Challenges, Benefits, and Examples

Mental Toughness in Sports: Challenges, Benefits, and Examples

Despite the clear connection between mental toughness and athletic achievement, many athletes struggle to prioritize their mental health.

To compete at a high level, athletes are taught to hone very specific skills, says Bradley Donohue, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at University of Nevada in Las Vegas (UNLV), whose work focuses on performance optimization through mental health training.

“Athletes are so tuned in to criticism,” he says, which is a good thing when it comes to taking critiques from coaches and teammates in order to improve. Unfortunately, this means they may be similarly sensitive to criticism in other parts of their lives, which can lead to low self-esteem.

And then there’s the pressure. Athletes are under a lot of pressure to push themselves rigorously during training, day after day — and then perform at their very best as soon as the game, match, or race starts.

That pressure gets amplified today thanks to technology and social media that connect the public with events happening everywhere, often in real time, explains Lani Lawrence, PsyD, the director of wellness and clinical services and the supervisor of player engagement and development for the New York Giants.

“Athletes from high school to professional teams are constantly living within a fishbowl,” she says. Thanks to social media, successes and failures are more public today than was the case for previous generations of athletes, she says. It used to be that mistakes were only witnessed by those in attendance, unless a competition was televised.

“Now mistakes can be immediately uploaded, tweeted, placed on Instagram, Facebook, or Snapchat, where the individual and team can be ridiculed — all before they return home,” she says. “The pressure to succeed in this fishbowl, especially for athletes who have not developed effective coping skills, can be overwhelming.”

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It’s easy to focus on weaknesses and losses as an athlete, as opposed to strengths and victories, Kastor says. For the vast majority of athletes, actual wins or first-place finishes are rare, while losses and second- or umpteenth-place results are much more common. “It’s easy to stand in front of the mirror and find weaknesses,” Kastor says.

Feelings of “not measuring up” can be especially high in individual sports, adds Todd Wells, a cycling coach and former professional mountain bike racer based in Durango, Colorado (who retired from the sport in 2017 at age 41). “One person wins and everyone else loses,” he says.

Although mental health is a challenge for so many athletes, harmful and damaging stigmas surrounding mental health can be especially strong. The culture around the athlete might view therapy as a sign of weakness, and student athletes may not be able to seek on-campus counseling anonymously, adds Dr. Donohue, who competed in National Association of Police Athletic and Activities League boxing competitions during his college years.

One review found that stigma is the number one reason athletes don’t seek the mental health help they need, according to 52 studies that collectively looked at more than 13,000 professional, Olympic, and collegiate- or university-level athletes across 71 different sports.

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