The physical component of most sports is apparent in almost all athletic interactions – a slugger twisting his torso to generate power, a tennis player extending his or her muscles to reach 125mph on their serve, a 256lbs. linebacker meeting a 225lbs. running back head-on at the line of scrimmage, each trying to push the other back even if just for a few inches – these examples of physical strength and athleticism are the most salient aspects of most sports.
What is less obvious is the mental component of the sports domain (e.g. preparation, planning. and application). Today’s athletes differ in many ways from athletes from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and even 80’s, and early 90’s, as today’s sports stars are expected to demonstrate both physical strength (NFL players are beginning to look like superheroes in both stature and demeanor – not to mention at least half a dozen of them call themselves “Superman”) as well as mental toughness. “Mental toughness” is the oft-used (and rather nonspecific) sports term thrown around by broadcasters when describing the non-physical aspects of an athlete’s abilities. “Mental toughness*” is defined by Wikipedia as, “a term commonly used by coaches, sport psychologists, sport commentators, and business leaders - generally describes a collection of attributes that allow a person to persevere through difficult circumstances (such as difficult training or difficult competitive situations in games) and emerge without losing confidence.”
Forgetting about the sheer size difference between the athletes of today and yester-year, which may be more difficult as we see how large some of these players are (according to a New York Times article from January 2011 - NYT - Body Mass of NFL Players - “In 1970, only one N.F.L. player weighed as much as 300 pounds, according to a survey conducted by The Associated Press. That number has expanded like players’ waistlines from three 300-pounders in 1980 to 94 in 1990, 301 in 2000, 394 in 2009 and 532 as training camps began in 2010”), we are still left with the massive changes regarding the social/public aspect of their lives. The amount of media coverage & public spotlight, coupled with the advent of social media over the past decade, has created an almost unfathomable amount of social and emotional pressure, the likes and magnitude of which athletes of yesterday never had to deal with. Today’s athletes have to manage the stress that comes with nearly everything they say and do being captured by some recording device – tape recorders, smart phones, paparazzi – and being instantly uploaded to the Internet for the court of public opinion to weigh in. Athletes train and prepare for the physical demands of being a professional athlete, but what happens when they are underprepared (underequipped?) to manage the social and emotional demands of being a professional athlete in the 21st century? These challenges require a new variant of “Mental Toughness” in professional sports.
So what are coaches, players, institutions, and leagues doing to manage the emotional aspects of being a professional athlete in today’s times? The answer, unfortunately, is: Not that much. Mental stress and emotional distress aren’t really addressed in most sports. It costs money to address social and emotional issues, especially things that we cannot see (i.e. the presence of mental illness vs. an X-Ray of a broken leg), and more often than not, don’t want to admit are present (athletes are notorious for not wanting to appear physically or emotionally “weak”). There is, however, some hope weaved into the sports fabric of our generation. Some professional sports teams and certain (well funded) universities are beginning to address the emotional issues that affect their players (prized possessions, depending on how you look at it). Additionally, and possibly of greater value, are the courageous athletes who have recently stepped forward and admitted their constant struggle with mental illness; bringing awareness of these major issues to the forefront. Furthermore, are the praiseworthy athletes who go beyond public acknowledgment of their illness and spend their time, money, and effort advocating for their cause (usually involving fundraising for research and charity projects, highlighting effective treatments for the public, and/or fostering a sense of hope in those that also suffer - see: Brandon Marshall and his work with causes that support the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder).
So if Universities and current athletes are getting involved, what’s the problem? The problem is that the band-aid will not fit over the wound; more is needed. Athletes are, unfortunately, a high-risk population for mental illness, intense emotional reactivity, and impulsivity. Many athletes come from impoverished places where drugs, gangs, violence, and other risk factors are rampant - where sports, in many cases, is the only way out of this environment for an adolescent or young adult. We have all heard the rags-to-riches, streets-to-success stories, whether it’s Isaiah Thomas, Mike Tyson, or more famously, Michael Oher (the player behind the Academy Award winning film, The Blind Side). But what is often missed is the multitude of protective factors that mediated the outcomes for the athletes mentioned above (whether it was an overprotective family, a caring trainer, or a generous foster family). Many of these athletes are (unfairly) expected to make a smooth transition from a chaotic home life and dangerous community to the limelight of stardom; when athletes struggle with this, the public is often quick to label the athlete as having a “bad personality” and/or “character issues” (a favorite term used among NFL and NBA scouts when discussing players who seem to lack specific interpersonal and coping skills). If we view the problem as one of “adjustment” as opposed to “character” than athletes may not feel the sense of permanent doom that accompanies issues with someone’s character. The same goes for ex-athletes, who suffer from different forms of mental distress (depression, memory concerns, impulsivity, financial stress, and a different kind of adjustment, but not necessarily an easier one) than younger sports players.
Regardless of the era or the etiology, athletes need more emotional support - or at least a better balance of physical and emotional resources. The imbalance is contributing to the lack of awareness of athletes’ emotional distress and a reticent approach to properly addressing it. An emotionally stable and well-adjusted athlete will be a more valuable asset to any team and organization than one whom needs constant supervision and mediation. Sadly enough, change will most likely come once owners and GMs think about mental toughness as a financial endeavor and not one of plain humanity; I just hope this happens sooner rather than later (despite how cynical and sad this notion seems). I highly doubt that the events in Kansas City this weekend will be the last of its kind, as it seems that we are too frequently reminded of the mortality of athletes with each coming season (despite our and their insistence of their superhero status). Mortality consists of both physical and mental aspects; when there is an imbalance that goes unaddressed, eventually, something has to give. It’s just so sad and tragic when this involves the loss of human life. My thoughts and condolences go out to the victims, their families, and the entire Kansas City Chiefs community.
*For a more detailed and comprehensive definition of “Mental Toughness” please see Dr. David Yukelson’s work at Penn State University - Mental Toughness - PSU