We often hear and talk about athlete toughness and mental strength. However how do you define mental strength and toughness? Many believe it is the capacity to block out all pain, and to turn away from anything that could be conceived as weakness within themselves. In psychological terms turning away from your own darkness or negativity could also be labelled as weak.
It takes a vast amount of courage to look within and see just where we need to make changes. In order to accept ourselves as we are, in order to be able to truly perform to the very best of our ability. Looking within is the purest form of true mental strength and toughness. One can roar as loud as they like and have a very tough exterior, but if that roar whimpers when looking within, then it’s really no roar at all. It’s just an outward projection that holds no truth, and believe me the truth will find you out.
There is a massive problem that we are having with the link between athletes with depression and anxiety. From my experience often what is labelled as chronic fatigue is in actual fact mental exhaustion, because no matter how hard one tries or even how successful they are seen to be, on the exterior you can’t hide from yourself. The daily battle that goes on between ego mind and one’s athletic goals can become a full blown war on the inside, to the point where an athlete will just refuse to look inwards because they fear what they see. In more accurate terms, they fear the darkness that they sense inside themselves. This fear drives them into a disconnect and a separation of self, that ultimately in my view wears them out completely. This is what we like to label and refer to in sport for both athletes and coaches as burnout. Ultimately, it takes the lives of some athletes in the long run, and sport really is just a reflection of society generally. Essentially it’s the same issue presented in a different way.
However a transmutation of power can occur here simply by starting to look inward and accepting the self as it is, including all the less desirable bits that we don’t like about ourselves. The acceptance of self gives us the power to accept life as it served up. The lessons that we miss as athletes and humans are absorbed by the mentally strong athlete, those lessons become the agents of change that help us progress to the next level. What does this mean? You have to surrender to yourself the way you are, warts and all, and start working with yourself as opposed to against yourself. I’ve worked with a lot of athletes, rarely have I met one who allows them-self enough reflection and acceptance to really take the hidden meanings of loss and failure. Once you make failure personal you have lost the message, you have hit the return to sender button and set yourself up for a repeat. I see this again and again.
Vulnerability is strength. It is the ultimate form of personal power because it has the capacity to make you a winner, not just in sport but in life generally.
We all contain some darkness, it’s part of the human condition, part of the deal. We can’t see the light if we don’t have some contrast. For athletes, maybe we need to open up a dialogue whereby they feel comfortable enough to speak about what is going on for them. Many from the outside see these athletes as invincible and tough, forgetting that they too are human beings with the full gamut of emotions, fears, and feelings. If we can teach these athletes enough vulnerability to share what is happening for them, then we will all be winners, in that perhaps we will get to enjoy their presence for a little longer in this fleeting existence that we all share.