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Finding fuel on an empty tank

Mental toughness is a phrase people in the sports world throw around all the time, but what does it really mean?

Recently I was reading an article in The Players’ Tribune about professional football player Brandon Marshall, and while the article wasn’t about mental toughness, Marshall did mention what it meant to him: “...Masking pain. Hiding it. Keeping it inside. That had been embedded in me since I was a kid. Never show weakness. Suck it up. Play through it. Live through it.”

It made me wonder if this is what every athlete thinks. If so, we’ve missed the mark! In sport all too often there is a sense that seeking out help for anything is a sign of weakness, and we can’t show weakness. Consequently, athletes don’t ask questions, they just do as they are told.

Speaking as a professional in sport psychology, I would say mental toughness is actually a little different from what was engrained in Brandon Marshall. Instead, mental toughness is all about having confidence, focus, perseverance, and vulnerability. A lot of things play into confidence and once it has been shattered, it does take effort and hard work to gain it back. Thankfully there are a lot of tools athletes can use to rebuild lost confidence. That will be saved for another blog! And being confident is only one piece of the puzzle.

Another piece is focus. As an athlete, what are you focusing on when you practice or compete? Are you able to focus on the things you need to do to be successful or do you let self-doubt creep in? Do you walk up to the batter’s box after striking out and say to yourself, “I’ve got this. Eye on the ball” or are you saying, “please just don’t strike out, it’s so embarrassing.” What you focus on will direct your actions, both consciously and subconsciously. When you focus on the negative, you are likely going to perform poorly because you aren’t doing any of the things you need to do to be successful. You’re worried, your muscles may tense up, your timing may be a little slow, etc., instead of focusing on a new at-bat and the things you know help you have a successful at-bat. Mental toughness is all about not letting one mistake, one bad play turn into another bad play and another, suddenly becoming quick sand.

It’s easy to be confident and focused when things are going well. It’s when things get difficult that maintaining confidence, focus, and perseverance get hard. Every game, race, or competition isn’t going to be your best. That’s part of life. So expect bad days. Expect adversity. When adversity strikes, are you able to stay positive, resilient, and persevere? Do you refocus after a mistake or after several mistakes? Can you shake it off and bounce back? Giving up or persevering says a lot about your mental toughness.

Being vulnerable is also important because it requires you to be honest with your feelings and admit your fears. And by doing that, you are then able to work through that fear and gain mental strength.

Sometimes despite your best efforts your story doesn’t go as planned. Often we have turns along the way or big hills to climb that we weren’t expecting and sometimes it feels like days on end of two steps forward, one large step back. Your mental toughness is being tested. Try to trust the process and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Before you know it, you will be at the top of that mountain you’ve been climbing. Michael Jordan once said, “If you're trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I've had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go around it, or work through it.”

You gotta dig deep and find a way out. You have to decide you want it more than you’re afraid of it. That’s mental toughness.

Middle distance runner Gabriele Grunewald actually embraces the fight to overcome the obstacles and believes it is instructive for athletes to see that from others.

“We don’t show people struggling enough. Struggling is ok, but giving up is not,” Grunewald said in a live Instagram interview.

Perhaps if we saw and heard about more struggles athletes have everyone would realize it’s ok. It isn’t bad or wrong or even shameful to struggle. Mental toughness is fighting through the struggle.

I can’t think of a better example of an athlete being mentally tough than Grunewald because she’s had to work hard for her accomplishments all while overcoming some big hurdles.

She won one state meet title in the 800m in high school, walked on to University of Minnesota’s cross country and track and field teams where she had to redshirt her sophomore year due to a stress fracture, but that wasn’t enough to stop her. She came back her junior year and contributed to a lot of team success but still strived to meet an individual goal of becoming an NCAA track and field All-American.

As a fifth-year senior/graduate student, she had one last season. The day before a meet, which was going to be her debut in the 1500m, she found out she had cancer; her season was over. Grunewald was going to have surgery and start treatment. But instead of putting her running shoes away like anyone would expect, she opted to run one last college race. She decided she wanted to run more than she was afraid of the cancer. She ended up getting her personal record in that race and despite her season being over, her story wasn’t.

In 2010 Grunewald was granted an extension from the NCAA and given one remaining season. During that season, she was runner-up for the 1500m Big 10 title but also set a school record, a new PR, qualified for NCAA Championships, became an All-American and competed in her first USA Championships. She has been running professionally since she finished college in 2010, narrowly missing the 2012 Olympic team with a fourth-place finish at the Olympic Trials. But, most impressive is that she has been doing this all while fighting cancer. She is now battling cancer for the fourth time since 2009 and still running!

To not let cancer get the best of her, to continue running with incredible focus and determination, to never give up when she had multiple opportunities and nobody would have faulted her, to allow herself to be vulnerable personally and professionally, and to know when she needs a break to heal…that is mental toughness at its best.

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