Our society highly values toughness. Parents try to raise us tough. Teachers attempt to instill mental toughness in us. Bosses want us to enter the workplace with a tough mindset — one that’s ready to work and face any obstacle thrown our way. But, what profession preaches the importance of toughness the most? Coaches.
Coaches constantly pound the idea of mental and physical toughness into their players. Whether it’s a youth league or sports at the professional level, players are told they need to be tough to succeed. And if you don’t meet your coach’s standards of toughness — you’re soft, and no one wants to be soft. But, what does that mean? What exactly does it mean to be “tough?”
Traditionally, coaches will tell you that being tough means being able to handle whatever obstacle may lay in your path to success. They think being tough means getting better, faster, stronger, by pushing your body past its limits. They think being tough means absolute compartmentalization of every external aspect of your life. They think toughness is putting aside your feelings of mourning, loneliness, anxiety, or depression in order to focus completely on the game and your role as an athlete. To them, being tough means never allowing yourself to be sensitive. Sensitivity? — That’s soft. Feeling sad, anxious, or stressed? — That’s soft. And soft, well that’s the opposite of tough.
Coaches need to understand that sensitivity does not equate to an inability to perform. Rather, allowing oneself to feel and open up about their emotions, is arguably the toughest thing an athlete can do.
For too long athletes have had this fear instilled in them by society, their parents, their teachers, bosses, and past coaches. They’ve been told their feelings are not valid. Stop crying. Pick your head up. Be a man. But, what if sports didn’t have to be like this? What if coaches didn’t have to act this way? And, what if athletes felt comfortable opening up about all the things holding them back on the court? What would sports look like then?
One brave athlete, DeMar DeRozan, got the basketball rolling into the discussion of athletes’ mental health issues. DeRozan, an elite player for the NBA Raptors says he has struggled with depression most of his life, something that wouldn’t have been such a shock to his coaches and fellow players if they knew his story. He grew up in the roughest of rough Compton neighborhoods. He watched members of his community, his friends struggle with mental health issues similar to his own. He was a witness to their abuse of drugs and alcohol to deal with those detrimental problems. But, instead of perpetuating a pattern of poverty and substance abuse, DeRozan made a choice. He chose to break the mold. Because of what he’s seen alcohol abuse does to the people around him, he says he’s never had a drink in his life. That’s tough. He says his own experiences with mental health have taught him to never ridicule anyone and to treat everyone with the same level of dignity and respect because you never know what they might be going through. That’s tough. And one night when he was laying in bed, feeling the lowest of lows, he chose to Tweet about his depression, allowing the world to glimpse into the most imperfect corners of his life. That’s tough. DeRozan made a series of choices to change his life for the better. He battles his depression every day but is no longer silent about it. DeRozan spoke up — that’s not soft, that’s tough. By doing this, he transformed the atmosphere around mental health in sports, and more are following in his footprints.
After DeRozan came out about his battle with depression, it inspired players of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kevin Love, to also share his story. In November 2017, Love was playing against the Hawks. From the moment of tip-off he knew something was off. His heart rate was faster than normal and his breathing was all over the place. His game was off and he couldn’t figure out what was going on with him. After halftime, he had his first panic attack. He came off the court and dashed for the locker room. He paced from room to room, looking for an object that didn’t exist, an outlet that wasn’t there, anything to calm is erratic breathing and heart rate. He didn’t know what was happening to himself. When he discovered he had a panic attack, he decided to seek professional help. He began seeing a therapist. That’s tough. But, that wasn’t enough for Love. He wanted to do what DeRozan had, change the stigma of mental health in sports. So, he wrote an article, “Everyone is Going Through Something,” to tell his story of having a panic attack during a pro game, seeking out help to deal with his anxiety, and accepting the fact that mental health is a problem that touches everyone. Now, that’s tough. Not only did Love talk about his own experiences dealing with anxiety, but he also discussed how talking through his issues in therapy helped him understand his inner-self better. And an athlete writing about his experiences talking through his inner feelings, emotions, and problems in therapy? Well, that’s about as tough as it can get.
By expressing their experiences dealing with mental health issues, DeRozan and Love are opening up the conversation for more athletes to come forward and talk about the problems they face outside the world of sports. Because, when you’re battling with an issue of the mind, it affects every aspect, every area of your life. It’s virtually impossible to compartmentalize your mind so much that you can put aside your thoughts of anxiety, depression, loneliness, unworthiness, etc., and focus solely on winning.
If coaches truly want their players to succeed, if they really want to instill a healthy team environment where their players show up ready to win, then they need to address these issues. They need to stop discouraging sensitivity, and stop equating sensitivity to “softness.” They need to stop calling their players soft for having feelings, emotions, or problems because we all have them, and we all deal with them in our own way.
Instead, coaches need to face mental health issues head-on, rather than shying away from uncomfortable situations. Talk to your players. Listen to them, hear their problems. Understand the external situations that molded them into the person they are today. Actually sit down with your players and have a conversation with them about life and all of the many unique adversities each of them face. Each and every person in this world is special in the way they were raised, in the problems they face, and the demons that attempt to hold them down. It is your job as a coach to talk to your players, learn what adversities your players face, and understand what you can and can’t do to help them overcome those problems.
So, what does being tough mean?
Being tough no longer means what traditional coaches think it means. Being tough doesn’t have much of anything to do with physical ability. It doesn’t matter how much you lift, how fast you sprint, or how many shots you can make. Being tough isn’t about how much you can deal with all at once. It’s not about taking on as much as you can and running yourself ragged to meet those goals. No.
Being tough? It means accepting that everyone has problems, even you. It means accepting the issues and adversities that you face, the ones that lay in your path to success. Because accepting your problems and learning what holds you back both as an athlete and as a person? That’s how you become more self-aware, more in touch with yourself, and even closer to being tough. But, being tough also means actively working to improve those problems. Whether this means making more time for yourself, talking to people close to you about what’s bothering you, seeking professional help, or getting medicated. The solutions are endless and unique to each and every individual out there. The fact remains that all of us face something that we actively battle with day in, day out. But, coaches, please understand this doesn’t make us soft — it makes us tough.
Chad Q. Brown’s Profile is a retained consulting firm incorporating distinct team building and talent strategies utilizing proprietary technology and behavioral assessment infrastructure. Our mission — help people get better at people.
By: Chad Q. Brown