Grit: The Bridge Between Mental Performance and Mental Health for Athletes

Grit: The Bridge Between Mental Performance and Mental Health for Athletes

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When I was a freshman, I had a difficult transition to Division I college athletics. I had grown up in a small village. I had a large extended family. I had success in high school individually and as part of a track team. Those factors made it a challenge for me to adjust. in fact, there were more people living in my dorm than the village where I had grown up! And grit was not a word in sport at that time!!
I missed my family, and this even included my grandmother as she was an important person in my life. In addition to these factors, the coach who had recruited me left to coach for a different university. And, my bike was stolen the first day I arrived!

Mental Health Being An Athlete

It was suggested to me to talk with a counselor about my adjustment so I went to the the university counseling center. I recall being really uncertain about this. I had never been in individual counseling before so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The counselor I met was nice but she did not understand the life of an athlete at all. She could not grasp why a change in a coach would be difficult, especially since the head coach remained. She had no idea that different coaches manage different events. She also could not grasp my identity being so tied up in wanting to be a sucesessful athlete. And she also could not understand the anxiety I felt about wondering if I could compete at this level.  What she did not know was I kept wondering if I shouldn’t be managing this myself? I really did not want to need someone to help me through this. This was the athlete side of me. I wanted to muscle through this because I should be strong enough to handle the transition. I managed to talk with her for a few sessions but for all these reasons I did not return.

Unique Athlete Stresses

I am a psychologist who now works with athletes and I see a big shift with athletes talking more about mental health and advocating for more mental health services. This is such a positive change in my opinion. Athletes experience stress just like all college students. But athletes have some unique stresses and these need to be acknowledged in a mental health setting. There is adjusting to a new coach sometimes, handle academics and sport, pressure to be on the travel squad, or to adjust to high level competition, to name a few to name a few.  But I understand the dilemma they might be in when they experience stress or anxiety or any other mental health issues.
Think about this……
What are some words, descriptions or slogans that are often used to describe athletes and their performance? A few that come to mind include:
No pain no gain.
Poker face.
Muscle through.
The tough get going when the going gets tough.
Never let them see you sweat.
Now think of  some words, descriptions or slogans that we might here people use when talking about an athlete with mental health issues. These include:
Not tough.
Head case.
Problem person.
This is the “tale of two opposite expectations” athlete must often face. Be strong on the field, in the pool, on the track or on the mat. But if needed, be vulnerable and and admit you need help. Have a poker face or give the glare of a competitor to your opponent, but let that mask down and share your fears. This is tough. There is so much training into the “be tough” side that it is not easy to let go of that behavior and ask for help.  This is why I sometimes acknowledge this with athletes I see.  I give them credit for walking in the door. I know this can be hard.
The one word that seems to bridge the two, at least for me and my work with athletes, is GRIT.

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