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The revolution redefining ‘mental toughness’ and saving athletes

By Brandon Sneed

A college guy I’ve never met messaged me the other day from seven states away and said he’d had a breakdown. He’s a football player, and he left his locker room crying. “I lost my ability as a functioning student-athlete,” he wrote. He’d gone through a lot — family problems, losing his starting spot, “wanting to vanish from society” — and more. He said he was “going through a mental head game.”

 “I have been so scared to reach out and get help,” he wrote. “I felt like I was the only one.”

But now, he said, he was getting help because he’d read something of mine about the revolution taking place at the elite levels of the game — of how the best athletes in the world are learning to control their minds, even their very brains, instead of being controlled by them.

This revolution is driven by neuroscientists diving deep into the human brain to better understand it, the psychiatrists, psychologists and sports scientists using that knowledge to help people, and now, coaches and staff blending their worlds together.

This revolution has two parts: one, athletes and coaches looking to harness their brains in thrilling new ways, secretly using fancy new tech based off groundbreaking science to literally study, train and leverage their literal, physical brains. This means virtual reality, sensory deprivation chambers, meditation and devices that analyze your brain in action and show it to you on your iPhone.

Your brain, in the palm of your hand.

The second part, the simple, true, deeper part of it all: They are treating the mind with as much respect as the body.

To put it in the often-stigmatized clinical terms, they are treating “mental health” with as much respect as physical health.

It used to be “weak” and “crazy” to admit your mind needed help, let alone go to a psychologist. Now, the elite coaches and athletes in the world know it’s more crazy and weak not to.

Pick a great athlete, any great athlete, and odds are that athlete has a therapist.

They often go by different labels — sports psychologist, performance coach, mental skills trainer, etc. — but all those athletes have someone in their life who serves that purpose.

This revolution is good — crucial — but it cannot spread fast enough.

Around the country and even the world, there are many student-athletes, such as the guy who emailed me, whose minds are putting them through hell.

A psychologist the other day told me those in his field even used to believe that athletes virtually were immune to mental health problems.

Now, though, they know the terrible and sobering truth: When it comes to mental health, compared with the average person, an athlete is, in fact, much more vulnerable.

Sometimes you can tell, but more often than not, you see the way they cope, and it doesn’t show you the truth. The ones who work out a little too hard. Or the ones who party all the time. Or the ones who throw themselves into schoolwork so much that they don’t sleep. Or the ones who do nothing but sleep. Or the ones who are a different version of those every other week.

Whatever you see when you look at them, in their heads, it feels like “Saving Private Ryan.” Sometimes they are winning, and sometimes they just feel like Tom Hanks shooting his pistol at the tank bearing down. But it always feels like war.

I’ve known all of them.

I’ve been all of them.

I played baseball in college. A catcher. My coach, who played pro ball for years himself, told me I’d be an All-American. The pro scout who first put me in touch with him told me I had a plus arm and plus power, and that if I learned enough from Coach — a hitting maestro — and bulked up and had myself a good season, then I’d get drafted.

When I wasn’t working out and doing schoolwork, I took extra batting practice and catching drills. I put on 50 pounds of muscle over four years, held down 8 percent body fat, hit batting practice bombs 450 feet.

None of that mattered.

It didn’t matter because I did nothing for my mind.

And my mind wrecked me.

Have you ever seen “Major League II”? It’s the baseball movie with a catcher in it named Rube Baker who gets a serious case of the yips — he can’t throw the ball back to the pitcher. It looks at ridiculous as it sounds, and it feels even worse than it looks.

My nickname was Rube.

Worse still, my problems throwing the ball back to the pitcher sucked — a serious case of the yips — but they were only the most glaring of my problems. It was like I got the yips with everything. I never became an All-American and certainly never got drafted. With every throw, my shoulder got stuck in concrete, and I could barely breathe.

Coach tried a few things to help me over the years: talking with me but not knowing what to say, offering a book but not knowing how it might help, both of us knowing I needed some kind of help but neither knowing exactly what kind. Eventually he shrugged and said, “Guess you don’t have the mind for this.”

I believed him for a while.

Like the guy who emailed me, and like so many others in sports, I believed that you either had mental toughness as an athlete or you didn’t, like height or blue eyes. And if you didn’t, then nobody knew what to do with you.

One thing you did not do was talk about it. That, the assumption went, would only make your problems worse and maybe even spread them like a sickness.

And forget about going to a psychologist. Even if you thought you might need one, nobody wanted to be the crazy guy who needed a shrink.

Years later, married and long out of baseball, it became clear that my problems were about more than baseball. The happy goofball from high school my wife fell in love with faded away, hijacked by some moody 20-something who couldn’t even take a joke from her, my best friend.

Finally, she persuaded me to go see a psychologist.

Scariest thing ever.

But then I learned.

And then I healed.

*

Our brains are marvels of creation, the most powerful and complex object in the known universe. They weigh 3 pounds, around 2-3 percent of a person’s overall weight, and yet burn 25 percent of our oxygen and 20 percent of our calories every day. There are more than 500 trillion connections between 100 billion neurons, which perform 10 quadrillion calculations every second.

Our eyeballs alone stream in 100 gigabytes of data every second.

And all of this runs on a delicate balance of neurochemicals.

Given all those opportunities for something to go wrong, it doesn’t seem so crazy that people have a mental problem or two (or 200). If anything, it’s crazy that more people don’t.

And of course, we all do. We all go at least a little crazy sometimes.

The root so many of our problems is fear, especially when we’re in college, when our brain isn’t even finished. The amygdala is one of the first areas to develop, when we are young children. But the frontal lobe is the last part to develop, and specifically within it, the prefrontal cortex, which fosters complex thought and a full grasp on “the future.”

In young women, this happens around age 20. In young men, it can take years longer — by age 22 at the earliest, but also regularly taking well into the late 20s.

*

One thing that helped me more than anything was learning about this revolution in sports, which really began with a revolution in neuroscience.

Even the world’s smartest neuroscientists had the same opinion about the brain as sports people about “mental toughness,” and they treated it as fact. They believed that once you were an adult, your brain was basically set in stone — hard-wired, unchangeable.

About a decade and a half ago, a rebel neuroscientist, Dr. Michael Merzenich, showed everyone that was wrong.

This took him decades of work, railing against the scientific establishment, which at one point labeled him a dummy at best and a liar at worst. But in the early 2000s, he proved it.

The physical landscape of the brain can change.

Our brains can be rewired.

And when people know their own power to control their mind instead of letting it control them, that changes everything about how they view the world. Even how they perceive the often stigmatized and ultimately deeply misunderstood world of mental illness.

Take what Ohio State’s Urban Meyer said when I interviewed him last fall about his own mental health and how a breakdown of his own pushed him out of football years ago. He used to think the old way. “I hate to admit that,” he said, “but yeah, 15 years ago, maybe 10 years ago, I would’ve been like, ‘C’mon, man, toughen up. What the hell’s wrong with you?’”

Now, though, he said, “I don’t like the term illness because it’s a gift. The compulsive, obsessive, high-end, achieving people, those are the ones that keep pushing harder. I’ll name you the greatest players I ever coached, and every one of them have that same trait. So I don’t think it’s an illness. I think you have to be aware … that you have that trait, and how to manage it. But look at it not as an illness, but as a blessing that you somehow have to keep ahold of.”

That’s not just feel-good talk: We really can do something about our brains and even our fear.

It’s usually not easy, but it can be simple. When people come to me for advice now, I’m happy to talk to them because I love sharing my stories, and even better, the stories of the smart and tough and brave people who made any of this possible. But I also make clear that if nothing else, they should at least talk with some kind of mental health professional.

If I’m a college coach or an athletics director, I get one on staff and figure out smart ways to integrate that professional into my program immediately. For one, that will only help you, your staff and your athletes figure out what your mind gifts are and how to keep ahold of them.

But two, for all the crazy, expensive tech elite athletes are using, just talking with a therapist can and will physically strengthen the brain, too.

Neuroscientists at King’s College London earlier this year published a study that showed how six months of cognitive behavioral therapy improved connections in the brain between the amygdala (the brain’s primary center for processing perception of threats and fear) and the frontal lobe (which facilitates reasoning and thinking).

In other words, talking made people’s brains better at thinking before simply reacting to perceived threats and fear.

Not only can we get better at thinking through our fear, we also can make our fear smaller.

A group of Swedish researchers led by a team from Linkoping University found in February 2016 that talking with a therapist by video chat reduced the amount of space the amygdala took up in the brain.

In other words, simply by talking with someone, people changed their brains in a way that gave fear less domain.

 

Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag at Bleacher Report, a speaker, and the author of “Head in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes,” available now at headinthegamebook.com and wherever books are sold. He also hosts the Head in the Game podcast and runs the Head in the Game website (headinthegameblog.com), which explore all of that and its huge implications for the rest of us. Read more of his work and contact him at brandonsneed.com.