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As More Athletes Talk About Mental Illness, What Does It Mean to be ‘Mentally Tough’ in Sports?

Without a doubt, the dominant story in the NBA this past week has been about Cleveland Cavaliers power forward/center Kevin Love, who admitted on Tuesday to suffering from an anxiety disorder. This November, Love — a perennial All-Star in the most competitive basketball league in the world — had to leave a game against the Atlanta Hawks because of a panic attack.

In a perfect world, Love’s disclosure of a mental health condition would be nothing more than a declaration of his essential humanness. But the unfortunate truth is that the very concept of mental illness, and the inherent vulnerability that comes with admitting to it, is still largely antithetical to the traditional view of toughness in sports, which typically consists of a “run through the wall” mentality, says Brian Gearity, director of the sports coaching program at the University of Denver.

“When you look at some of the dominant practices in sports coaching, there’s this emphasis on what we call ‘hegemonic masculinity’ — not talking about your feelings, not seeking help, manning up, being independent, minimizing your emotions and relationships,” says Gearity. “And we end up producing athletes and coaches who neglect their mental health and emotional balance as a result.”

“That’s not mental toughness,” Gearity continues, “it’s a perversion of it.”

The best example of this perversion is probably Michael Jordan, whose hyper-competitiveness set the mold for generations of NBA superstars to come (most notably, Kobe Bryant). Jordan dropped 38 points while suffering from the flu. He once trash-talked an opponent so viciously that it permanently affected the player’s career. Another time, he punched a teammate — now Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr — for merely disagreeing with him.

In other words, he was the consummate alpha dog in a league full of them.

And yet — and I say this as someone who worships at the Jordan altar — it’s increasingly evident that this definition of toughness isn’t healthy. Or, at the very least, it isn’t healthy for everyone who plays sports, even at the highest level.

Love, for instance, wrote in The Players’ Tribune that his reluctance to treat his anxiety attacks was due to him trying to emulate the masculinity Gearity outlines above. In fact, he decided to talk about it publicly to help dispel that notion.

Partly, I want to [discuss my anxiety] for me, but mostly, I want to do it because people don’t talk about mental health enough. And men and boys are probably the farthest behind.

I know it from experience. Growing up, you figure out really quickly how a boy is supposed to act. You learn what it takes to “be a man.” It’s like a playbook: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own. So for 29 years of my life, I followed that playbook. And look, I’m probably not telling you anything new here. These values about men and toughness are so ordinary that they’re everywhere … and invisible at the same time, surrounding us like air or water. They’re a lot like depression or anxiety in that way.

Many college and pro teams have incorporated psychology into their player health and training regimens the past several years, Gearity says, adding sports psychologists to their staffs. But sports psychologists are often only focused on improving individual and team performance — via meditation and breathing and visualization exercises that help athletes better manage in-game stress.

“But that’s different from saying, ‘Hey, you have clinical depression. Let’s make sure you’re taking care of this right and set you up with a clinical psychologist,’” says Adam Naylor, a professor of sports psychology at Boston University and a consultant to players in the NBA, the NHL and PGA.

If professional sports franchises really want to show a commitment to their players’ mental health then, they should have a clinical psychologist on staff, too.

The most important thing, though, is combating the idea that mental health and mental toughness are mutually exclusive, Gearity says. In that sense, it’s not as much about redefining toughness in sports (e.g., Jordan-esque on-court alpha dogging) as it is broadening the definition to include the bravery Love exhibited this week.

“It takes incredible toughness to do what [Love] did, and acknowledge your weakness so you can get stronger,” Naylor says. “Because it’s not an either-or proposition. Why can’t an athlete impose their will on the court, and also take care of their mental health off of it?”