bring it up and move in
If you’ve ever watched a sporting event, you’ve likely seen an athlete in physical pain. Whether it’s a mild ankle sprain or a severe concussion, it’s fairly obvious when an athlete is hurting. Although some can tolerate freakish levels of pain, the majority will exhibit one of the many tell-tale signs of an injury (e.g. limping, clinched fists, favoring the injured area, etc…). Suffice it to say, it’s difficult to suppress physical pain.
Sadly, there’s another kind of pain that is rarely discussed in sports. In fact, discussing this kind of pain is a taboo topic in many athletic circles. Unlike physical pain, which is easy to see and difficult to suppress, this kind of pain is extremely difficult to see and quite easy to suppress.
I’m talking about mental and emotional pain. Athlete or not, no one is immune to it.
A football player has no problem asking for an ice pack to help offset the pain of a sprained ankle, but you’d be hard pressed to find one courageous enough to ask a counselor for help in managing the intense pain of a failed relationship.
A baseball player has no problem seeking the help of trainer to treat a bruised elbow, but you’d be hard pressed to find one vulnerable enough to ask a therapist for help in treating a bruised ego.
For years, athletes (especially males) have been conditioned to believe that talking about emotions is weak or soft. It’s not surprising that many of them go to great lengths to repress their own emotional well-being in an effort to maintain a healthy level of respect and adoration from teammates.
In other words, the cultural norm in athletics is to suck it up and move on (look good) instead of bring it up and move in (feel good). I’ll elaborate on this in a moment.
In recent weeks, two notable NBA players have collectively shined a light on the very real topic of mental and emotional pain. DeMar DeRozan, an All-Star and key member of the Toronto Raptors, openly discussed his tumultuous battle with depression. In an article he wrote for The Players Tribune, Kevin Love, a member of the 2016 NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers, poignantly captured his frightful experience with a panic attack. Click here to read it.
As someone who works with athletes on a daily basis, I’m well aware of the suck it up and move on mentality and the many costs associated with it. While championship trophies continue to be the pinnacle of success, they often come at a price. In a tunnel vision, eyes on the prize quest for athletic greatness, the greatness of the human being is often overlooked. While trophies are displayed in glass cases and banners hang high above gymnasium floors, these public symbols cast a tremendous shadow on the private well-being of the athletes who play the game. Just ask Kevin Love. It took a panic attack for him to realize this. His NBA championship, a public accomplishment, did very little to ease the pain of his private life.
If we’re going to make progress in this area, we must recondition the minds of athletes, young and old. The suck it up and move on mentality must be replaced with a bring it up and move in mentality.
Let me explain by using Kevin Love’s story.
Bring it up (self-awareness)
In the article, Kevin talked about the passing of his grandma, whom he had an extremely close relationship with. When loved one’s pass, grief is an obvious subsequent emotion. However, when grief is repressed, it’s akin to putting a topical numbing agent on our skin when we feel pain. The pain doesn’t really go away, but the numbing agent makes it feel as though it’s gone. In Kevin’s case, his numbing agent was basketball. He convinced himself that basketball was his profession and that talking about the intense emotions that followed his grandma’s passing would get in the way of his profession. Instead of seeking healing in the form of bringing it up, he desperately tried to conceal the pain by sucking it up and doing his job.
Unfortunately, it took a panic attack for Kevin Love to learn the importance of bringing to the surface the emotions that needed to be addressed. I call this being real with what’s real. You can’t change what you aren’t aware of.
Move in (self-management)
After his panic attack, he came to the realization that he needed help. Rather than writing it off as a freak incident which likely wouldn’t happen again, he chose to take off the tough guy mask and replace it with authenticity and vulnerability. What followed were frequent meetings with a counselor. Unlike a teammate or coach who might encourage him to suck it up, his counselor will undoubtedly equip him with opportunities to move in. For example, when grief or any other difficult emotion continues to show up, which it will, the best course of action is not to binge watch a Netflix series or grab a six-pack of Coors Light (moving out), but rather to look at the difficult emotion and learn to process it (move in).
If you’d like to learn more about how I help athletes practice these two critical skills, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.