Making Excuses versus Acknowledging Circumstances: When Mental Toughness Works Against You
Can an athlete be too tough?
Reaching one’s potential in any sport requires a certain degree of grit. An athlete must be willing and able to tolerate varying kinds and degrees of discomfort, both physical and psychological, and keep coming back for more of the same for years on end. But I hasten to answer my own question: like just about any characteristic, there is a point where an athlete can be too tough for their own good.
My experience with athletes – particularly athletes who are already fairly experienced, and have been training hard for an extensive period – is that they are more likely to have too much toughness than too little. Much as it can be difficult to get an athlete to train less rather than piling on needless volume, many athletes will be prone to tough their way through circumstances which, by their very nature, will not yield to mental fortitude.
Recently, a frequent topic of discussion between myself and many of my athletes has been the distinction between making excuses and acknowledging circumstances. For the sake of clarity, I will here define the way I am using these terms:
An excuse is a reason, proposed by the athlete, which, if true, bears at least partial responsibility for the athlete’s inability to execute the task at hand. Excuses will often be amorphous (the athlete may change the nature of the reason based on the context in which it is being offered), centered around factors tangentially within the athlete’s immediate control (tangentially is key – the athlete will be able to make a case for why they are not in his or her control, even if they could be), and the athlete will seek external validation for their excuses (on some level the athlete knows that they could be in control of these factors, and will often look to people who confirm the athlete’s preferred belief that the reasons they cite for their failure are valid.)
A circumstance is a reason, external to the athlete, which, if true, bears at least partial responsibility for the athlete’s inability to execute the task at hand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, circumstances are in many ways the inverse of excuses. They will be unchanging regardless of the context in which they are offered, they will center around factors mostly or entirely outside of the athlete’s immediate control, and they require no external validation – they are obvious to any reasonable onlooker.
Although there certainly are athletes who are prone to making excuses, I think that most serious athletes – at least those I am fortunate enough to work with – lean hard in the other direction. It is crucial to be able to distinguish between excuses and circumstances, because when the athlete conflates the two, they will treat a problem which should be treated analytically emotionally instead. When a circumstance is keeping an athlete from training as effectively as possible, the athlete and coach should scrutinize the problem, determine a strategy to work around it, and execute the new plan. If the athlete instead chooses to try to deal with the problem internally – as one would deal with an excuse – and simply tough it out, their success will be limited, because no amount of mental toughness is sufficient to eliminate external conditions.
Do you work 60 hours a week at a high stress job? Do you have a newborn who doesn’t sleep well, keeping you up at night? Are you dealing with emotionally challenging personal trials? These are circumstances, not excuses. Acknowledge them, analyze them, and make a plan which takes them into account. The hammer of mental toughness is an important tool, but cannot replace the careful measuring of critical analysis and strategy.