Mental Toughness: The Role of the Athletic Mindset in Perpetuating the Concussion Crisis

By Jay Fraga

raceConcussion is a funny thing. As an “invisible” injury, the odds that it will be dismissed by any number of people in a position to do something about it, including the player, are high. It’s difficult to quantify a concussion visually. It is not difficult to quantify a compound fracture of a leg. A concussed person can look you in the eyes and say, “Hey, I’m fine to play. Put me back into the game” and many people will believe them at face value because they don’t have much visual evidence to the contrary.  A player with a compound fracture of the leg could look you in the eyes and say, “Hey, I’m fine to play. Put me back into the game”, and you would instantly know that they’re out of their mind. “Uh, apparently, you didn’t see the gore that is your leg. Forget it”.

So, why is there a difference in reactions among players, coaches, and even many medical personnel between the two injuries?

In terms of long-term ramifications, I’d take a compound fracture of the leg over a concussion any day. Before someone calls me a maniac, I should point out that I’ve suffered badly broken legs as well as multiple concussions and the aftermath is not even close. Brain injuries of any kind need to be avoided at absolutely all costs. This is coming from a man who once thought that learning how to walk again after breaking both legs was the toughest thing that he ever had to do and would ever have to endure again. I was wrong on that one.

On top of the strange denials that invisible injuries like concussions evoke from society at large, the condition also has to contend with athletes who have been trained, many since an early age, to prevail over any obstacle. I’ve read many articles recently where the authors can’t seem to comprehend why players can’t grasp the enormity of concussions and they express shock at such instances. “Football players? They knew what they were signing up for. How could anyone not know that football is a dangerous game?” Right?

Not so fast.

Why can’t athletes grasp the severity of concussions, pull themselves from games, and allow themselves to be properly treated? Take money out of the equation. It’s still pretty simple: Athletes are conditioned mentally to succeed. Successful athletes understand that mind over matter isn’t just a cliché; it’s truly the Law of the Land. Mental toughness is probably the most important ingredient to success in sports. Could there be any other reason why professional team franchises employ sports psychologists to build up their players?

Mental toughness, the very same ingredient that is essential to success in sports, is responsible for the majority of pervasive denial by athletes of the severity of concussions.

As a young, impressionable amateur athlete, the mental toughness that was ingrained in me by my Mother afforded me success. As I won more, the more ingrained that concept became in me. Putting in more effort than my competitors (along with the belief that I was just plain faster than they were) created a little boy that believed that he could surmount any obstacle in front of him simply by willing himself to succeed. That little boy grew up to be a man, and he carried that ethic with him. It served me well in athletics, and it served me well in life; right until the point where I denied the obvious severity of my concussions. To me, they were an annoyance; just another hurdle to get over so that I could prepare for the next race.

Digging into it, I never was consciously aware that there was a problem, or that I was injured beyond something minor. I feel that my mindset allowed me to gloss over details that were serious warning signs as opposed to knowing full well that I was hurt and making a conscious decision to go out and race hurt, further imperiling my health. My friend Kevin Saum wrote about his blurred vision (on top of a host of other symptoms) in a football game where he convinced himself that sweat running into his eye was responsible for it. Further that, I’ve had situations where I’ve been completely knocked out and woken up surrounded by EMT’s who ask, “Are you OK?”, and I’ve reflexively blurted out, “Yes, I’m fine” without even knowing what planet I was on. What’s important is that I wasn’t making a conscious effort to deceive anybody in any of those cases, but there was absolutely some mechanism that was leading to me to speak authoritatively when I had absolutely no clue what I was talking about.

Instances like those lead me to ask the question: As motivated athletes, are our brains tricking us?

As concussion awareness advocates, our mission is two-fold: Along with raising awareness of symptoms and ramifications of concussion, we must also find a way to address the mental toughness conundrum with regard to dismissal of concussion symptoms.  We can’t look expressly to coaches, because coaches were once players too. As such, they’re wired the same way as the athletes are.

It is incredibly hard to teach new dogs new tricks. It’s even harder to teach old dogs new tricks.

One thought on “Mental Toughness: The Role of the Athletic Mindset in Perpetuating the Concussion Crisis

  1. Kevin Saum (@ksaum37)

    Great article Jay! I believe this is one of the greatest contributing factors to the concussion crisis. Loved the quote, “To me, they were an annoyance; just another hurdle to get over so that I could prepare for the next race”. Great insight into the mindest of an athlete. Some people just don’t get it.

    Reply

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