How to Break the Stigma Around Mental Training

I can remember being on a road trip during college and one of my teammates asking me who I was on the phone with.

“It was just my sister,” I replied.

Only, that was a lie. I had been talking to my mental performance coach, discussing the anxiety I was feeling for the upcoming game. Why then did I feel the need to lie to my teammate? Oh, and by the way, this wasn’t just any teammate. He was my roommate and best friend. Yet, I still was apprehensive to tell him the truth.

The reason I was afraid to be upfront about seeking mental training was the embarrassment I perceived would result from such a disclosure. I was deeply rooted in the belief that mental health, mental training in particular, had such a stigma about it that I should never tell anyone that I was seeking help.

Where Does Stigma Come From?

Before we look at where stigma comes from, let’s examine what it means to feel stigma. That way, we will have an easier time understanding the stigma that surrounds mental training.

Stigma is defined by Merriam-Webster as a mark of shame or discredit. This shows how seeking mental health assistance can lead to feelings of shame. For an athlete, stigma discredits us from being mentally tough.

There is another definition I found from Cambridge Dictionary that I believe does an even better job of highlighting stigma in this regard. The definition says that stigma is a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something.

Stigma is definitely felt by society at large when it comes to mental health. What I would like to focus on in this article is the stigma around mental training in relation to the society of sports and performance.

In this article, I am referring to mental training because it is the step that follows seeking mental health assistance. Working in performance psychology, mental training is where results are obtained.

But, in terms of discussing stigma, I believe it all stems from our perception of mental health in general. The question that now comes to mind is why? Why do we, as a sports society, hold onto a belief that it is somehow wrong or a sign of weakness to seek mental training?

Many research studies exist that analyze the threat competition poses to an athlete’s mental health. One such study revealed continual pressure from parents, coaches, and teammates increased levels of anxiety in young athletes.

With this knowledge becoming more widespread, why is it that incorporating mental training is still seen as faux pas?

From what I have experienced, it mainly stems from the idea that we admire the mentally strong athlete.

The Mental Toughness Misconception

Mental toughness is a trait highly sought after when it comes to athletics. Coaches seek out indicators that an athlete has strength of mind when they are recruiting. Athletes try to toughen themselves up to be able to appear mentally tough.

As a result of this “be tough or get left behind” attitude, mental health can be a sensitive subject.

Anyone who has spent some time within a sports culture knows that sensitivity is something to steer clear of.

Confessing to struggles with anxiety or depression can be seen as a weakness.

The perception is that an athlete should be mentally tough. If they need to work on building up their minds so they don’t feel nervous or disappointed, then they do not have what it takes to be successful.

While I do not agree with this way of thinking, I have seen it play out time and time again. It was something I fell deep into during my time playing high school and college baseball.

I knew that my anxiety was causing me to perform poorly and I knew I needed help. Yet, I held off as long as I could, and as I addressed in the introduction, I lied about seeking help once I finally began the work.

There was no way I would allow myself to be seen as weak. What if my coaches benched me? What if my teammates thought I was crazy or mentally unstable?

In line with the definition of stigma above, I was afraid of disapproval.

I do not believe I am alone in feeling afraid to open up about the struggles that can accompany competition. Hiding behind a veil of insecurity only worsens the problem. That is where the weakness lies, not in seeking help.

By viewing mental toughness through the lens of you either have it or you don’t, we strengthen the stigma that surrounds mental training.

If we feel the need to work on our mental health, then there must be something wrong with us. This can lead to us actually believing we are weak.

I used to question my toughness as an athlete all the time because of my anxiety. Getting so nervous that I wanted to avoid the game made me think I was mentally weak. I guess you could say I was, but it was due to me hiding from the truth.

Strength of mind is something we can build, but not until this misconception about what it means to be mentally tough is broken.

How Stigma Holds Us Back

Failure to seek mental training only holds us back from making true progress.

As individuals, when we allow stigma to keep us from utilizing mental training, an incredible opportunity is missed. Think about training for your sport. How many hours do you put into improving mechanics and running through plays?

It would be ridiculous to think about not training your body for performance. Yet, we often fail to do the same with our minds. When stigma prevails, a whole facet of training is overlooked.

If we need to use a mental performance coach to help us with mental toughness, then that must mean we are weak. For a real athlete, strength of mind should come naturally. Thinking in this way significantly limits our potential.

By allowing the stigma to limit us, there are a multitude of benefits we fail to receive, such as:

  • Improved Focus
  • Improved Confidence
  • Lower Levels of Anxiety
  • Greater Ability to Handle Failure
  • Better Time Management Skills
  • A More Positive Mindset
  • Higher Self-Worth
  • Improved Self-Awareness
  • Better Skill Mastery
  • Improved Goal-Setting Skills

Simply by not using mental training, we miss out on so many incredible benefits that could elevate our lives and performances.

This is one of the interesting aspects of how stigma holds us back. It can often be overlooked because it doesn’t seem to impact us negatively. However, it does negatively affect us in that we are holding ourselves back from reaching another level of potential.

On top of that, stigma worsens the symptoms we experience when it comes to mental health problems.  

The Backlash of Stigma

When we feel stigmatized towards seeking mental training, there is an accompaniment of shame that follows. This shame can often be internalized to a point where we worsen whatever it is we are dealing with.

For example, when anxiety first began to creep into my life, I pushed it aside. Instead of being forthcoming with my insecurities and struggles, I suppressed them. I think this is a common reaction for many people whenever they begin to face mental health challenges, but especially a teenager.

At that age, we think it’s important to put on a brave face, show no signs of weakness, and push through. I always had the ability to cover up any self-doubt I was feeling. However, all this did was allow the anxiety to fester within me.

As I progressed into college, my anxiety worsened and so did my willingness to be open. I would talk to my mom about it, but I always felt as if there was something wrong with me.

That is where I truly believe stigma causes our challenges to become greater.

I held the belief that my coaches and teammates would think less of me if I opened up about my self-doubt and anxiety. But, by bottling all this up, my feelings had to be expressed in another way.

For me, this turned into self-sabotaging behavior.

I became a perfectionist and overanalyzed every single aspect of my game and myself until I had succumbed to paralysis by analysis.

A lot of this was due to my perception of stigma. I was afraid to be open and seek mental training early on out of the fear of disapproval.

But what if the stigma wasn’t there? What if using mental training as both a combatant and preparation mechanism for mental health challenges was normal and advocated?

That is why I would like to introduce some ways in which I believe we could work to break the stigma around mental training.

How to Break the Stigma

In working to overcome and break the stigma surrounding mental health, specifically mental training, the key focus will be on our perceptions.

We can either view mental training as a way to heal a weakness or as a way to build upon the mental strength we need to succeed.

It’s the same training either way, but our perspective makes all the difference.

Use Education to Overcome Stigma

Working to change the perceptions we hold towards mental training needs to start with education. There must be an effort made to educate about what mental training is and the benefits it can produce.

A lot of the stigma stems from a lack of knowledge about what mental training is. Telling people to use visualization or self-talk to help them out with their performances often comes off as weird.

I know it did for me. It was a long time before I bought into the idea that using our mental faculties to improve performance is just as important as physical training.

When we are unfamiliar with something, an easy response is to avoid it or view it as weird. This is where knowledge becomes powerful. Not only does education need to take place as to what mental training is, but also all of the benefits it provides.

Athletes are always seeking to gain a leg up on the competition. If the benefits of mental training become more well known, then the stigma that surrounds it should surely dissipate.

Proactive vs Reactive View

The perception I have continuously run into when working to overcome my own anxiety was always reactive. This makes sense due to my need to overcome a challenge I was facing at that moment.

However, what I have learned through my continual progress has been the benefit of daily habits that work to strengthen my mind. This is much different than the typical view on mental health where we seek help once a condition becomes unbearable.

I do not have the symptoms that I used to, yet I do more now in an effort to strengthen my mind than I ever did when I was knee-deep in anxiety. The change has come from a shift in the way I view mental training.

For me, it is now a proactive tool I use to elevate the experience of my life and improve my performance in any area I choose.

The stigma that I felt in sports resulted from viewing mental training as a sign of weakness. But, if we view it as just another training tool, this type of stigma could be eradicated.

Change the Way We See Weakness

Weakness is a word I have used throughout this article to highlight how we often view mental training. For me, it was a sign of weakness. But I no longer believe that. In fact, the opposite now holds true.

Viewing mental training as weakness is a faulty perception that must be altered. There is nothing weak about owning up to our shortcomings. There is nothing weak about wanting to improve our minds and make them stronger. This is courageous and shows true strength, which is the complete opposite of weakness.

If we can change the way we see weakness, mental health issues will no longer be stigmatized. There should be admiration given to someone willing to challenge themselves and grow, not condemnation.

In the sports world, if we can see mental training as a powerful way to elevate performance, then it will no longer be a weakness. It’s normal for athletes to build their bodies to be strong and resilient. It should be that way for their minds as well.

Final Thoughts

The stigma that surrounds mental health and mental training is still prevalent in the sports world. It can often be seen as a weakness if you need the help of a mental performance coach. However, that perception must be changed.

Through mental training, we can expect to receive incredible benefits. Our performances will be improved, and our lives as a whole will reap the rewards.

In order to break the stigma, we need to focus on educating about the benefits of mental training, view it in a proactive manner, and change the way we see weakness.

Do you feel stigma toward mental health and mental training? Do you often feel overly anxious before games or depressed after a bad performance, yet try to hide these feelings?

If you have any questions about stigma or any other performance psychology topic, please feel free to reach out to me.

I hope that this article was helpful and shed some light on the ways we can work to break the stigma around mental training.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all you do.

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