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When the Going Gets Tough...

When the Going Gets Tough...
Karl Miran

Does sport teach or inspire mental toughness?

Sports mythology has for years promoted athletics as a way to build mental toughness, which translates in modern vernacular to resilience.  Even in the early years of organized athletics, it was recognized that the ability to bounce back from setbacks or overcome challenges required the athlete to have a particular mindset.   This month’s emphasis on resilience is a great opportunity to listen to Wardlaw+Hartridge student-athletes concerning how they understand this valuable  trait.         

The accounts of the Ram athletes below illustrate how varied their challenges have been.  They have faced orthopedic and cardiac surgery, mental health issues, and changing team dynamics, among other real-world issues.  They credit their ability to overcome challenges to many different sources of strength: family and friends,  coaches, and their own enduring vision of who they want to be.  

In addition to the role of athletics and athletic teams in teaching how to be resilient, they also serve two important functions that inspire and sustain an individual’s effort to bounce back from defeat:

1.    The lure of victory: “I’ve always been a soccer player, and I need to be on that team – we’ve got a chance to win the championship next year.”  

2.    An understandable metric for success:  “If I can run the same time in the 400 that I ran before the injury, I know I have won.”  

Athletics can push athletes to great achievements, and can also pull them toward those goals.  

Gyrord Gregoire '23 underwent a heart procedure, followed by prolonged rest, several years ago. During his comeback, he has encountered difficulties achieving the work rate necessary to become a recruitable prospective college athlete.  Because he refuses to let go of his goals, he has pushed himself through increasingly difficult strength and fitness workouts, learning that:

a.    He actually enjoys working hard

b.    He is motivated to work harder by signs of progress

c.     Learning from the wisdom of others is crucial.   

Gyrord knows that the attitude and work ethic he has adopted will serve him well in other areas of his life.  He says, “I know no one will work harder than I will.”

Many young people deal with mental health issues, such as depressive episodes, anxiety, and burnout. Jasmyn Gordon '23 has achieved her victories through a healthy use of compartmentalization and stubbornness. On one hand, she recognizes the importance of working on mental health issues with whatever professional help is appropriate.  On the other hand, she states, “I refuse to allow my mental health to hinder me from putting out my best work on the field,” no matter what negative thoughts happen to be in her head that day.  

A different type of adversity exists when a particular program suffers a drop in talent level when a large, strong class graduates.  Such is the situation that Emily Brogan '22 inherited as girls’ soccer co-captain, and she noticed quickly that team cohesion and support can be more difficult to achieve when players allow themselves to be discouraged by losses. Before too long, though, Emily realized that “I truly enjoy this group of girls and playing with them, more so than the past couple of years.”   That bond, she says, has been critical to inspiring the team to work together and treasure the process of striving for victory.  

Although she competes in a sport not offered by W+H, Nandini Shah '23 has been a competitive gymnast for many years. Over the past few years, she has suffered severe injuries to both her knees, tearing ligaments and breaking bones.  After enduring surgery, she had to consider whether or not to resume her interrupted gymnastics career.  According to Nandini, she never seriously considered leaving the sport because she “found a lot of joy doing my usual physical activities such as gymnastics, and I knew that my knees had to be strong in order to do those.”  The answer, then, was to attack her physical therapy with extra vigor, to allow her body to handle the demands of vaulting, flips, and all the other physical stresses inherent in the sport.  

Nandini admits to having lurking doubts: “The idea in the back of my mind that it may not be possible to return to gymnastics at the level I wanted, due to the knee surgeries.”  In spite of those worries, she vowed to keep her focus on her goals and (like the other Rams quoted above) credits her commitment to her goals as motivating her through the hard work of recovery.  This fall, Nandini has competed as an independent gymnast at a number of high school meets, including the GMC Championships, and has registered scores in the vault and uneven bars that qualified her to enter the NJSIAA Sectional Championships.   

We often use the phrase “It’s a Great Day to be a Ram,” which can sometimes sound like a cliché.  However, to the athletes quoted above, and others like them who have bounced back from a loss, their ability to compete and achieve gives that phrase real meaning.