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Student-Athlete Mental Wellness Needs Stoic Reflection

Image of Greg Moore
Greg Moore

In a recent Atlantic essay on the trouble with depression and detachment among NCAA Athletes, there was one cited true fix: “...develop a vocabulary for addressing the problems she sees."

Student-athletes make good decisions by habit and obligation to team and sport. Broken language interpreting past action and current circumstance increase when they can’t be ordered truthfully. Youth aged 14-18 are not practiced in telling themselves cold, rational truth. Tight schedules and lack of playing success were once pebbles in the pond. They have become boulders crushing healthy minds. Pressure is now stress. Hungry is now starving and thirsty is dehydrated. Healthy reflections begin with a word choice that takes dirty work, cold emotion and few wasted words. The goal must be accuracy, not “release”.

The atrophy of proportionate interpretation has led to nearly half of American youths struggle with mental illness before turning 18 and close to 15% have experienced depression. These numbers reflect the loss of the stoic skill set.

Develop Self-Control Through Honest Reflection

Cold personal assessments after wins and losses increase individual control. This takes practice. NCAA athletes make near-elite choices but good decision-making and bad reflection leave cloudy pain for the next small day. A dry eye, dryer language and consistent practice takes a stoic’s mind. A Stoic is “a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.” The definition can be nuanced or at least flipped. A Stoic also enjoys and succeeds without letting positive emotions sway future behavior. Minutes after signing his record-setting contract, Clayton Kershaw was asked to celebrate, he calmly answered, “Money is not something to celebrate.” Back to work.

Language is the King of Control

With all that’s been made of positive self-talk, rational and honest self-talk needs to take center-stage. A tough performance is not “killing me” and shouldn’t be accused of the crime. Sloppy descriptive language is worse than the hanging breaking, missed twice, that led to it. Getting a college scholarship "is the dream" can simply be changed to “one of my big hairy, audacious goals.” There’s fun, growth and perspective in honest look at what is. At a time when it seems that every word needs emotional pepper, young people need a bland habit.

Success Language for Reflection: Build On, Work On

Emotional planning by itself is damaging, and easier when chasing the perception of cross-town twitter accounts. Garbage in and emotional reflection out. Stoic reflection requires a specific language for success. It begins with two questions. What can I build on? What can I work on? The practice of separating successes and failures sends us on the rational road, and opens up a “chunking” of parts. Parts become guides to future productive work. “I outlined my essay with flow and detail. My writing was wordy and wandering, except in paragraph 4" (like this essay). After a D+ paper, hunt the Build-On. After a successful performance or day, capture the Work-On. Write it.

Foundation for Productive Goal Setting

Stoic reflection feeds productive goal setting “next time.” This leads to control, “next time." Beginning with the end in mind is the poetic prompt to aim. The best in sport and business have decided where they will go after the win. Nick Saban’s famous response after one of his College Football Championships: “I’m going to recruit.” If the goal is to slow the steady rise of depression, let the stoic mind reflect on the last 24 hours of work. Make Seneca right, then, “all the harvest of the past can be added to their store.”


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