What It Really Means To Be “Mentally Tough” As An Athlete

It's time to reframe the conversation around mental well-being in sports.

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Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

My name is Lauren Brown and I’m 20 years old. Throughout my life, I have experienced wavering levels of anxiety and depression. About a month ago, I decided to quit my third year as a member of New York University’s Varsity Women’s basketball team, partially because of the heightened anxiety I felt on and off of the court. As I grew up in an environment that valued a misconstrued concept of mental toughness, and found heroism in “overcoming the pain,” it took me a while to recognize the ways in which I’d forced myself to take on an unfamiliar and overly aggressive temperament in an effort to feel powerful and “sane.” Temperament is defined as a manifested state of being. In other words, it is a consistent, and yet, a controllable nature of feeling.

NYU Women’s Basketball, 2017-2018

I have found that within the culture of athletics, the concept of mental illness is often seen as a weakness. This is why I believe that it is crucial to voice the normalcy of depression and anxiety, especially for a college athlete. Although I have chosen to pursue my other academic and artistic interests at NYU, I will remain an active advocate for the normalization of mental illness for current student athletes, as well as the athletes who have decided to quit their collegiate sports teams.

Unfortunately, there is an even greater level of disdain that surrounds a player who has decided to step away from the sport that they’d once found the greatest amount of comfort in. Many of us may assume that these players were not mentally tough enough or ready for the intensity of each practice or game, when in reality, this way of thinking will only limit an individual’s ability to empathize with someone who is choosing to leave a piece of themselves that, at one point, reflected almost every aspect of their identity. For these reasons, we must continue to emphasize the importance of perspective, as we push ourselves to understand the fact that every person has a different kind of temperament when dealing with challenges and change.


I lapse into a familiar state of being,

Especially when I feel lonely.

I get sad.


So sad.

It makes me feel

Homeless in my own home

Irrelevant to a world that loves me

Depleted by daylight and talking.

I stop believing in the person who is nice to me.

It makes me feel

Helpless in moments of crying

Absent to my mindless wondering

Confused by loud noises and complete silence.

As doubt surrounds all that I have ever wanted:

I get cold more easily

Because my mind seems empty

And, my taste feels limiting.

It makes me feel

Common in the rain, when I usually like dancing

Veiled to the abundance of warmth, that I typically find amazing

Curious by ways of survival, while attempting to harness the yearning.

Lost in my own body:


to breathe a breath that’s not as heavy.

I hate when I feel so sad

Because the cold finds me more readily

And, I begin to ache more quickly.

I hate when I feel sad.

So, I search for a mood to keep me moving.

“But Hey,

I’m Adjusting.”

Here are 10 ways to productively adjust to change in routine, relationships and your “newidentity:

  • Resist the urge to push away friends and family.
  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Play.
  • Go to a museum alone.
  • Always ask, “why?”
  • Routinely talk to the “quiet” person in the room.
  • Spontaneously take walks down random streets and paths.
  • Journal.
  • Make a to-do list.
  • Actually do the to-do list.
Photographed by Sasha Nialla

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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