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Being Brave

By Jamie MacDonald , 03/26/20, 10:45AM EDT


Dr. Adam Naylor is adjusting the term 'mental toughness'

When you’re in the training business – physical, mental or otherwise – you’re more than likely to be surrounded by buzz terms. 

For Dr. Adam Naylor, who has worked with USA Hockey, NHL, Olympic, NCAA and UFC athletes, “mental toughness” is one of them.

And he’s none too sure it strikes the right tone. The same goes for “grit,” which had picked up steam over recent years.

For Naylor, those terms just aren’t quite where we should aim for our youth hockey players to be chasing. Gritting it out, grinning and bearing it, or being ground into a mental pulp in the name of progress can be a fool’s errand. 

Mental toughness?

“I’m not sure I even like that term anymore,” says Naylor, who does actually know what we mean but has another way to frame it. “I think it’s having a perspective that allows us to be ready and to thrive through adversity – in a healthy way. It’s being able to lean on a few mental skills when things get turbulent and being able to be brave enough to run toward challenges. And I think that word, ‘bravery’ pops up a lot. That’s how I phrase it these days. It’s bravery from a social standpoint, but also in the willingness to embrace challenges.”

Welcoming challenges rather than going into them fearing the worst, or fearing anything, can be liberating. When an athlete finds that headspace, he or she is much more likely to thrive.

Naylor points out an exercise he employs with golfers, who are asked to consider the hardest of three putts – one of 12 inches, one of five feet and a third at 10 feet. Theoretically, the hardest putt to make is the 10-footer. But golfers are much more at ease when there’s less pressure to make that putt. Now, the five-foot putt – the one they think should be made, the one their peers think should be made, the one with the social and mental pressure, the one with the ego in the way – that’s the tough one in Naylor’s mind.

Dr. Adam Naylor

And that’s why he suggests not only helping players move through those semi-uncomfortable heat waves, but also for organizations to create environments that support an athlete’s perceived risks and failures.

Perhaps this is less about mental toughness and more about mental successes. 

“I actually tell a lot of people that mental toughness is also actually social bravery,” Naylor says. “Most of our mindset stuff is being able to be willing to look like a fool in front of others while you’re risking not being afraid of what other people may think if the scoreboard doesn’t work out.”

Merely facing the risks of being uncomfortable can set the stage for mental growth. Like physical successes, an athlete can thrive when they’re exposed to these kinds of reps, particularly at the younger ages before “failing” during their development feels like judged failure. 

“I think it’s about a healthy exposure,” says Naylor, who earned doctoral and master’s degrees in counseling after studying psychology and human movement studies as an undergrad. “It’s not to make it so tough that someone has to come out the other side. I think it’s when the situation is within a good realm of difficulty that puts you on edge of discomfort. It’s creating healthy struggles, then letting them struggle for a reasonable amount of time.”

As it turns out, some considerable growth can come when the athletes involved aren’t assuming they are going to win or they’re going to lose.

“We can teach them to embrace it,” Naylor says. “They have to be able to play bravely knowing they’re going to be able to sit with the uncertainty about the outcome.”

The outcome can mean anything from a season, a game, a period, or the spin-o-rama at one’s own blue with no support that seemed like a good idea at the time. And that’s why more of those ideas that make for more interesting hockey and sometimes even more interesting people, should be given room to breathe.

“Control what you can control … and accept what you cannot. The first half can make people control freaks. The second half is the tension-dropper. Control what you can control, and accept what you cannot. Now go play.”

“Let’s say [an organization wants] to encourage people to hold the puck longer,” says Naylor. “Now, can the environment around the player have enough discipline to celebrate it when there is, air-quote, ‘failure.’ If you carried a puck a little bit because that’s what you’re trying to learn, when it gets turned over, what is the reaction in the environment? A good environment really stays on message.”

And this may be the reasonable “mental toughness” challenge for coaches, programs and affiliates. Developing skilled, creative, game-changing players is far more likely when no one’s yelling about all the things that go into a player developing skills, creativity and game-changing abilities. 

“We can talk about healthy risks, but, if we don’t create that space, you don’t learn how to push to that edge, or you’re fearful of that edge,” Naylor says. “And if we can’t celebrate making mistakes while taking those risks, we see kids thinking, ‘I can’t screw up.’”

In his role, “Doc,” a naturally nonjudgmental son of a minister, just happens to find it pretty easy to stay on message.

“Let’s say the puck gets turned over a lot, and a coach loses it in the heat of the moment, but I don’t lose it,” he says. “I’m encouraging kids to think about the mistakes they’re willing to make with the healthy risks they’re willing to take. ‘What is good enough?’ I can ask. ‘Let’s try that for a while. Why don’t we try being good enough and see what happens?’”

Naylor, acutely aware of the challenges facing young athletes who may be thinking about things like the next level or the next league or even, more dauntingly, something like a college scholarship, understands this may not be easy. Good enough often isn’t good enough for a perfectionist. And that’s where one of the great lessons in mental conditioning, or toughness, or whichever word you choose, comes into play: Displays of mental strength look like acceptance. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“It’s the gold standard of the mental game,” says Naylor. “It’s acceptance. I’ll often end up dropping it with my high-end athletes, but I also have to help them figure out what it means for them. I have to make it meaningful.”

The fear, particularly for those high achievers, is that acceptance means giving up or that you’re content. A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

“Absolutely not,” Naylor says. “Acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t care about the outcome. Acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t plan on getting better. Acceptance means you’re going to flow with the situation and see what happens, and you’ll learn.”

You might just learn you’ve become more mentally tough than you ever imagined.