The Most Important Mental Attribute for Athletes

By Kaitlin Young

In a recent discussion regarding athletic careers, my friend and blackbelt extraordinaire, Marcus posed this question to our group: “What do you think the most important mental attribute is for athletes and/or martial artists?” There are many of great importance, but if you were to choose one that is MOST important, what would it be?

Some Choices

Fortitude, perseverance, humility, confidence, discipline. An argument could be made for a whole list of attributes we know are necessary for both success and satisfaction with one’s career. For all those things to exist in a person and in order to be consistently beneficial for them, I believe another quality has to come first. That quality is self-acceptance. 

We All Have Stories We Tell Ourselves

We all have some idea of what we aspire to be and who we believe we are in the present moment. Often those ideas have been heavily influenced by our culture, family, social circle, partner, coaches, and teammates. We are social creatures. Not so long ago, being socially ostracized meant certain death. While we now live the cushy life with iPhones and a seemingly endless supply of food and water at our fingertips, our brains have not yet shifted. There is no greater evidence of this than our propensity to eat delicious, high calorie foods as if the next famine is incoming. As much as we all like to profess that the opinions of others don’t matter, our unconscious minds still regard them as directly related to our survival, and we often act accordingly. It is natural for us to care a great deal about fulfilling the expectations of others, even if rational thought tells us the practice is sometimes detrimental. 

One of the ways we do this is by denying the parts of ourselves we’d rather not see or have others see. We pretend issues don’t exist and stall our self-improvement as a result. Part of this is due to ideas we have internalized and now use to aid in judgement. If we believe that only cowards are afraid to fight, and we certainly don’t consider ourselves a coward, we will deny our own fear. The trouble with denial is that it does not make the problem go away, it just makes it harder to confront. Cus D’Amato, famed trainer of Mike Tyson and Floyd Patterson, was well-aware of this phenomenon. He said: 

“When the novice throws punches an nothing happens, and his opponent keeps coming at him … the new fighter becomes panicky. When he gets panicky he wants to quit, but he can’t quit because his psychology from the time he’s first been in the streets is to condemn a person who’s yellow. So what does he do? He gets tired. This is what happens to fighters in the ring. They get tired, because they’re getting afraid … Now that he gets tired, people can’t call him yellow. He’s just too “tired” to go on. But let that same fighter strike back wildly with a visible effect on the opponent and suddenly that tired, exhausted guy becomes a tiger. … It’s a psychological fatigue, that’s all it is, but people in boxing don’t understand that.” 

In the situation he describes, this fighter will then believe that his conditioning was the primary reason for his loss. If he just does more sprints, more roadwork, more pad rounds, that awful feeling when he fights will go away. But it won’t go away. He can have all the discipline and drive in the world, but until he can accept himself, as he is, enough to confront his fear, it will continue to be a thorn in his side every time he faces a similar amount of pressure.  

A Scapegoat for the Fear of Failure

The same is true when injuries suddenly become unbearable when a person is losing a round. Yes, the injury is there, but it is mostly functioning as a scapegoat for fear of failure. It is much less heartbreaking to lose a fight because you’ve been eye gouged than it is to face the truth that your best wasn’t enough and you were simply being outclassed. That doesn’t mean that debilitating injuries never happen in fights, but debilitating injuries to the ego are more common. When the fear of failure isn’t confronted, sometimes people will exit the fight at the first opportunity that allows them to save face.   

Perfectionism is this Problem on Steroids

We’ve heard so many athletes profess to be their own worst critic, as if it’s something worthy of pride. Admittedly, I used to be one of them. Striving for greatness is a good thing. Having high standards is a good thing. As Brene Brown so sagely stated in her book, Daring Greatly, “Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval.” It is not about rising to meet the demands of the task at hand, its undue stress about how others will perceive our efforts.  

Most of what other people say to us is a reflection of them rather than us. Fighters who are nervous about their own upcoming bouts are usually the most critical of another’s performance. Parents who’ve achieved the least, or rather are least comfortable with their achievements, are typically the ones putting an insane amount of pressure on their child to become what they are not. When we work on accepting ourselves fully and dealing with our own problems, we not only have more success and a better experience in our own pursuits, but we also become better company. We lessen the need to offload our own unrealized anxieties on those around us.  

If we can accept what we’ve done, the choices we’ve made, and our feelings about them, we can move forward and adjust with real clarity and intention. The truth of what happened in our fight, match, presentation to the board, or relationship doesn’t need to be shared with everyone. Not everyone deserves, nor can handle, that level of vulnerability. Managing our own behavior becomes infinitely harder when we attempt to deny our internal experience. This is where self-acceptance takes the cake as the most valuable attribute we can possess.