Friday, June 06, 2014

On Mental Toughness

Well, I guess that finish to Game 1 of the Miami Heat-San Antonio Spurs NBA Finals last night tended to support that point I was making yesterday about luck mattering in sports, wouldn’t you say? Sure, the Spurs might well have won even without LeBron James’s going down as he did in the fourth quarter, but it certainly appeared as though his cramping and being unable to continue had a lot to do with Miami suddenly being unable to guard anyone.

Watching that game play out, I was reminded of my own basketball days, including having on several occasions experienced leg cramps which would usually occur right at the very end of a game (or after a long period of play). Often they’d happen when I would be physically exerting myself, jumping one... last... time for a ball, then suddenly being cut down.

Cramps can be utterly debilitating, and while the pain usually subsides quickly (at least in my experience), those initial moments can be full of panicky fright. “Seize” is the verb that seems most appropriate to describe what happens, the wince required to say the word altogether fitting.

Reactions to James’s end-of-game distress have ranged from laughable to lamentable, with those wanting to use the occasion to question his “manhood” making spectacles of themselves by their demonstrations of inanity. Not only is it a silly observation, but it includes an assumption about masculinity and professional sports that while shaped by many years of cultural influence is itself misguided.

Such thoughts stem from the mistaken idea that James might have defied medical science somehow and willed himself to play through injury. Commentator Mark Jackson’s cliché-filled coachspeak late in the game when it appeared James might have to sit down -- “The great ones have a way of willing themselves past their bodies... they tell their bodies ‘No, no, not now... I’ll talk to you tomorrow, but not now’” -- serves as an emblem for such absurdity, and probably encouraged a lot the commentators, too.

The mistake a lot of James’s critics are making has to do with interpreting a physical injury as though it were a mental one. Sports commentators love to advance such psychobabbling analyses -- this is something I’ve complained about here before -- and so the talk is about James’s mind breaking down, not his body (or the AT&T Center’s air conditioning).

I think of how poker -- a game that also has a significant legacy of reinforcing gender-related stereotypes -- constantly provides occasions in which players’ mental toughness is genuinely challenged. The fortitude required, say, to run a bluff or suss out the willful misdirections of an opponent, is significant. And real. And (it might well be added) sometimes the way players handle such challenges gets connected to those same ideas of “manliness” or toughness that have been handed down to some extent by the legacy of poker’s past.

Assessing something like “mental toughness” is hard enough to do in a game like poker where it is so obviously being tested at every turn (and flop and river). I’d venture that performing such assessments is harder to do in sports like basketball, yet so many seem so willing to try anyway.

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