Robert A. Panariello MS, PT, ATC, CSCS
Professional Physical Therapy
Professional Athletic Performance Center
New York, New York
“Mental toughness” is a desirable trait in any athlete. When game situations become critical and extremely difficult as the levels of pressure and stress skyrocket, a coach’s concern turn to the ability (or inability) of the athlete to avoid the onset of anxiety and not succumb to these high stress conditions. As part of the discussion in the preparation of the athlete to enhance their “mental toughness” it is important to consider the influences of fatigue upon athletic performance.
Fatigue is not the enemy of the athlete. It is critical for the athlete develop a work capacity to enable them to perform at optimal levels repeatedly over time. To improve an athlete’s work capacity the athlete must be exposed to the appropriate application of unaccustomed stress as described by Hans Seyle in his “General Adaptation Syndrome” (GAS) for the desired adaptation to occur. Fatigued will transpire during the course of the application of these unaccustomed stresses (i.e. training sessions, team practice, etc.). However, with the proper planning of these stresses excessive fatigue will be avoided. Excessive fatigue has an undesirable effect upon the body including but not limited to the following:
1. Concentration and Alertness – Fatigue will adversely affect the athlete’s ability to concentrate as well as react to game situations. Related to these limitations is a decrease in neuromuscular coordination resulting in decreased agility and movement abilities.
2. Muscle force output – A fatigued muscle/muscle group will be constrained to the amount of force that may be produced. This will also have an effect on the physical qualities of power and speed. If a muscle/muscle group cannot produce an adequate amount of force (strength), how can force possibility be produced quickly?
3. Effects on joint force couples – A force couple of a joint may be described as two or more forces acting in different directions, resulting in a rotation. One such force couple occurs at the shoulder between the rotator cuff and deltoid muscle groups. The main function of the rotator cuff is to provide a compressive force to maintain the humeral head in a centered position at the glenoid (joint). During arm elevation the strong deltoid muscles attempt to offset the humeral head superiorly toward the inferior aspect of the acromion posing possible injury to the rotator cuff musculature. It has been acknowledged that excessively fatigued rotator cuff musculature cannot oppose the strong forces of the deltoids adversely affecting this force couple resulting in a superior migration of the humeral head in the glenoid. This force couple disruption mimics the same gleno-humeral kinematics that occurs in a shoulder with a torn rotator cuff. The adverse effect of excessive fatigue may arise at any force couple in the body setting the table for poor performance and possible injury.
4. Effect on joint proprioceptors – a proprioceptor may be described as a variety of sensory end organs (i.e. muscle spindle, Golgi tendon organs) in muscle, tendons, and joint capsules that sense body position or state of contraction. The adverse effect of fatigue on joint position sense may result in poor sports skill mechanics (i.e. baseball pitching) and body positioning (i.e. wide receiver foot placement during a cutting activity). A disruption in optimal sport skill mechanics and/or poor positioning of the body at high velocities may place the athlete at possible risk of injury.
5. Recovery – the greater the fatigue state of an athlete the prolonged the period of time required for their full recovery. A consistent day after day “draining of the fuel tank” will not allow for full recovery of the neuromuscular system, prohibit optimal athletic performance, and expose the athlete to possible overuse type soft tissue injuries (strains, tendonitis, etc.).
If excessive fatigue is an adversary for optimal athletic performance and also places the athlete at possible increased risk of injury, why does there appear to be a “work the athlete until they are exhausted and vomit” mindset in an attempt to make them mentality tough? When an athlete is placed in a condition of excessive fatigue, an environment where they are eventually doomed for failure why are there expectations for success? How does working an athlete to the point of exhaustion and regurgitation make them tougher? I have had recent discussions on this matter with former NFL Strength and Conditioning Coach Johnny Parker and former NFL Head Coach Bill Parcells, two Super Bowl Champion and Hall of Fame Coaches who have had a profound influence upon my career.
Coach Parker voiced a strong opinion on this subject matter. “Establishing mental toughness is not working your athletes into the ground. Mental toughness is establishing the ability to maintain one’s composure throughout high pressure situations. Mental toughness is not jumping offside when your opponent has the ball and it’s third down and two, not hitting a player when he’s out of bounds, not roughing the passer, and performing your assignment optimally when it’s fourth down and the football is on your opponent’s one yard line on the last play of the game and you need a touchdown to win”. Coach Parcells has a similar take on this subject matter. “There are times where we find ourselves in deep and dark situations. This not only occurs in football but in life itself. What you do after that is what matters. We can wallow in these situations or can reach down and pull ourselves out from them. With regard to the game of football there will be times when things start to go extremely wrong during the game and your players can either break the cycle and recover, or succumb to this downward spiral. In practice we would create fast paced, high pressure situations to prepare our players for the conditions they would face during the game.”
The development of mental toughness is achieved with the appropriate structure of high tempo practices under high pressure game-day type situations. To respond optimally in this stressful environment the athlete must be alert and able to perform with appropriate neuromuscular and musculoskeletal system function, not through exhaustion and nausea. When did a coach ever desire their players to be too exhausted to continue to play or vomit continually on the sideline during the game-day competition? There is concern with the philosophy of working athletes to the point of exhaustion and illness as this may result in much more misfortune than just an athlete placing their head in a bucket.