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Mental toughness is a term we hear a lot in the sports world. It is a positive attribute to have, but there can be confusion as to what it means to be mentally tough.

Physical toughness is often easier to recognize. We can measure strength and witness perseverance and even be in awe of someone’s ability to sustain a high level of performance during long strenuous events. Mental toughness is less tangible.

Being mentally tough is key to success in sports and in life. It does not mean, though, we should become numb to emotions and stresses that come along with competition and training.

True, a mentally tough athlete needs to block out the “noise” and focus on what is in their control and important to their goals. It does not mean shutting down and not acknowledging fears or negative thoughts. Mentally tough athletes know how to understand those feelings, but do not let negative emotions control how the feel and act.

There’s a difference between being stoic and pretending that negative thoughts have no effect. Dismissing negative thoughts or struggles with confidence will compound over time and become a larger problem in the future. Learning to properly handle stressful situations and overcome fears is necessary to build mental toughness. Being mentally tough does not eliminate anxieties, it helps to manage them.

Developing the mental game does not end. Professional athletes are not robots and still need to handle all the unique challenges that accompany constant scrutiny and high expectations.

Recently, mental health – an even broader aspect of toughness – has become more in focus. We have seen several high-profile athletes talk about it and even remove themselves from competition. Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open and subsequently taking time away from tennis and Simone Biles removing herself from Olympic competition are just two major examples. Carey Price, the all-star, gold medal-winning goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens who voluntarily entered the NHL player’s assistance program for mental health, is another.

The positive side of these athletes publicly admitting their struggles with mental health is that 1.) they can get the assistance they need, and 2.) it raises awareness of the issue. Hopefully, their candid stories can encourage others as well as show younger athletes the importance of mental health and emotional awareness.

It takes great personal strength to ask for help and admit to being in an unhealthy mental state. The fact that it necessitates walking away from a fundamental part of their life just speaks to the magnitude of the situation. But, taking those steps and being honest about it is not a sign of weakness, it is an indication of mental toughness.