The year is 1945. A troop transporter steams into New York Harbor and offloads thousands of American GIs, many of them boys when they enlisted. You ask one, age 18, about the hardest thing he’s ever done. What demanded the most mental toughness? If he hesitates, it’s because he’s weighing his options: hypothermia, trench foot, seeing someone get shot, shooting someone himself. There’s life in his years. His twin sister could tell you about making bullets and breaking Nazi codes.
Of course, it’s good we’re not at war, that there’s no famine or disease to make the country’s near-adults hardy. But would you bet money on the contemporary American 17-year-old matching his or her elder’s struggle?
Mental Toughness in Modern Times
Life just doesn’t hit as hard as it used to, and according to Texas high school strength and conditioning coach Shane Trotter, the youth aren’t equipped to hit back. There’s a void of mental toughness. “We have to be very honest about the trends we’re seeing,” says Trotter, realizing he’s coming off like a grouchy old man. “We’re talking about a generation that is constantly entertained, cell phone in hand, parents overly risk-averse, spending too much time inside, too much junk food, too little play.”
A gym teacher’s diatribe against soft kids is a predictable trope. More than his students’ fitness, Trotter worries that their four years at Mansfield High School won’t prepare them for what’s next. Today’s college counseling centers are more concerned with young adult anxiety than depression. In 2016, the American College Health Association reported that 62 percent of undergraduates feel overwhelming anxiety.
Trotter doesn’t claim to know the exact source of the generation’s angst, but he does see what they do to cope. He calls it “limited living”: self-medicating with bad food, social media, benzodiazepines—anything to avoid discomfort. And yet, he says, aversion to discomfort is often the cause of anxiety in the first place. “When you strip your kids of adversity,” Trotter says. “You strip them of the opportunity to become who they’re supposed to be.”
Teaching kids to embrace the suck requires nuance; a Major Payne-esque drill sergeant risks doing more harm than good. Instead, Trotter employs three complementary philosophies to make sure his student-athletes get the formative experiences they’ll need to take on the world.
1. Teach Mental Toughness as a Virtue
When Trotter encounters a new batch of Mansfield student athletes, his first task is reshaping each individual’s perception of struggle. For some students, Trotter could be their first encounter with deliberate, sustained physical discomfort, which the coach sees as an opportunity. “If you’re constantly trying to avoid all discomfort,” he says. “You’re not happy with what you’ve achieved in the world. When discomfort does rear its head, you’re going to feel overly victimized.”
The American Journal of Play arrived at the same conclusion when it compared the survey results from 14- to 16-year-olds in 1948 and 1989, in order to see the psychological effect of reduced play time. The late-80s teen, according to the survey, was 25 percent more likely to report working under a great deal of tension and was four times as likely to feel strained by life in general. Staggeringly, six times as many 80s teens said they were afraid of losing their minds, and that was nearly three decades ago.
Contemporary researchers must also contend with the relentless consumption of digital media. A 2015 study of Canadian teens in Preventive Medicine found screen time to be a risk factor for depression and anxiety. A similar 2014 California State University inquiry concluded that for teenagers, “nearly every type of technological activity predicted poor health.”
To switch from vapid consumption to reaffirming production, Trotter practices exposure therapy. The New England Journal of Medicine lauds the technique as more effective for reducing child anxiety than Zoloft—yet a Mayo Clinic child anxiety disorder expert told the New York Times schools often overlook exposure therapy in favor of medication.
Cutting through distractions means explaining to his students exactly how the suffering he’s asking them to endure will improve their lives. He’s inviting them to join him in a process that not only improves their athletic performance, but more importantly, feels authentic. “To be honest, I don’t know what has made kids so excited about the message,” Trotter says. “They want to be something greater, they want to earn things, they know that it’s real.”
2. Celebrate Achievement
There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this, according to Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist whose pioneering “growth mind-set” philosophy contributed to a generation of effort-based participation awards. In 2016, Dweck told Quartz the growth mind-set needs to be walked back; it was never her intention for parents and teachers to reward kids for any effort.
Back in 1940, Harvard researchers wanted to know how varying effort levels influenced a person’s life trajectory, so they had more than 100 sophomores run on a treadmill, increasing the speed and incline until each one quit. Then participants ranked their life goals—income, marriage status, satisfaction—and researchers followed up every two years. Decades later, they found that those participants who achieved the most self-identified goals were also those who had stayed on the treadmill the longest.
Trotter knows such physical and mental toughness exercises can be formative for young men and women, so he celebrates any student who demonstrates formidable effort in the weight room. “You celebrate great effort all the time,” he says. “So that physical activity isn’t always punishment; it’s something we get excited about.” He gets students clapping during warm-ups, realizing that people crave a group mind-set. “If you set it up right, there’s not a negative connotation with physical activity.”
When their hard work is recognized and reinforced, Trotter’s students discover how powerful they really are. Mental toughness is built. “When an athlete hits a home run, they see me and say ‘yeah, that was deadlift,’” he says. “It’s not the fact that I taught them how to deadlift, it’s the fact that they understand the importance of that strength foundation.”
3. Know When to Call Off the Dogs
“You don’t need the puke buckets on day one,” Trotter says. He knows that coming on too harsh not only isn’t constructive, but physiologically speaking, more isn’t always better. “We need to establish principles and expectations and be very consistent in trying to implement those,” he says.
Rather than squeezing out every last rep, Trotter focuses on teaching “physical literacy,” in hopes his students will leave the weight room understanding why they’re doing each exercise. In fact, he’d prefer to shelve some of the typical kickball and flag football games for physical literacy instruction. “It’s not to say we’d get away from all sports,” he says. “But we’d actually teach human movement, physical skill.”
Trotter’s ideal mental toughness and physical education regime would pull wisdom from the exercise culture of ancient civilizations. Ancient Greek historian Xenophon wrote that the Spartan education—the agoge—lasted into adulthood, and it was expected that the skills learned at age seven would build a foundation upon which to build and maintain a warrior’s body until old age.
Of course, Trotter doesn’t have anything as harsh as the agoge in mind, but he admires the Spartan philosophy of fitness for life. “One of my foundational principles is that we’re humans before we’re athletes,” Trotter says. “If they have an understanding and competency that makes them more inclined to be physically active after high school, if they have a perception that embraces adversity, then I’ve done my job.”