Toughness: Being tough, fighting and battling for the team are often central parts of sporting cultures. But what does it really entail and why is it considered important?
People often label footballers as ‘soft’ for rolling around on the floor, or screaming after impact in a match. Although it is fairly clear that the footballers are behaving in this way with the aim of manipulating the referring team rather than due to the amount of pain they have. Such behaviour has become socially acceptable in football and it is part of the tactics of the game. However, such behaviour wouldn’t be deemed acceptable in other sports. A cyclist or rugby player wouldn’t behave in the same way, even in the face of more significant injuries, because it is not socially acceptable. The social expectation in some sports is “tough it out”. It is common for fans of sports like rugby to use this as an example of why their chosen sport is a ‘better’ sport. The participants are ‘tougher’. But why has toughness become important and often used as a badge of honour?
It is clear that tolerating suffering is important to performance in many sports. But there are different types of suffering that entail different levels of risk. Sportspeople need to learn how to deal with sensations such as breathlessness, fatigue and lactic acid, as being able to manage such sensations can increase their performance threshold. But suffering significant pain related to injury, continuing in pain when injured or in some cases, such as concussion, taking risks with one’s brain aren’t actions that seem all that sensible or worthy of honour. The issue in sport is often that these two types of suffering are not differentiated when considering toughness. Toughness is championed, for all types of suffering in the same way. But the championing of toughness is based on the ulterior motives of success and of the team being more important than the individual. It is not the toughness in itself that is important, it is achieving the desired result, i.e. winning. Toughness is an intermediary means to an end. In order to win sportspeople, particularly professional sportspeople, may need to be able to push themselves harder than others around them. The logic then follows that pushing oneself becomes admirable. Sporting groups, where winning is deemed important, can often try to create a culture where toughness is championed and rewarded. Toughness is talked up, those who display it are praised, those who don’t are vilified. I’m sure you can also find a plethora of examples in the media. Pick up a newspaper or check online reporting and try to and find an example of this, I’m sure it won’t be too difficult. A key issue with the glorification of toughness is that by creating such a culture certain individuals or sportspeople can prioritise the “team” or winning well above their own personal health. In short, they can lose perspective. In creating a culture coaches and fellow teammates can often be focused on winning, above all else. This can mean the potential negative consequences of toughness are deliberately hidden or ignored. This in turn runs contrary to a sportsperson’s long-term best interests. Now it is up to each individual to make their own choices, but they should be informed choices. Information regarding the potential risks of sports perhaps should be made clearer.
A lack of perspective is not uncommon among sportspeople. It may be that the culture of some sports is deliberately shaped around a lack of perspective. We have noted in other blogs that a degree of lack of perspective is perhaps necessary for sportspeople to achieve success. But this lack of perspective can lead to biased thinking. A recent example from professional rugby can highlight the somewhat paradoxical nature of sportspeople’s thinking at times. Earlier this year leading rugby players were up in arms because the World Rugby Union were proposing a new tournament that the players didn’t believe respected their welfare sufficiently. However, it seems somewhat hypocritical of individuals, such as these rugby players, to complain that others don’t prioritise their welfare sufficiently when they consistently put their personal health at risk by taking part in a sport that entails a well-known high risk of injury. In reality playing any games, regardless of the number, is a risk to their welfare. Their objection to the new tournament may, to some extent, be a reflection of changing times and attitudes. Player welfare is of course important and it is increasing in focus. Campaigns have focused on minimising concussions in impact sports. But when the wider culture holds achievement and success in so high regard, and rewards it with wealth, will perspectives really have the chance to change?