By B. David Zarley
Consider elite athletes. They are, in an incontrovertible and empirical sense, endowed—blessed with gifts that dwarf those of the rest of us, most obviously in the corporeal department: frames like buildings, ballistic arrays of muscle fiber, hand-eye coordination and balance and poise and power that sends fans into slack-jawed wonder and sportswriters deep, deep into the analogy pit in an attempt to dredge up something, anything, that can translate these outlying specimens into something closer to the rest of the species.
Second to these physical strengths, but potentially far more important, is their mental fortitude. The tennis player, the golfer, the free-throw taker or field-goal kicker or fustian batter with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth—all are under the kind of immense pressure from which our most precious natural resources are made, and those who transmute in the heat and weight are paid like the valuable commodity they are.
But there are pilots, surgeons, salesmen—myriad walks of life require performance under pressure. And so the strongest mental gift of the athlete may in fact be discipline—the ability to grind out, day in and day out, the swings, the shots, the reps, the pages, whatever it takes. There is no I don’t have the time, no I’m not up for it today (or at least there’s much less). These are people who will play through grotesque injuries, who will shoot baskets hours and hours after a brutal loss, who will dedicate everything they have to the pursuit of their goals. That selachian mindset, the savage self-control, can kill them.
Or, channeled another way, it can be the key to well-honed, highly-tuned mental health.
Stacey Ervin was one such athlete. A recent graduate of the University of Michican, Ervin was a three-time All-American gymnast in the floor routine and vault; he holds the third highest floor score in NCAA history. He is, without a doubt, elite. Like any of his peers at that level of competition, Ervin was beholden to rigorous fitness, practice, and nutrition routines. Every morning, however, he carved 15 minutes from his busy schedule to practice meditation, actively training his mind to remain present by focusing on his breath. It’s a habit he still continues today. (Ervin makes use of an app to meditate, although he points out that nothing is really required—except, of course, yourself, some time, and discipline.)
Ervin’s approach to mental health is truly proactive, not reactive. He did not wait for a psychological crisis to arise. He simply adapted a technique he learned via Athletes Connected (read the original VS Story), a mental-health initiative and research program for student-athletes at Michigan.
“I wasn’t really going through any particularly stressful period of time,” he said. “But I figured if there’s anything to give me a mental edge in my sport, or life in general, why not take advantage?”