When the Cincinnati Bengals lost Super Bowl LVI on Sunday night, it was, of course, a huge blow for the players. Yet it’s doubtful that when they returned to the safety of the locker room, their coach held a conversation about dealing with their understandable sadness.
If there was ever a time that athletes of all ages needed a new approach from coaches, it’s now.
In no way is this a criticism. It’s an observation: Sadness isn’t something that’s generally on the table when it comes to competitive sports, not even among children. (How often do parents and coaches tell young athletes not to cry during or after a game?) Considering that loss is a given in competitive sports — and that amid the pandemic mental illness is increasing among many athletes — it’s time for coaches to update the playbook and normalize sadness as part of the sporting experience.
Aside from fear, arguably no other emotion is more taboo in competitive sports than showing sadness. The internet is rife with articles, videos and memes that ridicule professional athletes for daring to sob in defeat. (Tears of victory are far more acceptable.)
It’s true that sports teams sometimes create safe spaces for emotional support after losses. But as a study among college football players showed, many competitive athletes feel lower self esteem if they ever betray tears. A 2019 study discovered that support for and acceptance of crying among male athletes is typically reserved for those with greater status who are perceived as models of successful masculinity.
As is the case in so many areas of boys’ and men’s lives, when competitive male athletes embrace traditional masculine norms, they often restrict their emotional expression. One of the biggest obstacles is the negative behavior that athletes lean into when they play from a limited definition of masculinity because they think certain ways of competing and behaving are expected in their respective sport. Some studies have shown that student athletes, especially males, are more likely to embrace these aggressive norms off the field, as well, due to pressure to conform to a “hypermasculine sports culture.”
This mindset goes hand-in-hand with not seeking out social support during times of duress (and not giving it, as well). As I found in researching my book “Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency,” boys are often socialized to compete in their group friendships as well as athletic and other team gatherings (think: making another guy feel bad as a means of elevating one’s status), which discourages deep trust. This exacerbates the loneliness and suicide epidemics facing men of all ages.
Jesse Steinfeldt, psychologist and director of Indiana University’s Sport and Performance Training Practicum, told me his research has shown that the root of the negative masculine behaviors boys are taught ultimately “comes from the coach, who sets the climate for his team.”
Coaches have such a seminal influence on athletes that they can directly affect their mental health. A 2021 Portuguese study among 270 competitive adult athletes of both genders found that “critical attitudes” from coaches were associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression. A 2021 study of junior elite cricket players found that the more shame and guilt these athletes felt, the greater the likelihood they experienced anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, shame and guilt are common motivating techniques used by many coaches. Many parents even allow coaches to bully their children in the name of motivation.
If there was ever a time that athletes of all ages needed a new approach from coaches, it’s now. A 2020 study found that nearly 23 percent of professional athletes experienced depression or depressive symptoms, while 28 percent reported anxiety— compared to 4 percent for depression and nearly 5 percent for anxiety before the pandemic.
Many elite athletes won’t seek help, however, because coaches typically aren’t having conversations around such negative emotions as sadness and fear. As I discovered in my research, many coaches fear that leaning into such emotional transparency will “weaken” their athletes, compromise their focus, intensity and killer instinct. A 2019 study found that this mindset trickles down to athletes who won’t seek help because they fear the “loser” stigma around mental illness; they believe they can “tough out” their struggle; and the levels of literacy around mental health are still woefully low in elite sports circles, among other factors.
The glaring problem with this mindset is that withholding our negative emotions can both cause and exacerbate anxiety and depression. What’s more, it’s well documented that untreated mental illness diminishes athletic performance (not to mention our performance in all parts of our lives).
The good news is that, just as coaches can sway their athletes’ mental health in less productive ways, they can also shape it for the better. The Portuguese studyfound that coaches who are “more sensitive” to athletes’ suffering have a “positive effect not only on the team but also on [an] athlete’s mental health.”
Furthermore, while little if any research has been conducted in sports around the positive relationship between emotional transparency and team building, research in business and leadership is revealing this connection. Sharing adverse experiences can promote group bonding, and researchers at the University of Michigan found that sharing emotions in the workspace increases levels of employee empathy, collaboration and performance. As many coaches know, cutting-edge leadership models often originate in corporate America, where the science of competition rules.
For now, the best model of this approach in the sports world is a work of fiction, the Apple TV+ show “Ted Lasso,” which follows an American football coach who takes over a struggling British soccer club. At the end of the show’s first season, Lasso’s team is bumped down to a lower competitive level after a heartrending loss. Instead of giving a positivity-infused pep talk or telling his team how they can improve, he does something counterintuitive: He acknowledges how deeply sad they all feel. He goes a step further when he tells them, “There’s something worse than being sad … and that is being alone and being sad.” He reminds them, “Ain’t nobody in this room alone.”
In this deceivingly simple observation, Coach Lasso is covering a lot of ground. He is normalizing the conversation around a ubiquitous emotion in competitive sports, which creates a safe space for players to openly acknowledge and accept their sadness. Second, he is giving them permission to feel and process their sadness together, which is revolutionary for many men.
Conversations like this one don’t require a dramatic shift to uncomfortable expressions of sensitivity. They merely require a greater awareness of empathy from coaches. Such conversations aren’t likely to occur in post-Super Bowl locker rooms anytime soon, but this is the kind of coaching we need more of — the kind that’s equally concerned with athletes’ inner victories. These are the wins that matter long after the game has ended.