Imagine this scenario. A coach is working with a high-performing athlete whose performance starts to decline for no discernible reason. The athlete has no pain to speak of, but is complaining of fatigue to the point that she is unable to complete some of the longer training efforts.
The coach tells the athlete that she must be physically weak. Furthermore, as it is the coach’s philosophy that athletes either complete the day’s workout in its entirety or don’t bother coming, the advice is, well, to stop coming to training. The athlete disobeys this advice in the interest of pushing through and because, well, what else is she supposed to do, really?
This goes on for some months. Not only is the athlete continuing to suffer and is in fact feeling worse and more fatigue but is hearing from other people who say that “the word is out” that she is a physical weakling. A physical basket case! Gosh, maybe the coach is right, the athlete thinks. Maybe I really am weak and maybe I should just give up.
I don’t know about you, but at this point in the story, aren’t you, like me, thinking that this would never happen? First, to diagnose someone as “physically weak” would be considered a blunt instrument approach in today’s day and age. We would naturally look to pinpoint a cause - is it about illness, infection, weak muscles, stiff joints, poor technique, or any number of other physical possibilities? The term “weakness” in this context could mean anything and therefore ends up meaning nothing. Wouldn’t we also be consulting our sport science brethren such as the strength and conditioning coach or sending the athlete to their GP rather than leaving it all up to the athlete to figure out?
Second, it provides no avenue for improvement if, by that diagnosis, the coach was really saying, “get stronger!” It would be like a doctor saying to a patient, “you want my advice? Get better!”
If you can believe it, this is based on a true story. Except I subbed in the word "physical" for the word actually used (you guessed it): "mental."
You can’t finish workouts? You must be mentally weak. And sharing, no doubt with a sigh of disappointment, this “diagnosis” with others. What an elegant way to save face! It can’t be that my one-size-all training program is at fault.
I ask you. Why is it okay, even normal, for anyone to make evidence-free diagnoses about someone else’s mental state? In this particular situation, the coach was “kind” enough to refer the athlete on for psychological support but with the caveat that such support should target her diagnosed mental weakness. That would be analogous to me the psychologist sending someone to the doctor with instructions to tell the doctor to cure the cancer I myself diagnosed.
Here is where this story goes from unfortunate to criminal. This coach’s diagnosis of mental weakness meant the athlete did not seek medical advice. For months. Again, we wouldn’t do this if the problem were physical in nature. We wouldn’t think it anywhere close to average practice (forget best practice) to lay a vague physical diagnosis on someone in our care with no substantive follow-up.
Here’s what is unacceptable. Continuing to treat what we perceive as the mental side of things in such a profoundly ignorant and damaging way. In a way we would never think of doing if we saw the problem as physical.
If people come to you for performance advice, you owe it to them to give them accurate and contemporary best-practice answers. And if you don’t know the answer, find someone who knows more than you about the issue in question and ask them. Do not make up answers to protect your ego.
If you go to people for performance advice, make sure that they are trustworthy. Do not assume, just because they have a title, a degree, or power over you, that they are expert. Be especially wary if they tell you that they are the expert. And be most wary if the answers you are getting don’t make sense, make you feel ashamed, or over time are not helpful.
And for you tech geeks out there, I asked ChatGPT this question: Is it ever helpful to tell someone they are mentally weak?
ChatGPT’s answer? No, it is not helpful to tell someone they are mentally weak. Mental health is a sensitive and complex issue and using terms like "mentally weak" can be damaging, stigmatizing, and dismissive of the challenges that a person may be facing.
Furthermore, such language can also discourage people from seeking help and support for their mental health struggles. Instead of using derogatory language, it is more helpful to offer support and empathy, and encourage the person to seek professional help if necessary. It is important to recognize that mental health challenges are common, and seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
So if you are in the business of helping people, don’t do this shit. ChatGPT and I say so.
If you want to work on finessing your approach to those you lead or love who come to you in mental distress, I can help with that. Get in touch here.
P.S. My book has been published!
When Grit is not Enough is about what you can do when your usual "go hard" mantra is no longer working. As the tagline says, this is a book about how to rework your mindset and purpose for easier effort in hard times.
Order your copy here.
P.P.S. In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on achieving the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org