"Stop Being A Pussy": Real Talk On Developing Toughness

“Players are softer now, we’re not producing players who shout at each other anymore,” Republic of Ireland striker Robbie Keane tells FFT. “Players go into their shell if they’re shouted at, but you have to be able to handle criticism.”

“Stop being a pussy”. If that offends you, then you might be one of the people Robbie Keane is talking about. While I am not supporting it as a way to communicate to anyone, it is a common phrase these days (especially amongst boys teams). Personally, I have been told that by a coach and almost daily by some of my best friends. Condescending language regarding the female sex organ aside, “don’t be a pussy” means having thick enough skin to not take things personally, to minimize complaining, and to not back down from any challenges.

The coach who called me a pussy got a great result the first time. I was sitting out with a groin injury and he felt I was ready to come back after a few weeks of rehab. He told me I am being a “pussy” and the anger ignited me to say “fuck it” and join the training session. Low and behold, my pain went away. He was right, the lingering pain I had was in my head at that point and the groin injury had healed. The next time he called me a pussy was when we we had won CYSA-S National Cup and we were competing in the Regional Championships. I had sharp pain in my knee that was getting progressively worse, but manageable until a teammate jumped onto my shoulders after a goal celebration. My coach tried the pussy approach again, and again I tried to play. This time things didn’t work out as well and I ended up needing surgery for my torn meniscus. Calling someone a pussy can be a powerful tool at times, but not if there is actually something wrong.

Perhaps the opposite of softness in the context of a human being is toughness. I’d say hardness, but hardness is often ego driven. Being hard is just a persona. Toughness is more introspective and thoughtful. There is a self-awareness and a need/desire to overcome adversity associated with toughness. Material toughness is defined as the amount of energy per unit volume that a material can absorb before rupturing. It is also defined as a material's resistance to fracture when stressed. Mental toughness is a measure of individual resilience and confidence that may predict success in sport, education and the workplace.

Toughness is the single trait I care about most in life. I think it is rooted in my insecurity about my own level of toughness. Don’t mistake me with Freud or any other trained psychologist, but I think its safe to assume that people’s past experiences shape their reactions to similar experiences in the future. A simple example is a player who decides they don’t like soccer anymore because the parent or a coach was overly critical. The negative experiences create an avoidance behavior. Some of these issues can creep up again later in life when we least expect them. It is like a mild form of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Or in some cases, actual PTSD. For example, one of my biggest fears revolves around choking. In 3rd grade for no good reason a classmate surprised me from behind with a very aggressive rear naked choke lifting me out of my chair. I was nearly out cold before the teacher finally pried him off of me. Another time while waiting for my Mom to pick me up after camp I choked on a Jolly Rancher that slid down my throat. No one was around and I ended up punching myself in the solar plexus to dislodge the candy from my throat. Those incidences likely lead to the start of my intense dental fears. When I am overtaken by feelings of fear and panic, the last thing I feel like is tough.

Roy Keane showing concern for his opponent

Roy Keane showing concern for his opponent

In addition to fear off setting the ability to feel and act tough, I think we also need to discuss the concept of pain. Toughness is not about how much or little one pain feels, but how one deals with pain they do feel. If 10 people stick their hand in a bowl of ice water, each one will feel something similar, but it will register differently for each person based on things like previous exposure to cold, body fat levels, genetics, etc. The perception of cold begins when nerves in the skin send impulses to the brain about skin temperature. It is the people who feel a lot of pain, but still keep their hand in the bowl who would be considered tough. That is pain tolerance. However, pain can also lead to thoughts about all sorts of “what if?” scenarios. “What if I get nerve damage?” “What if I get hypothermia?” “What if I can never move my fingers again?” Physical symptoms such as pain trigger fear responses.

When discussing his skydiving adventure, Will Smith said it helped him realize that “the best things in life are on the other side of fear”. Courage, a big part of toughness, is taking action in the face of fear. While toughness is not the absence of fear, to become tougher we should aim to reduce fear whenever we can by expanding our comfort zone. If you put your hand in the ice bucket (in safe conditions) enough times the pain response will lessen and you will also learn that you are not getting nerve damage, you didn’t get hypothermia, and you can move your fingers. Maybe you’ve hard the quote, “Change begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Or, as Free Solo rock climbing star Alex Honold said, “My comfort zone is like a little bubble around me, and I've pushed it in different directions and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy eventually fall within the realm of the possible.”

Like Alex’s approach, the single best way to adapt to pain and overcome fear I have come across is something called Exposure Therapy, or the gradual expansion of one’s comfort zone. If you are afraid of x, the treatment protocol involves gradual exposure to x. The idea is to start at either less time or smaller doses, or both, and each time increase the dose and/or time exposed to x. If you are afraid of elevators, step one could be saying the word “elevator” ten times. Step two could be looking at a picture of an elevator. Step three could be looking at a real elevator door open and close without going inside. Step 4 could be going inside the elevator with the door open, the door shuts, and then you leave without the elevator changing floors. Step 5 could be riding the elevator one floor, and so on. That is just a dumb example, but you get the point. Face your fear one step at a time. If you are afraid of the pain of the fitness test, gradually increase training until you do more than the fitness test will require of you. In the context of playing soccer, here are some other things that cause pain and act as drivers of fear:

  1. The exhaustion of running, especially in the heat

  2. Sore leg muscles, especially with multiple game tournaments or “double days”

  3. A bruise from a tackle or fall that you can play through without making it worse but it hurts

  4. An injury that you cannot play through

  5. The emotional pain of failure- making a mistake, getting subbed off, losing, getting cut from a team or not making a team

  6. The emotional pain of missing out on a game or games from injury or sickness

Fear is the anticipation that those things will occur. Using exposure therapy, it is possible to gradually expose yourself to the situations listed above. But why even dwell on the negative like an injury or a bad game? Of course we want things to go our way in life, but at some stage they won’t. You will not have a perfect game, a perfect season, or a perfect career. My good friend was an All-American and Pac-10 MVP at UCLA. He got drafted by the Galaxy and then he was cut. Then he played in the 2nd Division, picked up some injuries, and rode the bench. Even for the guy who seemed to always stay healthy, score boatloads of goals, and win, he eventually faced adversity. When things do not go your way, it is important to re-frame them as a challenge. “What is to give light must endure burning.” Life’s hardships are making you stronger, increasing your gratitude, and giving your more perspective on reality. A victim mentality is for the weak, not the warrior. Jocko Wilink does a great job explaining in this video:

Another method that doesn’t require shit to hit the fan is by contemplating or meditating on worst case scenarios and visualizing empowering ways of handling it. It sounds miserable at first to think of things going wrong, but in actuality it is very liberating.

“The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day, when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears, and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day, without fail, one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai.”

The Samurai were not the only ones doing this…stoics embraced these practices as well. Stoicism is an ancient Greek practice of mindfulness to recognize the events in your life that you do and don’t have control over. “Negative visualization” is similar to what the Samurai used in that imagining the worst case can foster a greater appreciation for what one already has. People naturally tend to take for granted what they already have and continually seek new possessions or other sources of happiness. Nervous about that big game? Negative visualization can help because you will be so grateful just to have a healthy body and a pair of legs to be able to play. One of my favorite quotes is from Viktor Frankl, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Recall when Portugal won the European Championship that Ronaldo was injured before the final and had to miss that match. I am not saying he is the prime example of how to behave in life, but it would be hard to argue he doesn’t have at least some qualities of a winner. How did he handle it? By moping on the bench in a selfish tantrum? No, by being a vocal leader and motivator for his team. By making the most of a situation, he displayed toughness.

I will circle back to the quote by Robbie Keane about players these days being soft. Life today is full of comforts that previous generations never had. Most of us have an abundance of highly palatable foods. Cars, trains, and planes that take us wherever we want to go. Hot water, heaters, air conditioners, and Patagonia jackets. Technology to talk to anyone, anywhere, and enough social media to entertain ourselves constantly. But those same foods make us fat and sick and ruin our taste for real food. The easy transportation makes us lazy. The ability to control the external temperature reduces our bodies’ ability to withstand temperature extremes on it’s own. The cell phones cause problems with sleep and distract the shit out of us, making real connection with people harder. I could list more, but the point is these are all examples of immediate gratification that shrink our comfort zones. The expectation of something like comfort breeds entitlement. Within entitlement is a lack of humility. Without humility, we wont undergo the transformation that is required to become tough.

To summarize: Toughness is an important trait for progress in soccer and in life. It takes humility to genuinely assess yourself, appreciate what you do have, optimally respond to challenging situations that arise, and to volunteer yourself to hardship. Through gradual exposure to difficult situations, our comfort zones will expand and our fear will slowly dissipate. Perhaps what makes toughness so important and appealing is that it liberates us to live audaciously. Toughness is freedom.