This summer my research collided with one of my favorite TV shows, The Bear, in which talented, sexy, and emotionally tortured chef Carmy returns home to Chicago to run a sandwich shop with his family and (eventually) chosen-family staff. In the much watched and highly rated second season this June, the team closes the shop, working to transform it in record time into a fine dining restaurant, The Bear. Along the way, Carmy starts to date Claire and a tender relationship blossoms. In the final episode, on a night that could make or break the future of the restaurant, Carmy ends up locked in the walk-in fridge. Physically incapacitated, he nosedives into an hysterical tailspin, viciously questioning himself and his professional commitment, agonizing over the time and energy he devoted to Claire instead of focusing exclusively on the restaurant.
I immediately recognized his personal castigation from my current research on popular sports psychology books and from my own life, too. In many competitive and high-performing fields – be it fine dining, professional and Olympic sports, or academia – it’s not unusual, in fact it’s encouraged, to obsessively focus on our professional goals and to achieve them at all costs. But the costs can be great, especially to our relationships with ourselves and one another. What’s more, pop sports psych manuals endorse their advice not just for elite athletes but for anyone and everyone. The “athlete mindset” promises a leg up in competition, but when adopted wholesale and across every facet of our lives, it can also fray our social fabric and mental health.
In his review in The New York Times, James Poniewozik rightfully categorizes the second season of The Bear as a sports story, especially as Coach K’s Leading with Heart makes multiple appearances. As we root for the underdog, the season’s sports-based narrative structure serves viewers numerous delectable tropes in each episode: practice montages of The Bear’s staff tasting dishes and learning new culinary skills, scenes of inspirational teamwork, the tension of racing against the clock, and (we hope) celebrating a well-earned victory, surrounded by cheering crowds. Like the pressure to win Olympic gold or set world records, the creative and bureaucratic hurdles for opening The Bear are many with sky-high financial stakes. The Bear’s athletic tenor boils over in its final episode as it centers a perhaps necessary, but nevertheless insidious, aspect of elite sports: a focus upon winning so intense that it risks annihilating everything else in one’s life.
Popular sports psychology books’ authors and endorsements promise to help readers win by applying a laser-focused athlete’s mindset in order to achieve their best at work and in life. Take for example, how in his introduction to The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance, mindfulness consultant George Mumford writes, “Life is a marathon. … In order to run this marathon, we need to train in the same way any other athlete trains to compete effectively in a sport.” Alpine skier and Olympic gold medalist, Phil Mahre, endorses sport’s psychologist Jim Afremow’s The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, telling readers in his blurb that an athlete’s mindset “holds a wealth of insight as to how you can become a winner in your everyday life.” Financial management executive David Highmark enthusiastically blurbed sport psychology consultant Gary Mack’s Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence, gushing, “Whether it’s the board room or locker room, the formula for success is the same. Mind Gym not only should be required reading for every aspiring athlete but for everyone who wishes to excel in their chosen field.” These books unequivocally recommend an elite athlete’s competitive intensity to all of us, whatever our goals. As a professor, I worry that more than one book explicitly targets students to fuel their academic achievement in high school and college just as one would train to compete at an elite level.
These books undeniably share some useful guidance. Some have even pumped me up as I find myself feeling a bit defeated as I research and write my second book. These authors remind us to believe in ourselves, to think positive thoughts rather than negative ones, to set ambitious but reasonable goals, to dream big, to attend to the present, to improve one small step at a time, to concentrate on what we can control and let go of what we can’t, to use the power of our minds and senses to visualize our performance and eventual success, and so on.
But beneath this advice courses the overall ambition to “go for gold,” to dominate, to be the greatest of all time – and to readily commit all that such achievement demands. The most exaggerated example I’ve run across so far is Tim Grover’s Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable, which defines the greatest athletes as “Cleaners.” Grover writes, “Your whole life is essentially dedicated to one goal, to the exclusion of everything else. Whether you’re focused on business, sports, relationships, anything, you have to be committed to saying, ‘I’m doing this, I’ll give up whatever I have to give up so I can do this, I don’t care what anyone thinks, and if there are consequences that affect the other parts of my life, I’ll deal with them when I have to.’” It’s no coincidence that Grover offers examples of only male athletes, uses only masculine pronouns throughout the book, and casts Cleaners as role models with proudly toxic-masculine traits.
Similarly, in The Bear, Carmy has worked in the world’s most famed kitchens and has been indoctrinated into an all-or-nothing and win-at-all-costs mindset fueled, in part, by the culinary world’s patriarchal norms and gender inequities. As he sits inside the walk-in fridge, Carmy berates himself: “What the fuck was I thinking, like I was going to be in a relationship? I’m a fucking psycho! That’s why I’m good at what I do. That’s how I operate. I am the best because I didn’t have any of this fucking bullshit, right? I could focus and I could concentrate.” He’d been taught and had believed that to be great, he must remain fixated upon his professional success with no room for a romantic relationship.
I recognize these intense demands from my own life. As academics, we must “publish or perish” and are routinely fed destructive advice about prioritizing our work. A tweet went viral recently about an artist who didn’t go to parties, instead staying home to paint, to practice his craft with obsessive dedication. Academics on Twitter were quick to align the story with their own grad student and early faculty experiences. Some in the Twitter thread held up the productive “lone warrior” as an academic exemplar. Others critiqued it, calling for kinder, warmer, and slower academic cultures that cultivate new knowledge and social connections.
Competing in sports at the highest level does require some grave commitments. But the tactics and strategies that help professional and Olympic athletes to achieve nearly impossible feats are typically employed over limited periods of time, given the short nature of most competitive careers, which depend upon our fallible human bodies. For better or worse, the rest of us need to keep on truckin’ for many years longer than the typical sports career. Popular sports psychology’s individualistic, ultra-competitive messages are incompatible with our extended professional trajectories, which necessitate balancing our goals and aspirations with the people in our lives and within our social and cultural worlds. And as professional athletes, like Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, and Simone Biles (among many others), have addressed, elite performance – the kind venerated by popular sports psychology books – isn’t sustainable for athletes either, taking a considerable toll on their mental health, without proper support.
Tim Grover concedes that one can’t relentlessly pursue multiple goals “because achieving excellence in any one of these areas requires you to say, ‘I don’t give a damn about anything else.’” The Cleaner’s hyper-focused mindset is far from healthy for society more broadly, let alone for individuals. And yet, in The Bear, this unhealthy mindset is exactly what Carmy’s fine dining career fostered. He fears that by pursuing romantic love alongside his dream of opening his restaurant, he’s dropped the ball, that he’s taken his eye off the culinary prize, fears encouraged by an athletic mentality. By being fully human, Carmy worries he’s no longer good enough. For reasons both personal and professional, Carmy hasn’t found the balance between work and life, to mix romantic love into ambition.
Carmy’s struggles speak not just to the pressures of the culinary arts at the highest level but to a larger American cultural message about success, which professional sports embody and amplify. If we want to be successful, we’re told, we must adopt a mindset like an elite athlete’s that exercises a singular focus and steadfast commitment to our goals to the exclusion (and detriment) of all else and all others in our lives. To make it, to win, to be the greatest, we have to be willing to give (and give up) key parts of ourselves and our connections to other people.
Despite the extreme nature of such a proposition, it makes sense that sports psychology has gone mainstream as “the science of success.” Everyday people want, and often need, something extra – such as a strong “mental game” – to give them an edge in their careers, given the growing scarcity of secure, fulfilling, and justly-compensated jobs. But pop sports psych principles applied over an entire population can be destructive to society at large, and to our relationships with one another. Athletes themselves are raising awareness about how intensely focusing on performance alone and without proper support can harm mental health. To go for gold and actually thrive afterwards, we need to help one another, to create a culture where communities strive together, rather than obsessing over personal performance alone.
- George Mumford, The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance (Parrallax Press, 2016), 15. ↑
- Jim Afremow, The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive (Rodale Books, 2015), ii. ↑
- Gary Mack and Mark Castavetes, Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence (McGraw Hill, 2001), ii. ↑
- Tim Grover, Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable (Scribner), 226–227. ↑
- Andrew C. Billings and Scott Parrott, Head Game: Mental Health in Sports Media (New York, Peter Lang, 2023); The Weight of Gold, directed by Brett Rapkin (HBO, 2020), 1:00:00. https://www.hbo.com/movies/the-weight-of-gold. ↑
- Grover, Relentless, 25. ↑