The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

The Guts Enough Not to Fight Back

Valuable lessons from Jackie Robinson (No. 42) on mindfulness training.

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. "42": The True Story of an American Legend is the first sports biopic about Jackie Robinson’s life since the 1950s. The film highlights the relationship between Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) who signed Robinson to the Dodgers in 1945.

Before signing Jackie Robinson, Rickey made it very clear that: “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Rickey was looking for an individual who was both a great athlete and a ‘gentleman' — a person with the inner-strength and self-restraint who could withstand intense hostility and aggression without being reactive. He needed an athlete who wouldn't perceive 'not fighting back' as a sign of weakness or lack of courage. 

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Rickey convinced Robinson that to break the color barrier in baseball he would have to maintain an evenness of mind and keep a cool head. Robinson would have to bite his lip and ignore every racist remark and ‘turn the other cheek’ instead of fighting back. Rickey needed "A man of principle. A moral man." Saying, "I had to get a man who could carry the burden on the field. I needed a man to carry the badge of martyrdom." He found that person in Jackie Robinson.

Robinson was an aggressive athlete and fierce competitor. He liked to win and was not a natural born pacifist. “Martyrdom” did not spring naturally from his DNA. But through sheer force of will and the equivalent of ‘mindfulness training’, Robinson mastered the art of equanimity and was able to uphold his promise to Rickey.

During his first season, Robinson experienced tremendous abuse and isolation. Although he was named Rookie of the Year, commentators called Robinson the "loneliest man in baseball.”  He was harassed by spectators in the stands; cursed by both teammates and opposing players on the field and from the dugout. . .managers instructed their pitchers to throw beam balls at his head and runners would try to gouge him with their spikes.

Jackie Robinson kept his word to Rickey for the first two years with the Dodgers. But in 1949 Robinson started taking a vocal stand against racism. Over the years, Jackie Robinson became a passionate and outspoken advocate for the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968).

Robinson's entry into baseball transcended sports. By mastering both athletics and mindfulness Robinson became a role model who broke racial barriers and stereotypes. His nonviolent resistance to racial antagonism was a harbinger of how civil disobedience would be used by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks once said that she was inspired by Jackie Robinson, who also refused to move to the back of a segregated bus when he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army many years prior to her 1955 arrest.  

Equanimity = Evenness of Mind

What is the best way to maintain an evenness of mind when subjected to trash-talk or bullying on and off the court? Many religions and ancient philosophies have honed in on the “Four Immeasurables” which are: Loving-Kindness, Compassion, Empathetic Joy for Others, and Equanimity.  

Of the wisdom held in the Four Immeasurables, the idea of equanimity comes to the forefront when thinking about Jackie Robinson. At its core, equanimity is about having the ‘guts enough not to fight back.’ But, it is not about being passive. Part of being a true champion like Robinson is rooted in the idea of "ferocious equanimity."  Learning to maintain an evenness of mind and to have grace under pressure ultimately makes you a more viable competitor in sports and life.

In order to make equanimity a reality in your daily life, it’s helpful to have a clear defintion of what the word means so that you can make it a target mindset when doing mindfulness training. Lots of people I speak with about the concept of equanimity think it has a different meaning than it actually does. Below are two defintions of equanimity:

Equanimity means mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper; especially in a difficult situation. Synonyms of equanimity are: imperturbability, assurance, poise, placidity, levelheadedness, and self-possession.

The Dalai Lama speaks about the need for rigorous mindfulness training to maintain a state of loving-kindness and equanimity. Gil Fronsdal is a Buddhist who has practiced Soto Zen and Vipassana since 1975. Fronsdal describes equanimity from a Buddhist perspective by saying:

“Neither a thought nor an emotion, it is rather the steady conscious realization of reality's transience. It is the ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love. While some may think of equanimity as dry neutrality or cool aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being. Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as "abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will."

Equanimity is non-secular. Just like training your body to be an athlete takes practice, training your mind to stay calm in the face of adversity and achieve a state of equanimity requires mental discipline and regular practice. But, equanimity is universally accessible. For 3 simple steps to kickstart a state of mindfulness in your daily life please check out my Psychology Today blog: Mindfulness Made Simple.

Conclusion: More Progess Needs to Be Made 

Unfortunately, the same month that we prepare to celebrate the 66th anniversary of Robinson’s historic breakthrough, stories of coaches and athletes using homophobic and racial epithets on the basketball court are making front page news.

Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice made headlines earlier this month when a disturbing YouTube video surfaced showing him abusing his players physically and using homophobic trash-talk to bully athletes. Rice was fired, but questions remain on why Rutgers adminstrators waited until the video had gone viral to give Coach Rice his pink slip.

In another story, Jeremy “Linsanity” Lin spoke out last weekend on 60 Minutes about the racial barriers and stereotyping that he’s experienced as an Asian-American basketball player for the Knicks and the Rockets. In the interview, Lin shares his technique for coping with trash-talk based on his ethnicity. Lin has learned to let it roll off his back by realizing that anyone using a racial slur is both ignorant and cowardly. Lin explains to Charlie Rose:

Jeremy Lin: I mean there are times when people say stuff and I just laugh, you know? All I do is laugh and move on and just not say anything—and just forget about it. It made me a stronger person.

Charlie Rose: It didn't get you down?

Jeremy Lin: It did. But now—now, it doesn't really bother me anymore.

Jeremy Lin’s strategy for coping with racial slurs is equanimity in action. His mindfulness mirrors the tactics used by Jackie Robinson. Having the “guts enough not to fight back” in the moment—but speaking up when the time is right—advances positive forces, corrects injustices, and makes you stronger in the end. 

Jackie Robinson died too young. He was only 53 when he passed away in 1972. It is great to see his legacy live on in the new film "42" which will help inspire a new generation of people to replace hatred and bigotry with “ferocious equanimity" in sport and in life.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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