Sam Parsons: Strengthening the Mind
By: Carlos Fernandes II
The sound of your breath quickening, the rhythm of your cadence increasing, and the beads of sweat trickling down your face are visual representations that show we are working hard. If you struggle to complete a workout or run poorly at a race, most people chalk it up to something physical. However, this isn’t always the case. The muscle that no one sees and the one that is often the most undertrained, can sometimes hold us back the most. The brain can be your greatest strength or your worst weakness.
As an athlete, when something is weighing heavy on your mind, you just tell yourself to tough it out. You hold in whatever is bothering you and just push it to the back of your mind, thinking it will go away. However, the truth is, if you don’t deal with what’s on your mind and keep pushing it away, eventually you’ll break down.
A graduate from NC State in 2017, Sam Parsons now represents Germany, Adidas, and Tinman Elite as a professional runner. In 2019, he became the German National Champion and a World Championship Qualifier in the 5k. He also likes to have fun in the sport as seen in his back to back 5th Avenue Mile performances in 2018 & 2019. Recently, Parsons came out and shared his struggle with mental health in the New York Times. We sat down to discuss his relationship with mental health.
“Whenever I would think about mental health I’d always be like ‘you’re soft’ or just harden up and get tough,” Parsons says. For him, the culture of running has athletes thinking that they need to toughen up when they’re hurt and run through injuries so they don’t lose fitness. The focus is getting through challenging times as quickly as possible without really addressing the root problem Being tough means not acknowledging the pain and instead developing a callous. This is a flawed perspective because when you fail to address what causes you pain, all the accumulated pain will eventually burst from wherever you pushed them aside.
Parsons learned this the hard way at the 2021 Drake Relays. Prior to the race, Tinman Elite parted ways with their long-standing coach, Tom ‘Tinman’ Schwartz. The abruptness of the decision and the negative terms it ended on resulted in a large amount of backlash from fans. The stress of this on top of the normal stress of racing was mounting inside of Parsons, yet he just pushed it back and focused on the race.
“I was cooling down with Goose, and we got to like 10 minutes and all of a sudden my heart started racing as if there was a lap to go [in a race]. Then slowly my vision became tunneled and then I felt my legs starting to give. I just thought I was really dehydrated, but before I knew it, I was in a fetal position on the ground.”
All the stress and pain in his life that he’d tried to hold down had finally bubbled over causing him to have a panic attack. Thankfully, one of his teammates, Jordan ‘Goose’ Gusman, was there to hold him and help him calm down, yet it caused him to question everything in his life.
“I hope I never get back to that point in my life where I don’t address stuff because this sort of thing makes you question everything you’re doing really quickly. There was a good portion of time after the race where I was like, ‘none of this is worth it.’ This season isn’t worth it. Running isn’t worth it. You chasing a dream, like becoming an Olympian for me, becomes so so irrelevant after something like that happens.”
Having this panic attack resulted in a huge turning point for Parsons. He put running aside and he instead began to focus on how he could make sure he never experiences something like this again. Now when he sees someone who isn’t dealing with their mental stress in a healthy manner, he’s critical because he knows what the damage from mishandling it can be like.
The Power of Sports Psychology
Parsons now meets with a Sports Psychologist regularly, who not only helps him through difficult thoughts, but also with priming his mind for key workouts and races. Part of the reason why it’s taken him so long to commit to seeing a Sports Psychologist is that in college he had a “cut and dry” experience with one, which made him think that this field was nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
“I think that’s an experience a lot of people have with Sports Psychs originally, but you really just have to find the right person for you,” he says. The Sports Psychologist he now meets with is a past friend who he met through Adidas. She recently got her certification and since he already had a friendship and trust with her, he was able to seek her for help. While others may not know someone in this field, it’s important to be patient and look for someone you can trust and allow to help you deal with your mind.
“If you’re willing to pay for a massage every week or buy a $200+ shoe and not pay for one [Sports Psychologist] appointment, even if it’s just once a month, and then you question why you weren’t tough enough at the end of a race or why you get dropped. It’s probably not because you didn’t do enough mile repeats. It’s probably because you weren’t able to go into a deeper hurt or discomfort place. That’s stuff you can develop through mental training.”
In running, everyone thinks about the physical side of running and they look for what they can do to run faster. They contemplate different types of workouts, drills, and gym exercises, yet they don’t think about how they can better strengthen their mind. The mind is a muscle too, yet for many athletes, it’s the weakest muscle in their body.
Stress that Turned to Shingles
Parsons’ recalls writing his college essay about the most stressful time in his life, when he got the shingles virus junior year of high school. That year his academics started to ramp up and the pressure was on athletically. Junior year is when you begin to talk to college coaches and solidify where you’re going to go to college. It’s a very stressful time and as a result, he developed shingles from it.
The pain was intense as the virus attacks your nervous system and causes you to develop a highly irritating rash. Parsons recalls that the only time he was able to alleviate the pain was when he’d go for a run, but before and afterwards he was in excessive pain.
“If your mental game is so off and you’re so stressed out and you’re not able to find escapes just to have fun or to let loose and really forget about things in a positive way, you should probably find a way to escape.”
It’s important to be focused when you’re chasing your dream, but if you never rest or make time to unwind, then the different stressors in your life will pile up. The mentality promoted most often is the “grind” mentality. The common thought goes that in order to be successful, you just have to grind non-stop and out work everyone. While you have to work hard to be successful, you have to recover just as hard if not harder. If you don’t take time to rest, then your body won’t be physically ready to maximize the next hard training session. The same thing goes for the mind.
The doctors told Parsons that he needed to find a way to reduce his cortisol levels, the stress hormone, by finding ways to relax and destress. During the summer leading into his senior year of high school, he decided to take this advice to heart and eased back his training and mindset going into each session. He changed his mindset from “I have to do this” to “I get to do this.” Now as a professional he has to remind himself of this mindset. As a professional, it’s easy to get caught up in that negative thinking because of contracts, earning enough prize money to provide for yourself, and short-term goals that you develop. However, if you can change your mindset to “I get to do this,” you appreciate running a lot more and you end up running better.
Parsons is a meditation and mindfulness enthusiast. I’ll never forget seeing a $300 Singing Bowl pop up on one of the Tinman Elite product drops and wondering three things: What is this thing? Does it really work? Is anyone actually going to buy one? He revealed that they never actually sold one and that the purpose wasn’t to sell any. The reason he put the Singing Bowl on the Tinman Elite product page was in order to get people talking about it and asking questions. Just placing it on the product page allowed people who clicked on it out of curiosity to learn more about mindfulness. Parsons believes that the sound the singing bowl makes can, “give you 10 seconds worth of a smile or happiness and that’s worth more than any T-shirt could ever give you.”
Tinman Elite’s goal is to inspire and have a positive impact on runners. When you come across something you believe is beneficial to your health, you want to share it with those around you. Mindfulness is something Parsons truly believes in and for him, “The people who are most attracted to mindfulness are the people who need it in their lives the most.”
He doesn’t claim to have mindfulness fully mastered, in fact, he struggles with it daily. Since being recently injured and then coming back from it, he’s struggled with his thoughts and finding time to meditate and be mindful. It’s hard to set positive habits, but good things aren’t always easy to master. He believes in the saying that, “if you don’t have 10 minutes to meditate, then you should probably take an hour.” If you feel like you don’t have enough time to do a positive and beneficial thing, then you probably need it more than you think you do. You have time for everything, but you have to make sure you’re prioritizing the things most important and beneficial to you.
Getting into Mindfulness
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh is a book Parsons recommends for anyone interested in learning about mindfulness and meditation. In the book it talks about how when visitors come to a Buddhist temple for the first time, they are made to sweep and do dishes. These two tasks are simple and everyone sees each as a means to an end. You sweep to clean the floor. You do the dishes to clean them. However, the purpose of doing these two tasks at a Buddhist temple is to become one with the motion of the task without seeing either as having an end. It’s all about being in the moment and being mindful of what you’re doing and everything around you.
Mindfulness can be applied to running and Parsons sees it as an untapped potential for runners to improve their performance. He gives the example of being in a race where you’re at a point where it’s starting to get difficult and you’re struggling, but instead of focusing on the cries of your body, you focus on what’s around you. You hear the crickets chirping. You hear the rustling of grass after each stride.
“You just take a moment. Maybe it’s the moment where you don’t get dropped. Maybe that’s the moment where you can smile and say, “yeah I’m fine and reconnect.” It’s the moment when you stop thinking about having 3-minute left of racing and your hamstring is tightening up. If you’re mindful of everything that’s going on around you, then you might not get so overwhelmed by the one thing that’s probably holding you back from your goal.”
Parsons emphasizes that Flow State and Mindfulness are two different practices. Flow State in his view, “is a sense of not knowing what’s happening, you’re just moving. You’re going and you don’t even think.” When your fitness is heightened and you have a willingness to hurt, you’re able to achieve a Flow State more easily. Mindfulness occurs when you’re in the middle of a workout and you feel horrible. You get through it when you’re able to put into perspective what you’re doing and say, “hey this is just a workout. I’m at a track, I heard my friend cheer for me. I’m putting one foot in front of the other and I’m going to slow my cadence down. Hey that pain in my hamstring is here now, but it’s going to leave me in 200m. If it’s still there, I’ll re-address it then.” Simply put, Flow State is when you find yourself running effortlessly without knowing how you got there. Mindfulness is an intentional decision or decisions made based off how you’re feeling in order to improve your effort and silence the pain.
Believing in Yourself
“Anyone who’s trying to be a professional or a DI athlete or a great high school kid that has big dreams that aren’t willing to live their best and worst race and their worst possible moment and best possible moment in that race before it happens, aren’t as serious as they say they are, no matter how much they post about it on Instagram.”
A great example of this thought in action can be seen in the sport of basketball with Kobe Bryant. Imagine with fifteen seconds to go, Kobe gets the ball and fires a shot and it bounces off the rim. If he doesn’t collect himself and be mindful before he gets the next shot, then he most likely will miss the next shot. In running, if you have a bad race or workout and dwell on it, then it will have a negative impact on future workouts and races. However, if you take it in, analyze it and then move forward from it, you’ll be able to improve and be ready for the next workout or race. That’s mindfulness.
Running becomes more fun and healthier when you stop worrying about times or having a certain performance on a given day. Instead, be thankful for each opportunity you get to race or work out and get better. It goes back to what Parsons said earlier of switching your mentality from “I have to do this” to “I get to do this.”
“Anyone trying to be successful at any level in this sport whether it’s a kid who’s running 20 minutes in a 5k or one that’s fighting to be top 7 on JV. That kid needs to have unwarranted confidence in himself or he is never going to break 20.”
This idea arose from the moment in Parsons’ running career where he finally started to believe in himself: the 2016 Nuttycomb Invitational. With less than a mile to go, Parsons made a move away from the lead pack toward the finish. If you looked at his stats and the stats of everyone else in the race, this move seems like absolute foolishness. Likewise, his decision to run with the lead pack for so long would’ve looked like a poor move. He ultimately gets kicked down by Justyn Knight of Syracuse and then swallowed up by some of the runners in the lead pack, yet he gained a tremendous amount of confidence from this race. Sticking with the lead pack for so long and then making the crazy move at the end made him feel like he was on their level and that he belonged at the front. In order to have a breakthrough performance you have to put yourself out there without giving yourself an out. You have to commit, knowing that if it clicks, you’ll have an amazing race and if it doesn’t, you’ll not run as well. You have to be willing to fail and not be afraid of that failure in order to succeed.
When you’re in high school you have your followers on social media consisting of you family, friends, and people you go to school with. In college, your followers and circle grow further. Then during your first year of professional running, you’ll meet different athletes at races and your followers will grow more. Then if you start to become famous, you’ll eventually get even more followers and you’ll start to not know most of the people liking or commenting on your posts. When this happens, you lose your connection with your followers. You don’t know who’s following you and the people who follow you don’t truly know you.
This disconnect with followers and the followed on social media allows for people to say whatever they want, without any negative repercussions. Social media allows people to say things that they’d never say to someone in person. As a result, struggles with mental health can be closely tied with social media and the internet in general.
Parsons and I discussed the recent video Sydney McLaughlin posted on her Instagram. In this video, she shares how even though she broke a world record and won a gold medal at the Olympics, people were still disappointed in her and said hurtful things to her. She shared that she felt hopeless and that no matter what she did, she’d still have people speaking poorly of her. She shared that she’s sacrificed a lot of things and has been careful with what she posts and how she presents herself on social media, yet people still have hurtful things to say. She ends the video by crediting God for helping her get through this mentally challenging time and discourages people from chasing after fame because with it comes a lot of negativity and hurt.
The negativity and hateful remarks on social media hurt people and a lot of people aren’t mentally equipped to deal with these remarks. When Parsons decided to announce that he would be representing Germany in all future races, he got voicemails and DMs from people calling him a traitor, leaving death threats, and other hurtful remarks. The words you say can really tear people down and the disconnect from reality that social media allows makes it far too easy for people to tear others down.
Parsons isn’t advocating for the abolishment of social media, instead he’s urging people to learn how to brush these hurtful comments off. You can’t please everyone and understanding this is the first step to not letting these comments affect you. It’s important to then acknowledge these comments and let them go. Learning how to let it go and even laugh at these negative comments helps tremendously in staying mentally healthy. Granted, it’s harder for some people to let these comments go and that’s why it’s also important to consider seeking help from a therapist or psychologist in order to get to a place where you can deal with these comments off in a healthy manner.
The power is in your hands if you’re able to respond positively when criticism is hurled your way. If you allow the criticism to tear you down, you’re giving power over your life to the person criticizing you from behind a screen.
Mental Health is something everyone struggles with, some more than others. Parsons’ wisdom is five fold. First, address your issues and stress as they come up instead of bottling them up until they explode and then addressing them. Second, consider practicing mindfulness in order to maximize your presence in the moment and improve your running. Third, have unwarranted confidence in yourself, bet on yourself, and don’t be afraid to fail. Fourth, understand that you can’t please everyone and learn to brush off the hateful criticism you receive. Lastly, consider seeing a Sports Psychologist in order to heal and strengthen your mind.