About a week ago, I stumbled upon this video in my twitter feed. The video, uploaded by Mike Keating of Captain Elite, features a former Harvard Women's Lacrosse player sharing the frustrations and difficulties of her transition to playing at the Division I level. The video made me think about my experiences working as a sport psychologist for athletes and teams. I have learned that there are specific factors that put athletes at risk for losing the passion and commitment they have for their sports. Overall, there are four risk factors that I commonly see. But more importantly, there are key responses for athletes in regards to mental skills that you can use to address these risks.
Number 1: You're New.
Transitions into new competitive settings can be challenging for athletes, particularly when the adjustment involves entering into an elite level, whether it's a travel team, sport academy, or entering an intercollegiate athletics program (Gayles & Baker, 2015). The primary issue from a performance perspective is generally related to getting adjusted to the increased intensity of the sport demands (Bruner, Munroe-Chandler, & Spink, 2005). This can include increases in time commitments for training and practice, adjustments to a higher level of skill of both teammates and competitiors, and greater complexity in the strategic aspects of the sport. As a result, your confidence as an athlete can be shaken and the multiple challenges can result in overwhelming feelings of frustration, tension, and discouragement.
Your Response: Focus on Your Excitement. There's a favorite quote of mine by Dr. Rob Gilbert that focuses on the "Butterfly" feeling we get prior to an important event:
"It's all right to have butterflies in your stomach. Just get them to fly in formation"
The important message here is that while we cannot control the energy that creates that "Butterfly" feeling, we can control what we choose to focus on. By focusing on the exciting aspects of the new level you have attained or the new program you have entered, you can change to a more positive outlook focused on the positive energy of enthusiasm. What are you looking forward to about this new adventure? What are the fun or exciting parts of this new challenge? And most importantly, what made you fall in love with this sport in the first place?
Number 2: You Turn Your Focus Outward.
When you are faced with new challenges, a new team, or the pressure of competition, what you choose to focus on is important. And an athlete's focus can naturally drift away from what has been successful for them in the past. They become focused on impressing the coaches. Or comparing themselves to their teammates. Or meeting the high expectations family or friends have for their performance. Unfortunately, all of these outward points of focus just serve to take away energy from what's important and lead to feelings of frustration and anxiety.
Your Response: Control the Controllables. As an athlete, your job when you find yourself overly focused on the external events that influence your sport experience is to make one key distinction: separate what you can and cannot control. In order to "control the controllables" you need to focus on E.A.R.: Effort, Attitude, and Response. When it comes down to basics, you can only control your effort (how hard you work), your attitude (positive, hopeful, and focused on the present), and your response (how you respond in terms of your actions, your thoughts, and how you manage your emotions).
Number 3: You Obsess Over the Pressure.
When you are going through adversity, it's easy to get "stuck" and overwhelmed by the pressure you face as an athlete. Under the stress of training and competition, your mind can get overly focused on the negative. Athletes often describe being "in their head" or overthinking even the most basic of skills. As your stress level increases, the negativity can become paralyzing
Your Response: Be "Body First". While it may sound counterintuitive, my mantra for helping athletes through pressure is to be "Body First". When you are stressed, the stress centers of our brain begin to overwhelm our logical thought, impacting executive functions like decision-making, judgment, and planning. Managing the physiological effects of stress then becomes the key to feeling more calm and thinking clearly. Utilizing strategies like diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation can help you relieve your stress and clear your mind.
Number 4: You've Lost Your Balance.
Research in sport psychology (Brewer, Van Raalte, & Linder, 1993) has shown that the degree to which an individual identifies with their role as an athlete can effect their self-esteem, emotions, and motivation. So an athlete who identifies as an athlete to the exclusion of their other roles in life (student, friend, sibling, etc.) can face increased stress when they are struggling in their sport. And when things are going poorly in your sport, it can be easy for you to forget that your athletic performance does not define who you are as a person. You are more than just your athletic performance on a given day.
Your Response: Regain Your Balance. The response here is simple: explore the other aspects of your identity. Spend time with friends from outside your sport. Get to know teammates away from the locker room. Explore other interests, from music to academics to volunteering. Take an hour to get outside and go for a walk. Get out in nature. The key here is to re-establish yourself as a person in a holistic manner where your athletic identity is part of the larger whole of who you are.
Overall, your job when faced with the forces that may test your passion and love for your sport is to get back to the following keys:
Focus on Your Excitement.
Control the Controllables.
Be "Body First".
Regain Your Balance.
Dr. Craig Cypher is a Clinical and Sport Psychologist based in Rochester, NY. Contact him now to discuss how you can add mental skills training to your performance routine.
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