A common characteristic of athletes is that they are mentally tough and can endure, if not, embrace, more pain and discomfort than the average bear. However, we can't always be as tough on our brains as we are on our bodies. Destructive habits such as negative self-talk, over-training, under-eating, and just being hard on ourselves, creates emotional stress that can slow us down, if not stop us in our tracks.
If you're an athlete quietly beating yourself up about performance, motivation, results, or injury, professionals trained in the field of sport psychology can help you turn this silent suffering into resilient strength! Try these four tips for the big shift you need.
1. Focus on effort over results: Results DO provide useful information. BUT by focusing on the process–and the effort we put into it–we set the stage to reach our goals. An athlete came to me frustrated that his teammate was working less hard in practice, but having better competition results than him. He was able to regain focus by giving himself specific praise on effort. "I had a great warm-up, my legs felt good, and I still put some work in." He began to enjoy his training again, and regained perspective that translated into better results, AND more mental toughness.
2. Set achievable goals: Don't sabotage your success by setting goals out of reach or that break you down. A healthy goal is one that stretches, and not strains, you. Consider the data from your current and past training, and let that inform your targets. If you find yourself lacking motivation, maybe the goal is not right, or not right for now. One of the athletes that I work with gave herself permission to not do her morning runs, because she was resisting, and feeling bad about herself. It wasn't long before she was missing running, and got back into the groove. She's more self-aware about honoring her needs. She gives herself permission to not do morning runs, but limits it to one a week.
3. Learn don't judge: Whatever happens in your athletic life, learn from it. Judging often comes from comparisons to another person, trying to meet the expectations of others, or an imagined ideal. A rower that I worked with naturally carried more weight, and was struggling with anxiety and low self-image as a result. By shifting her focus to what she was doing well, and who might help her improve, she came up with a new plan moving forward. Using open-ended questions like, "what can I do differently to improve?" and "who can help me?" can snap you out of a dark place and spark curiosity, which sparks solutions. This was an empowering experience for her, and we were both proud of the self-awareness that she gained in the process.
4. Fail Up: Messing up, making mistakes and errors, is part of the game and life. It's important to maintain focus, so dwelling on mistakes in ways that are self-destructive wastes your time. A young soccer player was beating herself up during games if she missed a pass, and then would lose focus, which led to more bench time. She learned to shake her hand, as if shaking it off, to get her head back in the game. Even setbacks become gains when we embrace ALL of the lessons of sport, and not just the wins.