Updated: Jan 26, 2020
Some of my athlete-clients and I have been rolling up our sleeves and delving into emotions lately. Maybe you’re saying, “Ack,” right now, or, “Gross.” But it’s a reality. Until you really manage these beautiful, unique, and instinctive things floating around inside you, it’s hard to perform at your best.
Without getting all neurosciency, a helpful way to think about emotions is that they are the first language of the body. Emotions are deep in our consciousness, and come with physical responses. It’s the heart-flutter and smile when your crush texts you, or the startle from an ambulance siren. Keep this in mind that emotions like contentment, joy, sadness, disgust, fear, and anger, are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong. Simply put, they are wonderfully and deeply human.
But let’s take a not-fun emotion, like anxiety, aka, FEAR. I would say that the majority of athletes contacting me these days present with some type of generalized anxiety, and it’s preventing them from performing well and enjoying their sport. On one end of the scale was the athlete who felt leg heaviness and a knot in her chest when she went out to train. On the other end were the two high school athletes throwing up before competitions. That’s quite a range, but these are motivated people, and through some awareness-building, practice, and integration, they were able to develop the emotional control needed to be their best athlete-selves.
You’re Not Alone
A first step is acceptance, and normalizing the sich. I tell my clients, “Who we are doesn’t go away—we just learn to manage who we are.” Once we accept that emotions are a natural part of all of us, and that we are not alone, we can start to feel okay, which can be very relaxing.
When I asked one young client her mental health goal, she said that it was to NOT be anxious before races. Great goal. And, in her determination to “not be anxious,” she was, you guessed it, more anxious. This is for a few reasons: 1) anxiety always brings cousins, like worry and doubt, which render us powerless and precipitate more anxiety; and, 2) trying NOT to do something often makes it harder not to do something. So don’t do that ;-)
5 Tools for the Toolbox
Here are five tools to manage anxiety and shift your focus that I’ve found helpful with clients. Consider that, in the end, these activities are all acts of awareness and self-kindness that can bring reassurance, and the anxious athlete sure could use a bit of that.
1) Focus Moment
What is it? A short activity that eliminates distractions and empowers focus.
Who's it for? People who have trouble with longer mindfulness activities or have a short amount of time to get ready.
How to do it: With eyes closed, use a series of phrases like the following, and pause a few seconds between each: “I choose to feel my breath. I choose to focus on a sound near me. I choose to focus on a sound farther away. I choose to focus on my back against the chair. I choose to feel my feet on the floor.
Clients say: “I really like a feeling of control, and this gives me that. Being able to control my focus and tune out distractions is the shot of confidence I need going into a match.”
Variations: Practice this progression first in a quiet space, then at workouts, and then in a competition setting to build focus.
2) Dialing it Down
What is it? A cue to manage energy.
Who’s it for? People who respond to visual signals.
How to do it: Imagine there is a small dial in front of you from 1-5 (or 1-10). When you feel your energy getting out of control, dial it down either in your mind or actually using your hand. If your emotional response is a feeling of sluggishness, dial it up. It you need to chill out, take it all the way down.
Clients say: “Emotional control for me was about matching my energy to the situation. When I’m getting ready to compete, I physically use my hand in the air in front of me to dial it down from a 5 to a solid 3. Then my breathing and focus changes with it.”
Variations: Share this strategy with a teammate and give them permission to give you the dial-it-down cue when you need it, or try these other visualization strategies.
3) Mindful Alerts
What is it: Smart phone reminders to take a mindful moment.
Who's it for: People who interact with their phone a lot. (Like, everybody).
How to do it: Set a daily alarm on your phone with its own name and gentle ringtone to remind you to do something like, “take 3 deep breaths,” or, “relax your shoulders.”
Clients say: “The first time my alert went off, I took a deep breath, and my shoulders went down. That showed me how much energy I was burning up on any given day just being tense. Now it’s like I have a ringtone in my head that reminds me to shake it out.”
Variations: Instead of using your alarm, set up calendar alerts at different times throughout the week that pop up on your phone or device. That way, a sound is not interrupting whatever is going on around you, like a class or a meeting.
4) Body Scan
What is it: A mindfulness practice that brings your focus on the breath and the body.
Who's it for: Everybody.
How to do it: Sit in a comfortable position with your back against a chair, hands and feet uncrossed, and your eyes closed. Gradually breathe slowly and deeply into your belly, and notice thoughts come and go. Bring your awareness to your right foot, notice any tension there and say, “relax and let it go.” Do this for your ankle, calf, knee, and tupper leg. Then go to your left foot and work your way up. Check in with hips, back, abs, shoulders, jaw, or wherever else in your body your attention brings you. Stay open and curious as you notice and soften. Treat yourself to about 30-40 minutes of this at one sitting.
Clients say: “It was like there was nothing in my head after. Everything was quiet. It was such a relief.”
What is it? Cutting out and glueing pictures on a page.
Who's it for? Artful types.
How to do it: In magazines find a variety of images and/or words that represent both the weight of anxiety, and when you are at your best. Use words, images, objects like a bib number, and markers to tap into your creative side while enjoying the process of processing your anxiety.
Clients say: “The process of making the collage helped me step back and get some needed distance from what I was experiencing. Anxiety was less scary and more just this thing that I needed to manage. I feel like I now have choices of what to do about it.”
Variations: If collaging is not your thing, try journaling either in an actual book or sending yourself text messages. Just remember, create, read, reflect. Editing is for suckers.