Mindful Athlete

The Mindful Athlete

As a person who has competed as an athlete my whole life, I am no stranger to “performance anxiety.” Countless hours put in towards a skill, drilling the movement over and over again. One would think I would be totally confident in my abilities, right? Yet, without fail, I would find my thoughts questioning my ability to perform when it mattered.

Do I even know how to field a simple ground ball hit right at me? I would become oddly aware of all of my limbs and their extremities. I would begin to doubt my ability to coordinate them effectively and at the necessary speed to complete the athletic obstacle in front of me. Leading up to games or meets I would ask myself one million “what if” scenarios that I had never considered throughout practice or training. How am I supposed to go out there and perform?

The Power of Mindfulness and Rational Thinking

Insert rational thinking and the mindful athlete. On the outside, it would appear that sports are completely physically driven. To a certain degree, that would be accurate. However, the athlete who can challenge their irrational thoughts and engage in mindfulness is the one who can fully express their athletic abilities.

The mind is a tool in sports that can hinder or help your performance. Performance anxiety is the mind making the objective much larger or mean much more than it does. An example would be a thought like, “If I don’t play well tonight then I’m not a good player.” That thought can’t possibly be rational because being a “good” or “bad” player never hinges on one singular play, game, or even season.

Techniques for Overcoming Negative Thoughts

You might be thinking to yourself that this is all well and good but how do I get rid of these irrational thoughts and negative emotions? It’s not so much about eliminating the thoughts and feelings as much as it is about approaching them differently. The intrusive thoughts and pre-game anxiety are inevitable.

Despite that, through practice and repetition, we can “rewire” ourselves to acknowledge when we have a negative thought, identify it, and replace it with a more realistic thought. Going back to the example in the last paragraph, a more rational thought might look something like “We are facing a tough opponent but I am prepared.” Notice how this thought does not place any contingencies on the result of the performance.

Humans tend to think that their thoughts are reality when they really are guesses as to how things are going to be. Therefore, any speculations about how things are going to end up are merely guesses as to what the outcome will be. So, what help will that bring?

Mindfulness for Healthier Athletic Engagement

After repetition time and again, replacing irrational thoughts with rational thoughts, we now bring ourselves to mindfulness skills. Mindfulness merely means being aware of the moment. To be mindful is to attend to the variables in front of us in the here and now.

There are infinite ways to practice mindfulness and finding the right one for you can be greatly beneficial to your experience as an athlete (and as a person for that matter). A youth baseball coach of mine used to give us rubber bands to wear on our wrists during our games. He would encourage us to “snap” our rubber bands after a bad play. The symbolic meaning of snapping the band was to “bounce back” from the play. It was a call to bring yourself to the moment and the slight sting of the band helped to come back to the present.

Whether or not my coach knew it, he was facilitating a mindful practice. Trying to hit a tiny ball hurled at you from a close distance traveling up to ninety miles per hour is a challenging enough endeavor. Now imagine you are still thinking about the last play and not focused on what’s happening in front of you.

A Journey Beyond Athletics

Nearly my whole youth athletic years I completely identified as an athlete. Sports were my life. Although this resulted in being willing to put in thousands of hours of training, it also resulted in damaging my perception of myself. Due to being an athlete, if I made a mistake on the field it meant more than just me making a mistake on the field. It meant that I wasn’t good at the one thing that I cared about more than anything.

For me, this eroded my confidence and quite honestly led to an identity crisis when I found myself with a broken L5 vertebrae and was sidelined as a result. As I grew older, I was fortunate enough to recover from my injury and dive into new athletic passions. This time, I was no longer an athlete. I was a son, friend, husband, co-worker, and community member. Realizing there was so much more to me than an athlete helped to maintain a healthy approach to athletics that side-stepped potential burnout and physical injury.

Through this positive and realistic outlook on athletics, I maintained a level of sustainable consistency and managed my performance anxiety better than I ever had in my younger years. The greatest accomplishments of my sports career ended up happening in my late 20s rather than my adolescent years.

Acknowledge Your Potential with the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy

At the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy Department of Sports Performance, we offer individual counseling, and sports performance workshops for athletes, coaches, parents, and teams by utilizing the most evidence-based approaches outlined above. Contact us today to find out what programs we can build for you, your team, and those that support your athletes.

Stephen Neer, MS, LPC

Licensed Psychotherapist

Stephen Neer is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of New Jersey. His athletic background includes baseball, basketball, soccer, football, and track. He endured multiple injuries throughout his tenure of athletics culminating in a fractured L5 vertebrae in high school.

Through the rehabilitation process, Stephen found CrossFit during his freshman year of college. This quickly became a passion of his, and he competed at high levels in the sport for 10 years, resulting in a CrossFit Semifinal appearance in 2022.

 In this same year, Stephen was ranked 239th fittest male in the world, and 115th fittest male in North America. Synonymously, Stephen has competed at USA Weightlifting Nationals in the 81kg weight class in 2021 and 2022, and the 73kg weight class in 2023. His personal bests in competition include a 126kg snatch and 156kg clean and jerk. In 2022, he also completed his first marathon in Fort Worth, Texas at a time of 3 hours and 35 minutes. Stephen is passionate about athletics and the connection of mental performance to physical ability. He has overcome his own challenges and injuries along the way and strived to find a balance of athletics, work, and relationships. Among his list of accomplishments, his favorite is marrying Co-Director, Jessica Colucci in 2023.