5 Steps for cultivating emotional resilience

As an athlete, you put in countless hours to perfect the physical skills required for peak performance. Your body is conditioned, ready for the physical challenge, the fatigue, even the pain. But often no one prepares you for the emotional challenge. Negative thoughts like self-doubt, disappointment and dread are certain to creep in at times and threaten to hijack your performance when it matters most.

Understanding emotions in sports

It is common to hear athletes, coaches and even parents summarily categorizing an emotion as good or bad, often labeling pleasant emotions, like joy and excitement as good and unpleasant ones, like sadness and anger, as bad. Athletes who experience more of the unpleasant emotions, including anxiety, fear or self-doubt, often interpret them as a problem and criticize themselves for having the emotions in the first place. We can begin to shift that interpretation by shifting our language. We can view emotions as pleasant or unpleasant, helpful or unhelpful, and recognize that a combination of both will show up on competition day.

Each athlete is unique, and so is their emotional experience. There is no perfect state that guarantees success. Decades of research have shown us that each athlete has unique mental and emotional needs that facilitate optimal performance. If we characterize one emotional experience as bad, we run the risk of creating distress that can ultimately hurt performance and even the overall sport experience. This two-dimensional view of emotions can lead athletes to quit the sport altogether, especially in youth sports. 

Emotions are simply messengers, giving us information about what is going on between ourselves and the environment, and offering a glimpse into what may benefit us at that moment. Athletes can learn to listen to these messages, both pleasant and unpleasant, rather than reacting to them; and in response, develop greater emotional flexibility and a new and enhanced version of resilience that is founded in self-awareness and self-acceptance.

The role of mindfulness in emotional resilience

As I have learned through my meditation training in iRest Yoga Nidra and Buddhist meditation practices, a simple change in the way we talk about the emotions that arise can change our experience of them. Rather than saying, “I AM nervous”, try saying “I am noticing that I am feeling nervous.” Close your eyes, and try repeating each phrase to yourself while imagining yourself in a competition setting.

What is the difference in the feeling of each statement? Athletes typically report to me that the former statement feels more emotionally charged, because the AM word seems to bond us to the experience, as if we are claiming it as part of who I AM. When we add the word “noticing” between ourselves and the feeling, it creates some much needed space. We can sense ourselves as separate from the emotion, which often reduces the unpleasant affect and allows us to remain present rather than getting caught up in the thoughts.

This approach is a cornerstone of emotional resilience. It is quite different from traditional self-talk approaches of sport psychology, whereby athletes are taught to flip negative thoughts to positive ones or try to banish them altogether. At times this mental performance technique can feel inauthentic, and subsequently the thought flipping may be ineffective at resetting focus. For many athletes, these unpleasant emotions are seen as threatening, and they spend a lot of energy trying to fix or eliminate them. Jumping on the brain train of emotion, their nervous system shifts into the stress response and prepares for fight, flight or freeze. and they lose sight of their performance goals and point of focus. 

Emotions are a lagging indicator of what’s going on in your body. By the time you give it a name, like sad or glad, you are simply putting a label on what is already occurring. Trying to stop or suppress an emotion is like putting your hand out to stop a steam of water. The cascade is already in motion, and, at times of intense emotion, will simply find another way through, over or around attempts to stop it. 

While we can’t control the thoughts, feelings and sensations that occur in response to what’s happening around us, we CAN learn to exist with them in a different and more helpful way. We can acknowledge what is showing up in our mind and body and then reset focus on the present moment. Athletes can learn simple techniques like diaphragmatic breathing, imagery and self-talk strategies that can be used in before and during performance situations. 

Practical steps for cultivating emotional resilience

The approach I am sharing in this essay will feel familiar to anyone with experience in mindfulness practices. Mindfulness is a practice that involves paying attention, on purpose and without judgment, to the present moment.  This approach figures centrally in the work I do with clients in mental skills coaching. These practices are based on ancient traditions and are often honed over years of daily practice. While I strongly encourage people to adopt a daily mindfulness practice, I find that the idea of a lifetime practice can sometimes hinder someone trying to create change right now. 

We do not have to wait a lifetime to create a different experience today. We can start learning to befriend ourselves and our emotions right now. I have put together 5 simple steps you can implement TODAY to shift your mindset and enhance performance. 

5 Steps to cultivating greater mental and emotional resilience. 

  1. Practice the pause. Take a breath, and as you exhale, turn your attention inward and listen. Like bubbles rising to the surface of water, notice the thoughts, feelings and emotions that are arising in you right now, saying to yourself, “I am noticing…..” for each one. Without trying to fix or judge what you are feeling, just notice it like you might observe clouds floating in the sky, where each cloud represents a thought. Like with clouds, let the thoughts come and go without grabbing onto them.
  2. Explore with curiosity. To explore means to investigate, or to discover, and invites us to be open-minded and curious. Try asking yourself questions like “What is this feeling telling me right now? What is the best thing I can do to support myself now?” By coming from a place of curiosity rather than judgment, we maintain the optimal mindset for problem-solving. A curious mind helps us cultivate psychological flexibility, which allows us to respond and adapt more quickly to the changing demands of a situation. 
  3. Ask the inner friend. Unpleasant emotions often trigger the inner critic. When the inner critic is talking, finding positive words to tell yourself can be challenging. By thinking of what a friend might tell you, and then telling yourself that same thing, you can begin to cultivate a habit of self-kindness rather than self-criticism. In fact, you may find that talking to yourself in the third person, as if someone else is saying it to you, can make it feel more authentic and enhance the impact. 
  4. Practice at ground level. Before a pilot takes to the skies, she will practice her skills on the ground. Before a race car driver takes the curves at high speeds, he will start slower. And before an athlete tries calming techniques during a high pressure situation, it is important to have practiced the skills in a low-stakes environment. Try practicing these steps in a calm environment, like before bed, when things are already quieting down. With practice, it will be easier to shift to a calmer state during more active or pressure situations. 
  5. Individualize it. This step is one of the most important elements of this mindful approach. Part of the reason that positive thinking strategies can be unsuccessful for some athletes is because there is not an internal dialogue prior to it that asks what YOU need to hear. Just as each person is unique, so are the words, thoughts and images that are most helpful to create a feeling of calm. Choose words that feel genuine for you.

While mental training is not a substitute for physical preparation, it can be an essential part of helping you perform up to your level of training when it matters most. By incorporating these simple steps into your daily routine, you can ride the waves of emotions with greater confidence and ease.

I love working with athletes to help them thrive under pressure, find balance and cultivate a present-moment mindset. If you would like to work with me to develop these mental resilience strategies, contact me at the link below.


What is emotional resilience and why is it important for athletes?

Emotional resilience refers to the ability to adapt to stressful situations and cope with life’s ups and downs. For athletes, cultivating emotional resilience is crucial as it helps them develop the psychological flexibility required to adapt and respond to the pressures of competition, enhances their mental toughness, and contributes to overall performance and well-being.

How can athletes develop emotional resilience?

Athletes can develop emotional resilience by practicing the 5 steps mentioned above, and learning techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, imagery, and effective self-talk. Regular practice of these techniques helps athletes become more self-aware and better equipped to handle emotional challenges.

What are some key strategies for building emotional resilience in sports?

Key strategies include practicing mindful self-awareness of how you respond to pressure, accepting your unique emotional response as normal, and employing specific self-regulation techniques like breathing and visualization. Self-compassion also is an essential step in rebounding from setbacks. Building emotional resilience involves regular practice of mental skills training alongside physical training.

Can emotional resilience be learned, or is it an innate trait?

Emotional resilience can definitely be learned and developed over time. While some individuals might naturally possess higher levels of resilience, it is a skill that can be cultivated through practice and training, making it accessible to all athletes regardless of their starting point.

What is the role of mindfulness in cultivating emotional resilience?

Mindfulness plays a significant role in cultivating emotional resilience. It involves being present in the moment and observing thoughts and emotions without judgment. This practice helps athletes gain clarity, reduce stress, and respond more effectively to challenging situations, thereby enhancing their emotional resilience.

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