Thrive: 5 Steps to thriving in your sport journey.

In a hurry?

If you’re from Texas, like me, then you may be familiar with an old song by the group Alabama, called “I’m in a hurry.” The lyrics go like this.

“I’m in a hurry to get things done
Oh I rush and rush until life’s no fun
All I really gotta do is live and die
But I’m in a hurry and don’t know why”

The song may be from the 1980’s, but its comment on the fast pace of modern society still resonates. Not only are we feeling short on time, but the stress is contributing to feelings of total overwhelm and burnout. Check out these stats below.

A 2018 online UK stress questionnaire surveyed 520 young people between the ages of 18-24 and found:

  • 60% of young people (aged 18 to 24) have felt so stressed by the pressure to succeed that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
  • 47% of young people have felt so stressed by body image and appearance that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
  • 57% of young people have felt so stressed because of fear of making mistakes they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

High school and collegiate athletes, in particular, carry a double load of pressure from both academics and sports, and sometimes a job as well. Is there a way to slow things down?

Don’t Strive. Thrive.

According to my Dictionary app, to strive means to put great effort toward achieving something. A second definition says to struggle, or fight vigorously. While that sounds valiant, it sounds like it might wear on you if sustained over a long period of time. Yet, as Alabama’s iconic song reminds us, that is often what it feels like when we are caught on the hamster wheel of striving constantly toward achievement.

To thrive, on the other hand, is defined as to flourish, prosper and grow. In coaching terms, it means cultivating a hardiness that allows you to manage the inevitable ups and downs of sport and life. Let’s face it. Being an athlete is an emotional journey. The wins, the losses and the setbacks, all take a physical and an emotional toll and can drain our energy. Thriving in sport requires an athlete to maintain awareness of both the mental and physical energy expenditure, and then to manage this energy in the most efficient way to meet their short and long term needs. 

We can look to yoga to shed some light on energy management. As a yoga teacher, I often advise students to release all striving when holding a yoga posture. By seeking the least effort possible to hold the pose, one learns to sustain it for a long time, letting the benefits of it slowly and thoroughly unfold. This often feels unnatural, as our tendency is to try harder as we begin to fatigue. But this efforting only serves to quicken the fatigue, and we often give up. Instead, new energy is freed up by bringing awareness to areas of tension in the body and letting it go. Muscle energy is conserved, and the inner resistance of the mind softens. 

This experience seems to parallel those reported by athletes in the flow state. In studies of the flow state in sport, athletes report that “being in the zone” involves a feeling of effortlessness and ease as they perform their task or movement.  The mind is quieted and the body seems to perform automatically. While it can seem scary to let go of the need to push toward success, perhaps it is the key to unlocking our greatest potential.

The infinite game.

Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, most recently introduced the concept of playing the infinite game in one of his talks about leadership in business, and the concept fits equally well with athletic pursuits. Based on the original concept of finite and infinite games by religious leader James P. Carse, finite games are played for the purpose of winning, while infinite games are played for the purpose of continuing to play.

A wise friend of mine and master yoga teacher, when asked what the best kind of yoga practice was, replied, “the one which you can do again tomorrow.” While humorous, he makes an important point about our typical mindset. It is tempting to look for the workout or the performance that makes for an impressive social media post or gives a momentary high. But by seeking to do just enough to challenge ourselves without creating strain, we create a sustainable practice marked by growth and longevity that we can do for years to come. The real test, then, is not in how much you can do, but how willing you are to “not do” when you meet your edge.

5 Steps to Thriving in Sport

The following offers some ideas for how to bring a sense of thriving into your sport and serves well for the whole life experience. The steps are non-linear, meaning you are encouraged to create an individualized thriving practice that suits your needs and interests. In fact, incorporating a sense of autonomy to choose what is best for you at this moment is an essential part of sustaining motivation for the long haul. Stay curious. Stay playful. Keep thriving.

  1. Set open goals. When setting goals, we often think in terms of fixed goals, which use specific criteria, like running five miles in a set time or losing ten pounds this month. While setting a target is helpful to give you direction, it can often trigger the inner critic when we fail to meet the target. Try mixing it up by adding some open goals, which are non-specific and exploratory. An example would be to “see how many under par I can hit today” or “sustain practice at only moderate exertion,” or even “to give it my all today.” It is a way to invite curiosity and play instead of strict discipline and judgment.
  2. Breathe. I can never say this enough. Our breath is portable, free and an accessible tool for all, regardless of your starting point. Tuning into the breath allows you to observe the balance of effort and ease in your body at any given moment. Then, following its natural rhythm, without judgment, you can begin to release excess tension and enhance or sustain energy. 
  3. Cultivate joy. Creating a joy practice can provide an unlimited reserve of energy when you need it most. There are many ways to cultivate joy, so be willing to try different things to see what works best for you. Practicing gratitude, walks in nature, being with a beloved pet or friend, and meditation are all examples of joy practices.
  4. Nurture deep connections. Whether you are an athlete involved in a team or individual sport, creating a support system is an essential part of sustaining motivation and fundamental to thriving in life. You can bond with others over shared experiences and by appreciating others’ interests or hobbies.
  5. Show compassion. As an athlete, it may feel like a no-brainer to push through your emotions. But real mental toughness means being able to lean into the discomfort and ask what it is telling you, and then to listen to that message. While sometimes it may tell you to stick with it a little longer, other times it is telling you to pull back. Just like you might apply a bandage to a wound, thriving requires applying self-compassion and kindness to yourself along the way.

I love working with athletes and business professionals to help them sustain the joy of their experience and do what they love longer. If you would like to learn more about how to thrive in your sport or endeavor, reach out to me today to schedule a complimentary initial consultation.