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  • I think that it is fair to say that due to the Covid 19 pandemic it has been a rough couple of years for everybody. This pandemic showed no favoritism to whom it impacted, and student athletes were no exception.  In my profession, I have the privilege of working with many student athletes of all ages and in many different sports. However different those athletes are in sport or age there seemed to be one common trait that was exacerbated during Covid, anxiety. The pandemic led to frustrations, fears, the loss of training, seasons being canceled, and in some cases moving up or on to the next level in their sport.

    Now that sport is back in full stride a lot of athletes are feeling the pressure to perform even better to make up for lost time.  They are struggling with many of the same issues that were present before the pandemic such as what can I do to get stronger or faster…How can I stay calm during the big game…I was playing well until the college scout showed up… How will I ever move up to the next level.  However, due to the Covid Pandemic these pressures are being amplified in part to a loss of time, training, or athletic eligibility.

    Mental Skills Training and Student-Athletes

    Mental skills training can help student athletes deal with pressure and learn to control their thoughts and fears. This article highlights a few skills that can help student athletes with their performance as well as regulating their thoughts and emotions.  The ability to stay in the moment or be mindful is an essential mental skill that can enhance your sports performance as well as energize or calm you. Some key factors of mindfulness are:

    Being present and aware of yourself.

    Being aware of your thoughts and feelings.

    Taking actions based on an accurate assessment of how you are feeling such as: 

    • Excitement anxiousness
    • Energized vs. fatigued
    • Confident vs. scared

    Becoming More Mindful

    The good news is you can develop the skills needed to become more mindful or stay in the moment through regular and ongoing practice, for example:

    • When you are working out, focus on how your muscles engage
    • Go for a walk and take notice of all your surroundings in detail
    • When someone is speaking to you pay close attention (really listen)
    • Be aware of how you are breathing

    Although these examples of practicing mindfulness might seem simple, you might be surprised how difficult it can be to stay present.  Give them a try or come up with some of your own to practice your mindfulness skills.

    4-4-4 Breathing

    Did you know that breathing is the only function in our bodies that we can consciously control?  During stressful situations or sport competitions, physical responses may occur like your heart beating rapidly or slowing down. These physiological responses may result in shallow breaths or what is called chest breathing, which restricts the flow of blood to various parts of your body including your lungs and muscles. As a result, individuals may feel tired, have difficulty concentrating as well as feeling nervous or anxious. If this happens… try a technique, I like to call the 4-4-4 breathing.

    Imagine you’re getting ready for a tryout, a big game or a test and that you are feeling overly stressed or anxious about.  You are having fears and riddled with self-doubt asking questions such as: what if I make a mistake?  What if I get cut from the team?  What if I fail the test? Why can’t I calm down?  What will my coach or parents think?  This is a great time to utilize the 4-4-4 breathing technique to combat all those questions you are having, and it looks like this:

    1. Take a deep breathe inhaling through your nose… Count to 4 (in your head)
    2. Hold your breath… Count to 4 (in your head)
    3. Exhale through your mouth…hear yourself exhaling… Count to 4 (in your head)

    While doing the 4-4-4 breathing technique make sure your focus is on the breath and the count. The increased oxygen helps to calm your brain and provides increased blood flow to your heart and lungs, which makes you feel more energized, stronger, and less anxious. Your newly found energy and strength will give you more confidence to be successful.

    The 4-4-4 breathing technique can be practiced every day and it only takes a minute or two.  After you have completed your last 4 count on the out breath, have some fun and say a word aloud that makes you laugh or smile. I like “Woosahhhhhh” because it reminds me of a funny scene from a movie. The more you practice and utilize the 4-4-4 breathing technique the more you will find that you are in more control of your mental focus and emotions making you a more confident successful individual.

    Create a Solid Foundation

    It may be helpful to think of focus like a flashlight…Your focus goes to where you shine the light.

    Mindfulness and breathing help to create a foundation that may increase your ability to focus on internal cues (thoughts/ emotions) and external cues (your environment).  It may be helpful to think of focus like a flashlight…Your focus goes to where you shine the light.  For example, did a teacher ever tell you to “pay attention”?  You were paying attention to something…What was going on out the window…The big game that night…The big test next period… It was just not what the teacher was teaching at that moment.   One of the major keys to performance is to shine your flashlight on where you need your focus to be. If you are in the game, focus on factors you can control and not on what might happen.  More simply put, focus on the Do’s not the Don’ts.

    Student athletes deal with internal stressors and external stressors from outside sources such as the Covid pandemic. The skills that were discussed in this article (mindfulness, breathing, and focus) not only helps to improve academic and athletic performance, but also helps when life throws you a curveball.   Just remember…You focus on where you shine the flashlight!

    Written by Andrew C. Joy, LCPC, CMPC
    Founder and President of The Mental Difference
    Sport Psychology Training and Counseling Services

    This article is featured in the December 2021 Issue of the Ritchie Hockey Foundation Newsletter


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