Sports are defined as an activity involving physical exertion and skill, which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment. Sports have always been lauded for the physical toll it takes on athletes. However, something that is not as openly discussed is the emotional and mental stress that elite athletes go through on a daily basis. This is otherwise known as self reflection, being able to confront one’s fears, anxieties, hopes, and disappointments are all parts of uncovering sources of stress.
While several people from the older generation would state that they were having a “bad day,” self reflection is based upon being able to dig deeper. Through the process of self reflection, an athlete is able to understand the reasons for any issue and instead of only asking why, the real question becomes how can the situation be corrected?
Though some may view self reflection as an uncomfortable process, taking the time to truly understand ones emotions, can lead to a feeling of liberation.
Benefits of Self Reflection for Athletes
The ability to take a breath and understand a difficult situation that has just occurred is a major aspect of self reflection. When examining an athletes thoughts, fears, anxieties, or any other problem that has occurred, the ability to dig deeper comes with its benefits.
Understanding Your Strengths
Though every athlete has their strengths, very few (if any) spend time assessing what they are. For example, in baseball, a strength would be hand-to-eye coordination, as the game of baseball moves extremely quickly. However, through self reflection, an athlete is able to understand not only the strength but where it comes from. If an athlete can then learn to harness those strengths, it becomes a lot easier to call upon those feelings when games are not going well.
Understanding Your Weaknesses
One of the hardest things for an athlete to do is state their limitations. While there is no such thing as the perfect athlete, many are trained to never show any signs of weakness or vulnerability. For example, if a tennis player knows that their forehand is a shot that can often break down in moments of tension, it is not something that he or she would be willing to openly admit.
However, when an athlete can fully understand why they react in a certain way during times of tension, fear, or anxiety, the chances of an implosion occurring reduces. Though coaches are paid to point out weaknesses and help their charges improve, there is only so much that a coach can do to assist their athlete. At its core, self reflection is the process of finding out more about oneself in order to improve performance.
When it comes to athletes, there are several studies that talk about the benefits of taking ice baths and warming down after a game or practice. But when it comes to the mental and emotional aspects of sports, athletes need to find ways to release tension and evaluate. Understanding weaknesses is a major step in the evaluation process and can lead to interesting discoveries.
Topics of Reflection
An important starting point when it comes to self reflection are the topics that an athlete should reflect upon. With so many things happening on and off the field or court, below are areas that athletes should pinpoint when self evaluating.
Choices and Decisions
Since humans are not robots, the choices and decisions that an athlete makes can directly be tied to their emotional state. While coaches can run over game plans and formations, there is this element called the “Heat of the Moment” that can occasionally overwhelm and overtake a players ability to make clear decisions.
For an athlete, it is important to understand how choices and decisions are made. In order to understand this, an athlete has to understand how they work in terms of being very thoughtful or being more impulsive. When going through self reflection, an athlete has to figure out a way to train themselves to recognize these decisions and choices in order to remove as much negative emotion from it.
Coaching Philosophies and Practices
Something that many people do not realize is that most coaches started out as student-athletes, and then either went to college or played professionally. Coaches often learn their philosophies from the people that worked closely with and mentored them. For a coach, it is important to continually self-evaluate to make sure that their philosophies are beliefs that still apply to their current team.
As a coach, there needs to be a constant self reflection that results in development and changes in your approach to the sport. As every year progresses, new tactics, ways of thought, and training methods are available for players to maximize their abilities. Restructuring philosophies is a major step in understanding not only the way your players work, but yourself as well.
Once a coach understands their philosophy, it is much easier for them to recognize how they teach and practice with their athletes. Being able to understand how you communicate thoughts and emotions, is a skill that every coach needs to translate to their athletes, particularly in team sports.
Coaches should always ask questions concerning how they can improve technique, how they can improve communication, and how do they approach teaching. In reference to their approach to teaching, a coach needs to understand, and make the most out of their style, in order to get the best out of their athletes.
Method & Process
Once an athlete understands the importance of self reflection, it is vital for them to repeatedly practice in order to further develop. Below are tips that athletes can use in order to continually improve their practice and process of self reflection.
Take Pen to Paper
One of the best and simplest approaches is to journal important thoughts. The writing process is, in and of itself, a very therapeutic and reflective exercise because the writer is forced to recollect thoughts in a manner that is logical to them. Many athletes are reserved and do not like the idea of speaking openly to other people. When journaling, an athlete is able to speak to a captivated audience of one.
The process does not have to begin with a 12-page dissertation about reflections on the day or how the season is going. The journaling process could simply be a few sentences about thoughts of performance and strategies or ideas concerning why you made a particular choice and how to improve on it the next time that situation occurs.
Conversation with a Mentor or Seasoned Coach
For athletes that are more comfortable speaking about their mental or emotional struggles out loud, confiding in a mentor or a seasoned coach (that has experienced all of the same feelings and emotions) is a great way to pick someone's brain. The conversation can be informal and set in the space of hypotheticals.
For example, if you're an athlete that becomes easily overwhelmed when moments become tense, asking a mentor or coach how they would approach the situation is a great way to get the conversation started. Every athlete has nerves, but there are some that have been able to find coping mechanisms that allow them to make clear decisions when those moments of doubt come around. Being able to talk to someone that has gone through those exact same emotions is a great exercise in self reflection because of the instant feedback.
Develop and Evaluate Strategies
As an athlete is journaling or speaking to a mentor, it is also important to take the time to develop strategies which can help you overcome whatever mental or emotional block that is in your way. Also, never be afraid to look outside of the sport that you're in for inspiration. The idea of cross-training or athletic training in sports other than one’s usual sport has become popular because it allows an athlete the ability to both physically and mentally train parts of their body that have become stagnant.
Once an athlete figures out and develops their strategies, it is important to continually evaluate them. While having a strategy is great, the evaluation process is just as important because it is the time where an athlete can figure what worked and bank the good habits while dismissing the aspects of the strategy that did not work. As the self reflection continues, an athlete will be able to regularly rid themselves of habits that lead to diminishing performances.
In the world of athletics, the mind is sometimes more important than the body. While much attention is given to exercises that can increase speed, body composition, and overall strength, an athlete also needs to spend time in the mode of self reflection. Though an uncomfortable process, self reflection requires honesty, a time commitment, input from others, and a willingness for the athlete to move into an area of discomfort.
As the journey to figure out why choices and decisions were made continues, the goal is to allow an athlete to reach a sense of clarity and overall contentment.