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Beyond the Game: The Power of Mental Vigilance in Overcoming Challenges

by Jordyn Toia, M.Ed. Sports Psychology

When we witness the likes of LeBron James compete at highest level of play, when we watch in awe at the power behind one of Serena Williams’ serves, or when we behold the command of Clayton Kershaw’s fastball: what factors do we immediately contribute their success to? We consider how many hours they spent refining their craft in practices. We might contemplate social factors that provided them with an advantage, like Williams’ father being a tennis coach. Perhaps we’re inclined to attribute their dominating success with physical attributes that are unteachable. We can take into account impactful teammates and coaches. We can ponder how many hours these athletes spend in the gym, training their body vigorously to produce the fastest, strongest, most agile athlete possible.

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As fans (or haters) we can speculate advantages or debate statistics, but few would dare to argue that these dominating athletes have not worked tirelessly to achieve success. What is less often considered, is the work these athletes have done within the confines of their own mind. As anyone who has competed in any arena can attest to; change, improvement, and success take hard work. If we, as athletes, former-athletes, novice athletes, coaches, friends or family, were able to work as hard on our minds as we do in our work, sports, and relationships, we would see big change in many facets of life.

Brain Boot Camp

Our minds are always at work, and we can train our minds to work in our favor. Like perfecting a pitch or a left-handed layup, it takes repetition and vigilance. The results may not appear as often as we would like. The results are less measurable and the lack of tangibility can be challenging. Our progress will not be linear and this can also feel defeating. Despite the change in challenge, you already possess everything you need to train your mind to aid you in overcoming adversities and appreciating good fortune.

We already have many stressors, therefore many things to think about... so the idea of thinking about our thoughts can seem trivial, even difficult. Our patterns of thought are second-nature and it is easy to live your whole life without ever truly assessing them. But as we begin to question why we think about things the way that we do, we will become more equipped to determine what thought patterns are harmful and which are helpful. Like in any sport, we need to understand our areas for improvement in order to effectively pioneer change to create improvement.

Self-Talk

We are constantly engaging in internal dialogues within our own minds. In psychology, we call this self-talk. Self-talk is more obscure than a cartoon devil and angel sitting upon each of your shoulders giving orders. Your thoughts aren’t occurring with third-person sentence structures. Self-talk can be pervasive but powerful. It is where your unconscious biases and predispositions meet your conscious thoughts. Therefore, it effectively shapes how you interpret the world and your experiences.

As humans, we are prone to negative self-talk. Self-defeating inner dialogues can increase anxieties, decrease self-esteem, and prevent us from exercising our full capacity for joy. Recent research has indicated that people regularly engaging in positive self-talk were more likely to confront challenges head-on, whereas people engaging in dysfunctional self-talk were more prone to perceiving any change as negative. A shift in self-talk can shift your perception, ultimately having the power to positively shift the entire trajectory of your life despite any circumstances inflicted on you.

Self-Talk like a Pro

Let’s circle back to the conversation about some of the most dominating athletes of our time. It feels counterproductive to reduce even superstar athletes to just athletes. They are dynamic, multi-faceted humans. They inevitably feel doubt. They have experienced pain. They’ve been subjected to unfair circumstances that are completely out of their control. They are parents, siblings, friends, spouses, role models, artists, business professionals, activists, and embody innumerable other roles within their lives outside of what’s aired on ESPN. They are complex humans just as you and I. However, they have trained their brains to engage in helpful thought processes during a match point serve or a game 7 playoff game. Their constructive self-talk allows for them to realistically assess the height of the challenge while remaining aware of their own skill.

It can be argued that the list of other factors and advantages that contribute to an athlete’s success can be the very foundation that allows them to engage in constructive self-talk. They’ve experienced high-pressure games before. They have spent decades refining their craft and preparing for any obstacle competition may present. It’s easy to engage in positive self-talk when you’re confident about your ability to complete the challenge at hand, and why shouldn’t they be confident? They’re the best at what they do.

But what about trying circumstances or obstacles beyond the game? If the LBJ’s, the Serena Williams’, and the Kershaw’s of this world spend time training their brains in a holistic manner, then they will be equipped to face obstacles that are challenging in new and intimidating ways, like, taking on the role of parenthood for the first time, their own retirement from competitive sport, or embarking on their own entrepreneurial pursuits. By transferring the skills of mental vigilance learned in competitive sports to challenges outside the scope of competition, the athlete unleashes powerful coping strategies that have limitless reach.

The Trap of Negative Self-talk

We as humans are often our own harshest critics. We fixate on our shortcomings instead of taking pride in our strengths. We compare ourselves to others with the sole (and often subconscious) purpose to make ourselves feel less-than. We chastize ourselves in ways we would never do to a loved one. And with these thought-patterns come the subsequent impact on our own self-perception. We begin to feel less confident, less capable. Our brainpower is robust and it is unfair to ourselves to spend so much of it on questioning our capabilities and contemplating what could go wrong.

Could you picture how different life may look if our brain power was instead spent on conjuring up solutions to our problems?

Instead of analyzing every aspect of a lousy situation, what if we focused on every quality we possess that makes us able to overcome it?

Our minds are boundlessly powerful and the ways in which we channel that power can impact us deeply. Stay tuned for a follow-up article that will walk through the most common types of unhelpful thought patterns and some practical ways to begin to combat them!

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. Neither Sidelined USA nor its affiliates provide clinical or medical care of any kind via their relationship with Sidelined. At no time should a user have an expectation of clinical care or professional services offered or rendered.

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Jordyn Toia

Jordyn Toia is a member of the Sidelined USA Advisory Board. Jordyn oversees our connection groups and contributes content for our resources.

“I jumped at the opportunity to help an organization that works to provide care and resources to such an underserved population of former athletes. In society, we tend to value athletes for not much more than their athletic prowess and physical productivity. Athletes are whole human beings and should be treated as such. I think a great way to begin to make this shift is to create dialogue, provide resources, and validate those who have been forced to reinvent their lives and identities without competing as athletes in their sports.”