For many athletes, their reaction to stressful events during training, competitive pressures, and off-field issues sets off an intensely destructive response. This reaction can be so intense that it impacts performance severely, impairs one’s ability to focus, and depletes self-confidence. For many, it feels like a wave of nervous energy and emotion has taken over their mind and body. When something goes wrong, negative responses rise, and performance often suffers. These “Reactive Habits” can be avoided by becoming mindful or aware of how the athlete reacts to stress.
Reactive habits are old programs or ways of responding that are often destructive to performance. Many basketball players get animated and dramatic when they think a ref has made a bad call. They throw their hands up in the air, stomp their feet in anger. Some charge at the official in a disrespectful and intimidating way. A baseball or softball player might hang their head, look at the ground, and show poor body language as they walk back to the dugout after striking out.
For many athletes, this reactive habit can be an internal reaction. Their emotional intensity grows, their stomach knots up, their blood pressure rises, and their thoughts become negative.
If the athlete has responded this way for a long time, their reaction can become their default or norm when things go wrong. They have little or no control over the reaction or its intensity.
Mindfulness – Changing Reactive Habits
Mindfulness is an awareness of what we are doing when we are doing it. Athletes that fall into reactive habits are mindful when under stress. They are at the mercy of these destructive habits. Becoming mindful creates a pause between the stimulus that occurs and the athlete’s reaction to the event.
Viktor Frankl, a WW II Holocaust survivor, author, and artist, wrote the following profound quote:
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness.”
Translated into sports:
“Between events that occur in the life of the athlete, there is a brief pause or space of time. In that pause or space, we have the ability to choose how we respond to the event. Those choices decide if we succeed or if we struggle.”
When an athlete makes a mistake, is called out by a coach, or sees a teammate go down with an injury, mindfulness acts as the third-person observer to help the athlete become aware of their response to the stimulus. Noticing emotions welling up, poor body language, withdrawal, anxiety, frustration, increases in heart rate and blood pressure, or negative thinking will help the athlete recognize the reactive habit he is building.
Quieting The Inner Storm
Nature gives very clear signals that a storm is coming. Dark clouds, wind, changes in temperature, thunder, and lightning all tell us that a storm is imminent. We take action to get out of harm’s way.
Every athlete has “warning signs” that let them know that their internal storm or reactive habit is building. Biting nails, tightening of the stomach, changes in body language or facial tones, anger and frustration, becoming quiet and withdrawn, and overthinking are all signs that the storm is building and the reactive habit is taking over.
Becoming mindful of these warning signs helps the athlete recognize the space between stimulus and response. Breathing, correcting negative thoughts and attitudes, calming emotional responses, and making smarter and better choices help to quiet the storm before it damages confidence, impacts performance, or effects team chemistry.
Noticing when the athlete is exhibiting their specific warning signs creates awareness for change. We can’t change anything if we aren’t aware of what we need to change. Learning how to acknowledge the reaction is the secret…”I am getting frustrated,” “My mindset is changing,” “My heart rate is getting faster,” “I am getting quiet and shutting down.” Becoming mindful honors the space between stimulus and response, and with practice, the athlete creates positive reactive habits.
Creating positive reactive habits helps the athlete stay mentally and emotionally centered. The centered athlete performs at high levels consistently. They connect to their sport with focus, determination, and passion. It is hard to knock them off balance, both mentally and emotionally. They learn how to stop being the victim of stressful events and approach challenges head-on. They build confidence and have a strong self-concept.