Updated: Nov 7, 2020
To begin, I would like to share a tennis anecdote that will hopefully resonate with you. Even if you do not play tennis, I think you will understand.
If you ask 100 tennis coaches, what is the most important shot in our sport? 100 times, you will get the same answer. The serve. Every point starts with a serve, and most points end immediately after the serve.
When I teach private lessons to beginners, the serve is almost always the most challenging shot to teach. It requires significant hand-eye coordination, technique, and patience. In other words, it is frustrating to learn.
Sometimes, I work with a beginner/intermediate level player once per week, and over the course of several months I notice a significant improvement in many parts of their game. Forehands, backhands, even volleys. They tell me they have been practicing and playing with friends on the weekends. Great!
But whenever it comes time to serve in our lessons, something interesting happens. The serve has not improved. It is just so frustrating, I hear. It is not fun to play with friends and keep missing serves, so we just play without serves.
In other words, the parts of their game that improve are the parts of their game they practice.
Today, we live in a society where our athletes are walking around in skillfully trained, physically fit bodies, but less skillfully trained, mentally fit minds. In other words, we are out of practice and out of balance.
What you don't practice, doesn't improve.
As a former college tennis player and current college tennis coach, I cannot tell you the amount of times, over the years, I have heard the words it’s all mental, and you need to be mentally tougher spoken, both to me and by me. Today, I find this to be inadequate, even poor coaching. We need to provide tools, not just words.
As a young athlete, we are taught how to build a strong and mobile body. We go to the gym, we run on the track, and we work with strength and conditioning coaches. From the beginning of our careers, we understand the direct correlation between physical work and physical benefits. The harder and more consistently we work out our body, the stronger and faster our body becomes.
Let us take this a step further and say that the more intelligently we work out our body, the more benefit we get. Olympic lifting, high intensity interval training, endurance, kettlebell, bodyweight, resistance, cross-training, fasted morning cardio, post activation potentiation, yoga, foam rolling, stretching, mobility work. I am guessing you have heard of all these practices, and even tried or mastered a few of them.
Yet, when it comes to the mental side of sports, we settle on empty platitudes like it is all mental, and you need to be mentally tougher.
Expecting an athlete to become mentally tougher by making a conscious choice is like telling an athlete to lift more weight by deciding to become stronger.
Thoughts alone cannot lift a dumbbell. You must practice.
Just as there are many types of practices to develop physical fitness, there are many types of practices to build mental fitness. Meditation is one of the most evidence-based and scientifically proven practices to improve mental health and sports performance, yet it is still one of the most misunderstood and underutilized skills available to us. It is time for that to change.
The most popular reaction I get from people who try meditation for the first time is that it is not for them. It is uncomfortable. It is hard. They do not feel like they are doing it right. There are no immediate results.
Now, I ask you this. Imagine if you had never exercised your body before, and as an adult I asked you to complete a gym workout? How do you think it would feel?
Probably uncomfortable, hard, you would not feel like you are doing it right, and you would not see immediate results.
Every coach is comfortable finding their way around a gym, but very few coaches are comfortable sitting on the cushion. So, it makes sense that we meet resistance when trying to introduce meditation and mindfulness in the athletic arena. As a coach, I understand the challenge this presents.
Let us take a step back and look at the problem facing our athletes today.
According to the American College Health Association, in 2019, 87% of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do, 66% felt overwhelming anxiety, 56% felt things were hopeless, 40% experienced depression so severe they had difficulty functioning, and 13% seriously considered suicide.
We know the problem. We have been talking about the mental health crisis in society and on college campuses for years.
How many athletes have you had struggle in their sport or even quit your team due to mental health challenges? How many athletes have you coached that struggle to handle their nerves in the biggest, highest pressure moments of competition? How do you take care of your own mental health, and how does your mental health effect that of your team?
But enough about the problem, let us get back to the solution.
It is time that we change our attitude about mental health, beginning with the language we use. Because make no mistake about it, taking care of our mental health requires work, no different than taking care of our physical health. It is also time that we accept the science, that we treat mental training like we do physical training, and that we accept that turning our noses up at meditation and mindfulness is no different then turning our noses up at physical exercise and fitness for our athletes. By denying our athletes these tools we are failing them as coaches.
Ironically, this idea of a body/mind separation is an illusion, because when we meditate, we are working out our body and perhaps the most important muscle we have, our brain. But we cannot see it, and so we cannot post Instagram pictures of it.
Meditation is a practice that requires discipline, mindfulness is a skill that is developed over time. For this reason, athletes are prime candidates to benefit from everything meditation has to offer. Increased focus, ability to problem solve, emotional resilience, stress relief.
It is time we provide our athletes with practical, applicable meditation and breathing practices that will help them perform better in their sport and lead healthier, happier lives outside of it.
Whoever you are reading this, whether you are a coach, an athlete, both or neither, I am going to ask you two questions, and I want you to take an honest moment to reflect on both.
(1) Do you ever feel overwhelmed, stressed, and/or anxious?
(2) Do you have tools that help you deal with these feelings?
For coaches reading this, how do you think your athletes would answer question 2?
The goal is not to eliminate stress from our lives. For many reasons, that is impossible, not to mention unhealthy. Stress in and of itself is not a threat to our health. Stress exists for a reason. Working out is a great example of applied stress that promotes growth and long-term health.
The goal is to understand and live in our individual window of tolerance, to narrow the gap between question 1 and question 2, to create balance between stress and recovery, to develop healthy coping mechanisms and lifestyle practices that help us manage our stress and restore our body, mind, and central nervous system.
Unfortunately, we do not learn effective stress relieving tools as young athletes, which makes it hard to teach effective stress relieving tools as coaches. It also makes it easy for young adults to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol, processed food, co-dependent relationships, and other addictive behaviors.
Just as there are many ways to exercise our body, there are many ways to exercise our mind. One athlete likes resistance training; another prefers body weight training. One athlete enjoys silent meditation; another prefers guided meditation. One athlete practices interval training; another prefers long distance cardio. One enjoys diaphragmatic breathing; another prefers dynamic breathing.
We cannot decide which practice our athletes will gravitate to, but make no mistake about it, each practice provides unique benefits, and it is our responsibility to provide our athletes the tools to choose for themselves.
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says that when you plant lettuce and it does not grow, you do not blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. Maybe you need fertilizer, better soil, water, or sunshine. But you never blame the lettuce.
When our athletes suffer, we do not blame them. We must work to understand them, and then we must work to create an environment that fosters growth, healthy habits, and supportive lifestyle practices.
Your team is a garden, you are the gardener. If you do not plant healthy soil and tend to the needs of your garden, how do you expect for it to grow?