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Win First in the Mind: Be Responsive Not Reactive




As a performance psychologist, navigating the intricate landscape of mental skill development with athletes unveils a recurrent challenge—striking a balance between reactive and responsive thinking. 


In sports, where split-second decisions can make or break a performance, cultivating a responsive mind is paramount for peak functioning. Enter mindfulness meditation (at WellPerformance we call it Mindset Workouts), a practice that goes well beyond the “Zen Master” stereotyping, offering athletes a powerful and real-life applicable exercise in their journey towards mastery of their mental game.

 

Decoding Reactivity in Athletes:

Athletes are conditioned to react swiftly to the ever-changing dynamics of their sport. Whether it be opponents, game pressure, or personal expectations, the automaticity of these reactions often becomes a double-edged sword. While rapid decision making is crucial, an overly reactive mind can lead to impulsive choices, increased stress, emotional outbursts, and compromised decision-making under pressure.

 

Mindfulness Meditation as a Game-Changer:

Mindfulness meditation becomes the game-changer in this scenario, providing athletes with a structured approach to break the habitual pattern of reactivity.  Mindfulness introduces a dimension of heightened awareness, encouraging athletes to observe their thoughts and emotions without immediate judgment or reaction to them. This process becomes the cornerstone of developing a responsive mindset. As with any other skill this demands consistent “reps”. Rep after rep we diminish the old pattern and build the “muscle” of responding to what THE moment calls for. The “reps” simply create a mind that has a more efficient balance between reaction and response.

 

Navigating the Demands of Sports:

The sports arena is full of unpredictable variables, necessitating a mental agility. These mindset workouts equip athletes with the tools to navigate this complexity. By embracing the present moment, and being curious as to what is there, athletes can create a mental space between stimulus and response—a space where strategic and deliberate choices can be made. After committing to consistent, daily sessions the athlete begins to view response as a skill that can improve through training.

 

Embracing Emotional Resilience:

We know that in sports emotions run high. The ability to handle these emotions with resilience is a hallmark of mental fortitude. Noticing these emotions with an emphasis on acknowledging them yet without immediate reactivity, becomes the training ground for emotional resilience. Athletes learn to confront and manage challenging emotions, preventing them from becoming disruptive forces during crucial moments. 


It may sound counter-intuitive, but the goal isn’t to rid ourselves of challenging emotions, but instead to observe them, name them, and then work WITH them. Challenging emotions are impossible to rid ourselves from in sport and life. By observing them without judgment we prevent them from becoming bigger than they are, and we recognize that they’re impermanent – they come and go. 

 

Mindfulness as an Applicable Performance Tool:

When we hear the word meditation, we often first think of a peaceful and calm setting, but its practical application as a performance tool can be used in the middle of competitive chaos as well. 


Consider a basketball player faced with a high-pressure free throw; the quick seconds taken to find your breath and ground yourself to the present, can be the difference between a focused, composed shot and a rushed, reactive attempt. And it’s rather simple to fold mindfulness seamlessly into pre-game routines, halftime resets, and post-game reflections, enhancing an athlete's overall mental toolkit at multiple consequential moments.

 

Breaking Automatic Cycles Through Self-Awareness:

Breaking ingrained habits is a continuous pursuit. Many automatic reactions stem from years of conditioning and repetition. The brain wants to find and create patterns.  Our Mindset Workouts provide athletes with the self-awareness necessary to identify these automatic cycles. Then we consciously choose alternative responses when the old pattern just isn’t working. 


Essentially, we must have awareness of what it is that our mind latches itself onto before we can do anything to change it. This heightened awareness becomes a stimulus for change and more effective thinking. This is the definition of responding rather than reacting.

 

The Practicality in all “Performances”:

In my work, I’ve witnessed many of my clients seamlessly integrate mindfulness into everything they do. Mindful breathing becomes a pre-shot ritual for golfers; a moment of stillness before a penalty kick in the World Cup becomes a strategic pause while on the world’s biggest stage. 


These practical applications of mindfulness not only enhance performance but also foster a more resilient and responsive approach to the unpredictable nature of sports. In sport we often hyperfocus on practicing in an attempt to create certainty, yet sport – like life - will forever be uncertain. Mindfulness practice gives us the skillset required to accept that every performance outcome is uncertain which creates the experience of pressure, yet we can create enough space to not get swept away by it.

 

The Takeaway:

The journey from a reactive mind to a responsive mind is powered by the repetition and practice of mindfulness meditation. As athletes embrace this tool – our “mindset workouts” - they deepen self-awareness, emotional resilience, and intentional decision-making. Beyond the mental calmness associated with mindfulness lies a practical performance enhancer—one that empowers athletes to navigate the complexities of their sport with heightened responsiveness, to create conscious, strategic choice.


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Stuart Singer, M.Ed., and PsyD (ABD) is the Director of WellPerformance, a Mental Performance Coaching and Consulting practice, and the creator of the DoSo app https://t.co/R61vbpda4X . For more information regarding this topic he can be contacted at ssinger@wellperformancecoach.com or follow him on twitter @wellperformance, or instagram: wellperformance



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