The Art of Mental Resilience in Sports: Mastering the Present

Picture of By Jesse Engelbrecht

By Jesse Engelbrecht

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Novak Djkovic fist pumping after winning a point and looking focussed

In sports, the art of mental resilience frequently sets the stage for extraordinary performances, distinguishing the great athletes from the merely good. Physical prowess and technique undoubtedly matter, but it’s often the athlete’s ability to master the present, a crucial element of mental resilience, that dictates victory or defeat. However, mastering this art isn’t about achieving a perfect state of focus. Instead, it unfolds much like a rhythmic dance, a continual flow of stepping into and out of the present, time and again. In this dance, the decisive factor isn’t just staying mentally present, but the resilience to keep returning to the present moment – the true essence of mental strength in sports.

The distinguishing factor isn’t the athlete who can remain perfectly mentally present throughout the game – an almost Herculean task – but the one who can repeatedly navigate the mental ebbs and flows, and then resiliently return to the centre. It is this cyclical dance of straying and returning, straying and returning, that truly encapsulates mental strength in sports.

As I delve into this topic, I will explore a concept that serves as a powerful tool in understanding and mastering this dance: the mental pendulum. Once you become aware of its swings and learn to navigate them, you’ll find yourself gaining a crucial edge in your mental game. Now, let’s embark on this journey to uncover the hidden power of mental presence in sports.

THE PENDULUM OF THE MIND: A DANCE OF FOCUS AND DISTRACTION

Just as I discussed in the introduction, the unseen battle taking place within an athlete’s mind is about continually returning to the present, despite the inevitable distractions. This mental dance is best visualised through the metaphor of a pendulum.

Imagine your mental state as a pendulum. In the centre of this swing, there exists an optimal zone, a place of potential peak performance. This zone represents the present moment, the here and now. Either side of this zone represents the past and the future. When the pendulum swings out of this zone the mind has wondered about the last mistake or error made, or the pressure of the scoreboard and what others will think about a negative result.

The goal is to keep the mental pendulum in this optimal zone, for it’s in the present where we are most connected to our skills, senses, and decision-making abilities. However, remaining in this zone isn’t a static state. It’s not about locking the pendulum in place; instead, it’s about navigating its swing amplitude.

To illustrate this point, let’s compare the mental pendulums of a mentally strong athlete and a less resilient one. In the case of a mentally strong athlete, their pendulum might drift towards the past or the future, straying from the present, but it does so with a smaller amplitude, swiftly and smoothly returning to the optimal zone. They have trained their minds to dance, to navigate these swings with grace and agility, thus returning to the present more efficiently.

On the other hand, the pendulum of a less mentally resilient athlete swings erratically, spending longer durations dwelling in past mistakes or future anxieties. The amplitude of their swing is larger, causing them to spend less time in the optimal zone of the present. Their pendulum swings might be wild and hard to control, fleeting through the present moment only briefly.

The mental strength of an athlete, therefore, lies not in completely stopping these swings – for that would be an almost impossible task – but in managing their swings more effectively, ensuring the pendulum spends more time in the present. This mental pendulum metaphor provides a clear and simple framework to understand the rhythm of mental presence and the dance of focus in the sporting world.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: A MASTER OF MENTAL RESILIENCE

Consider Novak Djokovic during his nail-biting Wimbledon final against Roger Federer (another mentally present superstar) in 2019. There were several instances when his mental pendulum could have swung wildly into the past, mulling over missed opportunities, or the future, contemplating possible defeat. Yet, Djokovic demonstrated his mental resilience time and again.

Recall how he brought himself back to the present in the final set, employing a well-known tactic of his: pausing, closing his eyes, and taking a deep, slow breath. He has mentioned in interviews how this practice helps him regain focus and control over his mental pendulum. By re-centring himself, he managed to clinch the title in a historically lengthy fifth set, illustrating the power of maintaining a present-focused mindset.

SERENA WILLIAMS: HARNESSING THE POWER OF NOW

Serena Williams, a titan in the world of tennis, has also illustrated the power of staying present. A memorable instance was her victory in the 2015 French Open finals against Lucie Safarova. After losing two games in the second set, she could have easily allowed her pendulum to swing towards past mistakes. But Serena is known for her phrase “stay in it,” a mantra she often repeats on and off court.

Using this simple, positive affirmation, Serena realigned her mental pendulum to the present, preventing it from swinging wildly into the territory of past disappointments. This resilience, this ability to return to the present, led to her victory and solidified her as one of the greatest athletes in history.

CULTIVATING PRESENCE: THE SCIENCE AND ART OF SIGH BREATHING

Navigating the swings of the mental pendulum effectively requires certain techniques, and controlled breathing, particularly sigh breathing, is a powerful tool often employed by elite athletes like Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. However, to truly understand its impact, it’s crucial to delve deeper into the process and benefits of sigh breathing.

At its core, sigh breathing is a deliberate breathing exercise designed to ground the individual in the present moment. This technique involves a deep, purposeful inhale through the nose until you fill about 80% of your lung capacity. This is followed by a second, “top-up” breath, much like a sip of air. After holding the breath briefly at the top, the exhale is released in a long, relaxed sigh, allowing the tension to melt away from the neck, shoulders, and back muscles.

As you repeat this process 2-3 times, or more when needed, you encourage the mental pendulum to settle back into the optimal zone of the present moment, especially when it swings wildly due to mounting pressures of the future or lingering stress of the past.

But why does sigh breathing work so effectively? The secret lies in its impact on our brain and body. Studies have shown that deliberate sigh breathing influences the activation of certain parts of the brain. The amygdala, often referred to as the fear centre of the brain, becomes quieter, reducing feelings of anxiety and stress. At the same time, the hippocampus, involved in learning and emotions, experiences balanced activation, promoting a state of calm alertness.

Physiologically, sigh breathing also offers numerous benefits. It promotes the production of quality red blood cells and enhances the oxygenation of blood, ensuring the body’s systems function optimally under stress. Moreover, it helps slow down the heart rate, further amplifying its calming effect.

In essence, sigh breathing is more than just a breathing exercise; it’s a science-backed technique for enhancing mental resilience, controlling the swings of the mental pendulum, and bringing ourselves back to the powerful present moment in the face of challenges. By incorporating sigh breathing into our mental toolkit, we can better navigate the mental dance of focus and distraction that characterises the sporting world.

THE LANGUAGE OF THE PRESENT: REFRAMING NEGATIVE THOUGHTS

The words we choose to use, especially under pressure, significantly influence our mental state. They have the power to either anchor us in the present moment or propel our mental pendulum towards the past or future. For an athlete, mastering this “Language of the Present” is a crucial part of the mental game.

Negative phrases, often linked with past regrets or future anxieties, send our mental pendulum swinging away from the optimal zone. Phrases like “I can’t lose this” or “I should have done better” are detrimental to an athlete’s performance as they pull focus away from the present moment.

On the other hand, positive affirmations, much like Serena Williams’ mantra “stay in it”, help to stabilize the mental pendulum in the present moment. These phrases serve as anchors, pulling us back from past disappointments or future worries.

A crucial step in strengthening our mental resilience is learning to reframe these negative phrases into positive ones. This transformation is not just about changing our words but about changing our perspective and response to pressure.

Here is a comparison table to illustrate this point:

Negative PhrasePositive Reframe
I can’t lose thisI can win this
I should have done betterI am doing my best
I don’t want to mess upI will succeed
I am not good enoughI am capable and strong
This is too hard for meI can handle this challenge
I’m scared of failingI focus on my performance, not the outcome
They are better than meI am a strong competitor
I messed up last timeI learn from my experiences
I can’t handle the pressurePressure helps me focus
I’m just not luckyLuck is not a factor, my skills are

Remember, the goal is not just to substitute negative phrases with positive ones. Instead, we aim to reshape our thoughts and reactions under pressure, helping us stay grounded in the present moment. The more you practice this, the better you’ll become at controlling the swings of your mental pendulum, leading to improved performance in the sports arena.

EMBRACING IMPERFECTIONS: THE PARADOX OF MENTAL RESILIENCE

A common myth in the world of sports is that elite athletes have attained a level of mastery where they remain unshakeably present throughout their performance. This, however, is far from the truth. The essence of mental resilience isn’t about suppressing the natural swing of the mental pendulum; instead, it lies in embracing the swings and mastering the art of returning to the present.

Elite athletes like Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams epitomize this principle. Despite their stellar track record and mental strength, they too grapple with mental distractions. Their mental pendulum, just like ours, sways between the past and future. But what sets them apart is their ability to continuously realign their mental pendulum to the present moment.

A significant part of this process is understanding that it isn’t a one-time effort; it’s an ongoing journey. Athletes may need to adjust their mental pendulum hundreds, even thousands of times during their career, or in some cases, even within a single match. This process isn’t a reflection of weakness; rather, it signifies their unwavering commitment to mental resilience.

Imagine a highly competitive match where an athlete’s pendulum swings rapidly between past mistakes and future pressures. The mentally strong athlete does not succumb to these swings but instead repeatedly brings their focus back to the present. They might need to do this a hundred times or more during the match. On the other hand, a less resilient athlete might only manage to refocus their attention ten times under the same circumstances.

This contrast may seem counterintuitive. One might assume that needing fewer adjustments would be a sign of mental strength, but it’s the exact opposite. The ability to continually recognize when the mental pendulum has strayed and to make the effort to bring it back, time after time, defines true mental strength.

So, in the journey to enhance mental resilience, we must embrace the imperfection of our mental swings, recognizing them not as flaws, but as opportunities for growth and strengthening our presence in the game.

IN CLOSING

As we reach the end of our exploration into the mental aspect of sports, it’s essential to remember the key lessons we’ve learned from athletes like Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. The path to mental resilience is not about maintaining an unbroken state of flow or about achieving constant perfection. Instead, it’s about embracing the natural swings of our mental pendulum, the inherent ebb and flow between past and future. In this below video, Novak eloquently puts this into his own words:

Remember, the strength of an athlete is not defined by how long they can stay within the optimal zone, but by how swiftly and resiliently they return to it after straying. The most potent tool we possess is our ability to recognise when our mental pendulum has veered off the present moment. Once recognised, to then use deliberate breathing methods such as sigh breathing as the go-to tool of choice.

So, let us step forth into our own arenas, be it the tennis court, athletics itch, the boardroom, or life itself, equipped with the understanding and tools to navigate our mental pendulum. Recognise the swings, accept the dance of focus and distraction, and consciously guide your attention back to the present moment.

Embrace the power of the present, harness the art of sigh breathing, reframe your negative thoughts into positive affirmations, and most importantly, continuously strive for resilience. Remember, it’s not about the number of times our pendulum strays, but the number of times we courageously guide it back.

In the dance of mental presence, each return is a triumph, each refocus a victory. Let’s commit ourselves to this dance, and in doing so, we may find ourselves not just better athletes, but more present, more resilient individuals in all facets of our lives. Now, it’s your turn to step into the arena, armed with the knowledge and the power to master the dance of your mental pendulum.

STAYING IN TOUCH

Whenever you’re ready, here are 4 more ways you can consume SportMind content to help you train your mind:

  1. Check out the SportMind podcast. And this is my FAVOURITE episode to date
  2. Get your coach in your pocket by downloading the SportMind App on Apple or Android
  3. Ever wanted the tools to Unlock Flow? I have a workshop just for this
  4. Become a SportMind member and gain full access to mental training. Learn more here

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Payton

    Amazing!! Really helped me to have an example of how to stay in the now. Great to know all ATHLETEs do this!!

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Jesse Engelbrecht

SportMind Founder,
High Performance Coach,
& Squash Professional

A professional and dedicated coach full of enthusiasm and passion for helping and teaching.

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