Studies show that the pressure and culture of high performance athletics can lead to chronic fatigue, mental exhaustion, burnout, depression and anxiety. Student athletes all over the country often struggle silently for fear of looking weak to their teammates and coaches, believing a false definition of what mental toughness actually looks like.

How can coaches and parents better support their athlete’s mental health; helping them build healthy psychological strengths that carry them not only through competitive play, but also through any challenge they will face in life? The answer might surprise you: create a team culture that reinforces vulnerability. 

Up until the last decade, most would define vulnerability as weakness. In her viral 2011 TED talk and best selling book, Daring Greatly, author Brené Brown defines it as “the birthplace of courage, creativity and change.” And the Journal of Sport Psychology in Action suggested in a recent article that  training and competing in high performance sport inherently means exposing one-self to vulnerability. But how individual athletes and teams communicate with each other depends first on how they communicate with themselves.

This is where a daily practice of mindfulness can change the mental game of players of any sport. Mindfulness offers a learned behavior of not getting stuck beating yourself up for the missed shot or for throwing an interception, because it gives athletes the tools they need to live in the present moment and to let go of negative self-talk. Elite Athletes have refined this skill so that they can shake it off quickly and move into the next moment of gameplay without having the baggage of their mistakes weighing them down during competition. In an interview on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, legendary NBA basketball coach Phil Jackson calls this exercise in daily meditation “One breath, one mind.” 

Cultivating mindfulness and vulnerability with your team begins on an individual level. If you’re a coach who is unsure of where to start when directing your team toward a helpful meditation or visualization practice, or an athlete who is looking for a way to quiet the chatter happening inside your mind on game day, try these three simple steps to guide you through the process:

1. Learn to listen to your inner thoughts with non judgemental compassion and curiosity.

Self-acceptance gives us the power to accept life as it is served up. Sports Supports author Grant Giles says that “the lessons that we miss as athletes and humans are absorbed by the mentally strong athlete, those lessons become the agents of change that help us progress to the next level. What does this mean? You have to surrender to yourself the way you are, warts and all, and start working with yourself as opposed to against yourself.”

2. Commit to just a five minute practice of quiet reflection. 

For starters, there are plenty of short, guided meditations available on Youtube that are geared specifically toward athletes. Here’s a 5 minute meditation we love from Rebecca Smith.

3. Seek to make true connections with others.

Open yourself up to deeper conversations with teammates, friends, coaches, parents and anyone else who feels like a safe person for you to share with, and don’t be afraid to be yourself. Beach Volleyball Olympian and World Champion, Sarah Pavan, says that “vulnerability is critical in any meaningful relationship, and I think it is a key factor in team relationships as well. I think that for a group working toward a common goal, there has to be a certain level of vulnerability among members. It allows teammates to feel like they are equals, and I am much more likely to lay everything I have on the line for someone if I know that we are 100% in it together, and that they will do the exact same for me.” 

Coaches who create a safe space for their athletes to feel comfortable enough to speak up about their struggles and walk through them together, build a team culture that becomes more inclusive, empathetic and more authentic; and these factors are the key in supporting the human experience that extends beyond the game. For more on mindfulness and mental health, check out our blog posts on the Top 5 Ways To Boost Mental Wellness and Three Ways to Support Your Mental and Emotional Health

Do you know a coach or athlete who is doing amazing work around mental health for their team? Nominate them today for a chance to be featured right here on Sport Fuels Life!