‘Tis the season. When the Holidays roll around, we constantly hear about gratitude and what we are grateful for. Some of us go around the table and state what we are grateful for. Let’s take the spirit of the season and apply it our lives, performances, and every day life to enhance our experiences both inward and outward.
To get to our theme, we’re starting with an underlying factor and base: Present moment. Present moment awareness is a determining factor in achieving optimal performance. It allows us to be ourselves, and perform at our best more often. However, our minds have been shown to be wandering for roughly 40% of the time. That’s almost half of the time that your brain is elsewhere from your body, your feet, and your surroundings. It usually translates into our minds replaying previous events, projecting into the future, or getting excited for our favorite Thanksgiving dishes while watching football.
We are often disengaged from the present moment, and biologically, our brains are wired to recognize and adhere to our perceived stressors, threats, and negative outcomes. Which in a survival sense, sure that’s awesome. It keeps us alive from lions and tigers and bears. But, we get the same reaction when we get into an accident, watch a scary movie, or when we are performing in the moments that matter most to us. Our brain and sympathetic nervous system takes us into ‘fight or flight’ mode and we’re sent into overdrive. It makes it really hard for us to think creatively, think critically, adjust, and just be ourselves (when we’re not being chased by lions and tigers and bears). We go through the ‘what ifs’ and we feel threatened.
The good news is: we can train our brains to be positively present more frequently. We can work with our brains to disrupt the signals that inhibit our creativity, critical thinking, our ability to be ourselves, and our performance. It’s no magic trick, it takes training and implementation; just as the physical component of performance requires.
Think back to the times where you were performing at your best. Or you were just having a blast with whatever you were doing. What was the emotion there? What is the emotion associated with that memory? Where was your mind in that moment? What about your thoughts?
Often times, the answer is “It was great” and “I was just doing it, I wasn’t thinking about anything”. In those moments, we experience joy and we are fully immersed in the task at hand. We have present moment awareness in those moments and our thoughts are not focused on what’s ahead (or in the past), what our criticisms are, or what we should be doing instead. Our mind and our thoughts are where our feet are without judgment. It’s a state that is often referred to as ‘flow’. To get to that state we need awareness of where our thoughts are. When in an unproductive mindset, how do we transition to a more positive state of mind - getting us steps closer to reaching flow and full engagement at the task at hand.
A method of positive attention and present moment awareness is gratitude. It’s not about being all sunshine and rainbows and avoiding the negative, it’s about making the space for both and becoming aware of the joys and opportunities in life. In addition to enhancing present moment focus and performance, consistent gratitude is associated with an increase in happiness and satisfaction, patience, optimism, higher self-esteem, less burnout, and better sleep. It is not a stagnant trait that we have or don’t, it’s something we can strengthen. Something we can build upon. Something we can grow. The benefits of consistent gratitude exploration and development builds upon perceived support, confidence, and overarching performance.
So, how do we implement gratitude? Recognize and reflect upon what opportunities you are presented with and how you are grateful for them. For example, being grateful to have the awareness of the present moment, being grateful to have the opportunity to grow and learn, being grateful to have the ability to explore the moment, and being grateful to have the awareness of how you want to respond instead of react.
It’s about finding the opportunities in the challenges and setbacks and pausing to recognize the greatness of what we love, what we have, what we can accomplish. At the end of the day, write down three things you are grateful for. It can span from the smell of trees, to a kind thing you did for someone, a kind action someone did for you, a challenge you are currently facing that you get to grow from, a trip coming up, your teammates, or your ability to move your body and experience the world. Or even… the smell and taste of pumpkin pie. Savor each bite and pause to recognize the gratitude you feel for how good that pumpkin pie is (or whatever your favorite Thanksgiving dessert might be). Simply noting our gratitude of both the big and little things in fosters the beautiful moments in life. We get to experience them rather than looking ahead or behind us.
This doesn’t have to be an individual practice. Get together with teammates and friends and share your gratitude with one another. Start each group meeting or practice with one good thing that happened that day or the week.
For some additional inspiration, check out this video on gratitude. It also provides the science behind gratitude and its impact on happiness and fulfillment. Share the love.
Similar to anything we want to draw upon in the moments that matter most, we have to train it. Practice it. Understand it. And know that we can adjust to the situation at hand. How we do the day-to-day things is how we do all things, including the big things. Create consistency in how you practice your craft. With gratitude.
- Jenny Simmons
Mental performance coach
University of Denver Sports Psychology ‘18
Lung Hung Chen & Chia-Huei Wu (2014) Gratitude Enhances Change in Athletes’ Self-Esteem: The Moderating Role of Trust in Coach, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 26:3, 349-362, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2014.889255
Nicole T. Gabana, Jesse Steinfeldt, Y. Joel Wong, Y. Barry Chung & Dubravka Svetina (2019) Attitude of Gratitude: Exploring the Implementation of a Gratitude Intervention with College Athletes, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 31:3, 273-284, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2018.1498956
Thompson, Courtney. (2019). Rewiring your brain for gratitude. Compete to Create.