We’ve all seen pro athletes give thanks to those around them after scoring a winning goal or smashing a course record. In post-game interviews, they’ll speak humbly about how they are grateful to their coaches, team and family for supporting their lifelong dream.
For many athletes, gratitude is an important part of their athletic careers, and not just when they’ve reached their goal. In fact, elite coaches are now integrating this kind of thinking into athletes’ daily workouts and drills. That’s because along with solid training and cutting-edge gear, feeling grateful can give you a legitimate performance edge.
Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson has said that he reminds his wrestlers to be thankful for the opportunities they’ve been given every time they step on the mat. The gratitude reminder seems to be putting the team in a winning mindset, because Penn State has taken eight of the last nine college wrestling championship titles. “Gratitude is the foundation for lasting success in anything that you do,” according to Sanderson. “You take that away, the foundation is going to crumble.”
With the season of giving thanks right around the corner, we’ll tell you how adding the practice of gratitude into your life will have you scoring goals and hitting PRs like the pros.
All athletes have races they bomb or games they lose. How you handle those rough moments makes a big difference in your ability to face challenges again in the future. Focusing on aspects of the experience you feel grateful for is hard—but doing so will help you train your brain not to fear failure.
That’s key, because as any athlete will tell you, your mind can be your worst enemy when things don’t go your way. “Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret and depression, which can destroy our happiness,” says Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and a leading researcher on the science of gratitude. “It’s impossible to feel envious and grateful at the same time.”
OK, so let’s put Professor Emmons’ theory to the test. The next time (it’s inevitable we can’t be great all the time) you have a miserable race or lousy workout, list three things you feel grateful for. Stumped? How about: Your body is healthy, you didn’t finish dead last and you burned enough calories to warrant a boozy brunch at your favorite diner? Now think of three more!
Any time you set a goal for yourself, whether it’s running a personal best in a 10k or completing your first Ironman, there’s a heap of self-pressure than comes with the territory. Without the right tools in place, big goals start to feel totally out of reach, and when that happens, there’s a risk that you choke. Interestingly, research shows that tapping into feelings of gratitude can lessen stress levels both psychologically and physically by lowering blood pressure and reducing inflammation in the body. That’s good news for your performance, since the more relaxed you are off the line, the more fluid your stride, steadier your breathing and better your odds are of crushing that PR.
But it doesn’t happen overnight. Using gratitude to lower stress requires practice, which you can achieve by setting aside 5 to 10 minutes in the evening or first thing in the morning to sit quietly and be mindful of the things in your life that you are grateful for. In one study on college athletes, researchers found that after just five sessions of mindfulness, athletes showed measurable improvement in stress levels and reduced anxiety.
Optimal sports performance depends on getting a solid night’s sleep. In a first of its kind study, researchers at the University of Manchester in England found that people with higher levels of gratitude slept longer and more soundly than their peers. To tap into those positive vibes before bed, try keeping a gratitude journal where you write down things in your life you feel thankful for. Every night, add a few more items to the list. Hold them in your mind as you drift off to sleep, allowing your body the deep rest it needs to tackle the tough workout or intense competition in the day ahead.
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