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Solid Advice for Athletes and Coaches During March Sadness

As I write this, I am a bit bummed that I should be at the March Madness tournament right now. One of the perks I get working with college basketball teams is that every March usually at least one of the teams I work with is participating in it. It's a lot of fun seeing players and coaches I work with participating in this storied event, reaping the rewards of their hard-work and relentless dedication. However, the coronavirus pandemic shut-down has other plans for us. What's that old Yiddish proverb? "We plan. God laughs."

If I'm feeling a bit down over this, I can only imagine how the athletes and coaches in all sports now feel at this moment about their respective seasons being abruptly halted. They have invested countless amounts of time, energy, resources, practice, money, hard-work, thought, and emotion on their crafts and livelihoods. It sounds cliche, but it is the whole blood, sweat, and tears thing. From a psychological perspective, a large part of their overall identities are tied to being an athlete or a coach, and comes to a sudden screeching halt for the meantime.

With all of the uncertainty taking place in the world right now, the most transformative thing you can do is to diversify your identity. A little bit of mental flexibility is going to give you an endless supply of self-fulfillment.

Now is the perfect time to cultivate a more well-rounded approach to the way in which you define yourself. Often when we meet an athlete and ask what they do, he or she will say, "I'm a basketball player," or "I am a collegiate swimmer." This is fraught for disaster. When you strongly identify yourself as a basketball player, your self worth is largely dependent on your last performance. It's going to be a roller coaster ride, because we all have great games and terrible games. We all have outstanding practice sessions and horrific ones. Why drive yourself crazy? Instead, diversify the way in which you see yourself.

Get into the habit of saying and thinking that you are "a guy who plays basketball" or a "woman who coaches field hockey." Do you see the subtle but profound difference here? Saying it and thinking it this way gives you the mental space to realize that you will have ups and downs in your respective sport, and your self-worth is not dependent solely on that last performance. This mindset also let's us see ourselves in a less myopic way. We are interesting multi-dimensional beings. When we label ourselves as solely players or coaches, we are selling ourselves short.

Always keep in mind that we are living in times when the only consistency in our world is that our world in inconsistent. Due to the law of impermanence, every thing changes. If you have the vast majority of your indentity tied up into being an athlete, what happens when your body can't take anymore, and you are forced to retire? Eventually it happens to virtually every athlete in every sport. Knowing this is eventually going to happen, why not start developing some other avenues of interest and self-expression that ignites your soul? It doesn't have to be anything that is tremendously time consuming or something that will distract or interfere with your athletic goals. Find things that compliment your sport, things that interest you and enhance the quality and well-being of your life. Consider getting out of your comfort zone. This type of self-discovery is where real personal growth takes place.

It is important to realize that you typically play a sport for one or two reasons:

1. You love the game. It brings you great joy to compete, share a common goal, and to bond with your teammates, coaches, and fans. It is fun. You cherish the experience.

2. You use it as a vehicle. You play the sport to get an education, make a living, or use as a steppingstone for something else.

I am a former long-distance runner. In fact, running was one of my great passions. During my running days, when I wasn't careful, I would fixate exclusively on my running, often at the expense of the important people and many other interesting aspects in my life. To combat this, there was a quote I would conjure up in my mind: "There will come a day when I can no longer run. Today is not that day." I recited this quote to myself for two reasons:

1. To remind myself to enjoy the present moment. The present moment is the only reality we have. We may as well make the most of it. The past is dead, and the future is fantasy.

2. To remind myself that one day my running career would be over, and I needed to have a rich, full life outside of running (in the present moment).

Now that I can't run anymore, do I miss running? Of course. However, having a realistic mindset helped, because I was better able to prepare for life after running. I didn't fixate on the future, but I planned for it (See the difference?). Furthermore, having the self-awareness to realize that I was "more than just a runner," enabled me to enjoy a full, robust life during my running days.

I have worked with a great number of athletes over the years who have prematurely burned out. Most athletes can relate to this. There was a period of time when I was winning quite a few medals with my running. It started to consume me. If I had a race on a Saturday, I would fixate all week on it. I started missing out on my life, because mentally I was obsessing on Saturday's race. Don't get me wrong. It's important to be focused on your sport, but learn how to turn it on and when to shut it off. The best way to learn how to do this is to diversify your identity a bit and have varied interests. I'm not suggesting you stretch yourself thin. That is not good either. Just add a little balance to your life. Learning to do this will help you avoid mental burnout and prolong your career. Use athletes like Vince Carter and Tom Brady as an example in this regard.

Lastly, I highly recommend using this mandated time away from your sport to work on your mental game. Arguably, this is the most important aspect of competition, but it is often the most overlooked. While your playing and coaching days will not last forever, the skills you build from working on your mental skills will last you the rest of your life in every pursuit you embark upon. Some practices that will stretch and strengthen your mind are: a mindfulness practice, meditation, conscious breathing, gratitude journaling, reading good books, developing your spiritual side, and listening to personal growth podcasts.

Enjoy the down time. Use it to get your mind right and to put things into their proper perspective. Send me an email anytime I may be of service:

Greg Graber, a long-time educator, teaches mindfulness-based mental performance skills to teams, schools, and organizations around the world. Some of his sports clients include: The Memphis Grizzlies, LSU, George Washington University, Rice, VCU, Memphis, UAB, Mount St. Mary's, Campbell University, and Siena College.

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