Updated: Jun 9
Sport provides opportunities to release stress and tension, to let go of worries, and become absorbed in the activity at hand. Sport is a time to play, in contrast to the seriousness with which we lead our daily lives.
We play sport, we don’t work sport.
However, often the playfulness of sport is lost, and it becomes just another serious activity that provides little intrinsic enjoyment.
During play the mind and body can come together in a seamless whole. With the right mindset towards play you can increase the chances of accessing a flow state. When you do something for the enjoyment it provides, instead for some external reason that justifies the activity, the motivation is found within the activity, not externally. This is called intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation can become quickly lost when your status, ranking, prize money, external validation, or team selection, becomes a paramount driving force in sport. When things get too serious the fun factor can be perceived as a weakness and a soft approach to some, but this is a damaging way to think and feel.
US no. 1 and World No. 3 Amanda Sobhy reflects on advice she received whilst at Harvard from legendary coach Mike Way, Amanda says she learnt that "a happy athlete is a fast athlete".
Another common cause for reduced enjoyment in sport occurs when your personal identity becomes defined by the sporting performance. The win or loss. The success or failure. It can easily become viewed as a binary experience with little or no middle ground. I personally fell into this trap all too often in my career. I was a “good” person if I won but a “bad” person if I lost. And this did play havoc on my mind, my match consistency, and my overall mental health.
“The goal is to simply do the activity for its own sake, or, more precisely, for the experience it provides”. – Mihaly Csikszentmihayli, author of Flow In Sports
Sport also provides an amazing opportunity to match skills against appropriate challenges and this can and should be thoroughly enjoyable to try and work towards. Sport offers a rare opportunity for you to stretch yourself to these new heights.
As you can see in the below image, to access point 3, the flow channel, you need to match your skills with an appropriate challenge. When your skills are high, and the challenge in front of you is also high and aligned with your skills, this is where you can find a huge amount of enjoyment and fun.
The fact is you cannot force yourself to have fun. Enjoyment begins when all the obstacles are removed, and you become lost in the activity. Obstacles in this sense can be categorised as the extrinsic rewards such as wining the trophy, getting selected for your team or country, or the perceived validation of your peers (one of the main factors that interferes with the enjoyment of an activity).
Sport is designed to be fun, and by remembering this you are more likely to enjoy it.
FOR THE OVERLY EXTRINSIC
The desire to win, to be recognised as the best, to boost your ego and identity, or if skilful enough, to secure a financial future, are all reasonable motiving factors for the more serious athlete.
However, it can be difficult to remain focussed on the intrinsic aspects once the external rewards start to clamour for attention. At different points of an athlete’s career, extrinsic motivation can be a big motivator and driving force and should not be ignored. Both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards may jointly provide the motivation but can become quite a difficult balancing act and need to be constantly checked in on and oftentimes readdressed.
While extrinsic factors may be strong motivators during the heavy training, the reach and fail states, and the preparation periods before an event, they can be a distraction during an event.
When what you consider as “success” lies in the future, the present can simply become a means of getting there. Yet it is the present where clarity, mental toughness, flow, and peak performance is found.
So, if the present is disregarded in an attempt to ensure perceived “future success”, the quality of the experience will certainly suffer.
To help, the use of intrinsic motivation should be practiced and employed during competition. When you want to access the flow state, when you want to get the best out of yourself, when you want to perform skills you currently know how to do. Getting wrapped up in the process and feeling the love for the activity and less so about the outcome brings the enjoyment and fun factor back into focus.
Phil Jackson, coach of the highly successful 1990s Chicago Bulls teams, commented once saying;
“Most rookies arrive in the NBA thinking that what will make them happy is having unlimited freedom to strut their egos on national TV. But that approach to the game is an inherently empty experience. What makes basketball so exhilarating is the joy of losing yourself completely in the dance, even if it's just for one beautiful transcendent moment”.
A great example of a serious athlete finding the fun factor later in her career is former World No. 1 and World Champion Laura Massaro. In the below clip Laura shares that before the semi-finals of the World Tour Final she found that dancing in her hotel room was a surprising yet empowering activity that led her to playing some of her best squash of her career. She goes on to reflect how spontaneous and natural this activity felt at the time and that once she had experienced it she tried this plus different activities in her career to find the lighter side of herself to access her best self on the court.
“In the later part of my career I’d worked on that from the night before and throughout the day about getting into the attitude of a little bit more excited to play, relaxed to play, rather than being nervous and having a fear of failure and a fear of it not going well”. – Laura Massaro
ADVICE FOR PARENTS
Sports are a great way for kids to have fun while staying fit. Sports also teaches important life lessons such as working as a team, learning how to be a good sport, overcoming challenges, controlling emotions, and taking pride in accomplishments as some examples.
But it's not always easy to keep it together when it feels like winning is everything. Help your young athlete keep a healthy attitude about sports and develop the tools to deal with the stress that comes with competing.
Competing, and the nature of competitive sport, always leads to some stress. And that can be good — a little stress helps the body face a challenge. But too much stress can take the fun out of a sport and make it hard to perform.
The below diagram of the inverted U to optimal performance demonstrates nicely that athletes perform at their best when there in just the right amount of stress for them. Good stress is referred to as eustress and the below definition is worth noting.
“A positive form of stress having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being… during positive stress ("eustress"), feel-good chemicals called endorphins are released”.
Besides competing, other things can make athletes feel stressed out, such as too much pressure from parents or coaches to win, the approval or validation from piers, having too much on the schedule, or not wanting to play the sport.
If you or your child think there's too much stress around competing, consider changing the focus from winning to putting in the best effort and having a positive attitude. Be sure the coach has the same outlook. Get your child to try and run their own race and use their effort and application towards their own definition of success.
Looking at your family's schedule. If your child has too much going on, think about limiting practice time or only doing one sport or activity per season. Mix it up. If your child doesn't want to play the sport anymore, find out why and make a decision together.
Take a moment and listen to these wise words from the great Roger Federer when asked about advice he would give to young aspiring tennis players. As a parent maybe this is somethign you need to be more aware of and help your child in this area? Is the balance right or out of kilter?
There will always be some stress in sports, so it's important for kids to know how to deal with it. Trying different ways during practice can help them find what works best for them.
Some effective and powerful tools to deal with stress include:
Deep breathing: Take a deep breath and hold it in for about 5 seconds, then release it slowly. Repeat five times.
Muscle relaxation: Contract (flex) a group of muscles tightly. Keep them flexed for about 5 seconds, then release. Repeat the exercise five times, then move to a different muscle group.
Going to a happy place: Picture a peaceful place or event. Imagine stress flowing away from the body.
Visualising success: Imagine completing a pass, making a shot, or scoring a goal.
Mindfulness: Focus on the present instead of worrying about the future or the past.
Having a routine: Focus on the routine to keep stress in control.
Thinking positively and developing positive self-talk: Say "I learn from my mistakes," "I'm in control of my feelings," "I can make this goal!" to help keep the negative thoughts away.
To keep stress levels down when they're not competing, kids should eat well and get enough sleep, especially before games. Do something fun and relaxing. They can take a break from competing and go for a walk, ride a bike, see a movie, or hang out with friends.
Remember that no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes in sports — it's part of the game. Be quick to forgive mistakes and move on.
Sports are about staying active, feeling proud, developing as a player, and making friends. Above all, whether your child plays on the varsity team, is trying to climb the rankings or ratings, or at a weekend pick-up game, the point is to have fun! By keeping that as the priority, you can help your child learn to handle the stress that is a natural part of competition.
In summary, if enjoyment is not part of the picture, a great opportunity for learning and improving is lost. Remembering what provides the most enjoyment helps you to increase sport’s intrinsic rewards. The more you can love the details of the sport, the more easily you will get lost in the task, whatever level, or whatever goals you may have for playing in the first place.
But when winning is all that matters, and what happens in the process becomes of secondary importance, competition becomes a distraction.
Since the process is where the enjoyment originates, devaluing it can take away from the joy of sport.
- Understand your drivers and motivators why you are playing sport in the first place.
- When your skills match the challenges then you have a greater ability of accessing flow and being immersed and “losing yourself completely in the dance”.
- If you feel there is an imbalance between intrinsic and extrinsic factors look to readdress this.
- Extrinsic factors are not all bad, and can be a great source of motivation, especially in the training and preparation phase for events. Try and cultivate intrinsic factors when you are competing.
- A certain amount of stress before you play is a good thing. Find where you have enough stress (eustress) where you will not be bored. But, be mindful that too much stress can lead to becoming anxious. Look to reframe the situation and play a game within the game to get this balance just right.
- Find some fun and less serious outlets that you can use before going into a match or event, like what Laura Massaro found before her semi-finals.
- Become child minded with yourself again and recall the reasons and the feelings of pure enjoyment when you first took up a new sport or activity. How you took on the challenge with no fear and attempted to match your skills to what was right in front of you in that moment.
- If your identity of self is becoming too wrapped up in your sport then find a different outlet that stimulates you and brings back the feeling of joy and fun for a task or activity. See if you can take on something new with a beginners mind. Some examples may include learning to write code, amateur photography, taking a course in graphic design, learning an instrument, picking a new sport, discovering how to cook, or even learning to teach and coach the sport you are involved with. Learning to teach and give back to your sport is one of the most rewarding and mentally healthy things anyone can do.
If you liked this blog, please do share with others that may be interested on this subject and find it of use. I work closely with players on all aspects of their game and mind. I offer online Zoom lessons and become a mentor and accountability partner for players. I find 1:1 online lessons immensely powerful for learning and am now using the court more so for practice. Being able to learn away from the ‘distractions’ of playing is proving to be highly valuable.
“Learn online, practice on-court.”
Please do get in touch by emailing me: email@example.com