The holiday season tends to be relatively routine for many people. We spend quality time with family to catch up with those we haven’t seen or to strengthen our relationship with those we see regularly. Regardless of the circumstance, the holiday season strengthens one’s cohesion with others as well as refills their identity outside of sport. Now imagine you are overseas playing the sport you love, but this means you are excluded from the convenience of your family time for the holidays. This can be hard for just about anyone, but there are multiple mental strategies to help you manage your mental game during this emotional holiday season.
Hi everyone! My name is Kelsey Gustafson, and I am a Mental Performance Consultant in the United States, specifically in Michigan. My work with athletes is customized to their needs, focusing on learning to play and live in the present moment. Athletes I train know how to manage pressure, keep their attention in the present moment, notice their mental traps to become more mentally prepared, and sustain their focus to recognize and recover from adversity with confidence. After some fundamental mental skills training and the development of effective performance self-talk and routines, we will explore process-oriented goals, create an identity statement, and learn how to visualize to have better concentration under pressure in competition.
To gauge what strategies will work best for athletes who are experiencing mental turmoil during the holiday season, it is essential to understand the research of why we as humans think the way we do. As individuals, we have three psychological needs that motivate us. These psychological needs are categorized into autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Cherry, K.), and are associated with Self-determination Theory, founded by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (University of Rochester Medical Center). Autonomy is part of an individual’s need for independence or freedom. Many athletes who choose to play overseas need to have a strong sense of autonomy to take the initial leap out of their typical environment. This leads us to the second psychological need for competence. Competence is the trait of having sufficient skills and knowledge about what you are participating in. Many overseas athletes require competence in their sport to maintain a high level of play. Finally, we need a form of kindship to proceed through our daily lives. Having a close-knit group of people, we care for is essential to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and daily motivation.
Now that we know more about what we desire as individuals, kinship will likely be the psychological need that requires more attention during the holidays. The most valuable skills that will apply in this situation will be the Foundation Skills of sports psychology. These are interpersonal resources that can be easily found within yourself…. Meaning these are skills that can be acquired quickly if worked on often.
Our mind is a beautiful place… when it wants to be. In many cases, our minds are good at finding ways to search for the small ounces of negative embedded in the significant positive areas. Learning to acquire the skill of productive thinking is one of the first skills I introduce to the athletes I work with. Learning how to develop the ability to manage your thoughts enables you to respond effectively to life events. These life events in question being the separation from your family for the holidays. Here are four of my favorite strategies to give to my athletes when they are struggling to find the positive in their given situation:
- Re-examine your “why”—>To make the holiday season a little more bearable this year, it might be essential to recall the reason you are making the sacrifice to be away from your family in the first place. To perform at your peak, you need to define why you chose to move away from home. Learning to find the positive that you are making the right choice to excel towards your ultimate goals will be the driving force to maintain your purpose, motivation, determination, and a constant reminder of your direction.
- Positive self-talk—>The way we talk to ourselves matters! Earlier I mentioned that our minds have a natural way of searching for the negative and making it more significant than it is. That little voice saying negative statements is what we can our “inner monologue.” We want that inner voice to be positive by using positive self-talk strategies. Positive self-talk is the counterpoint that encourages you to be optimistic and look at the bright side of your situation. For example, as the holidays are approaching, you might find yourself feeling that you miss your routine environment with your loved ones. Instead, reframe those thoughts into positive notions by reminding yourself that change can be a good thing and that this feeling likely will not last forever.
- Gratitude Journal—>Writing down your thoughts daily is a great way to become more connected to your mind! Implementing a way to write down and reflect on thoughts throughout the day may provide some mental clarity this holiday season. Gratitude journaling is a way to encourage yourself to pay attention to the good things in life that you may otherwise take for granted. You can practice gratitude by writing down 5-10 reasons you are grateful for your opportunity to compete overseas while also including how grateful you may be for having a family supporting you from across the pond.
- Control the controllable—>This skill may seem self-explanatory; however, many athletes, and people in general, struggle with controlling what is in their control. This can be done by aiming to control what you can to create a sense of empowerment in athletes. Although you may not be able to control your physical obligation to overseas competition during the holidays, you can control the little things that might help you mentally feel more at ease. This can look like reaching out to your family as much as you can when the time zones match up. This can also include letting them know how much they mean to you and how grateful you are to have them in your corner as a support system. We may not be able to control the past or future, but we can always control the present and what it takes to be mentally tough daily.
In summary, the holidays can be challenging for anyone in any circumstance. If you have a family you are longing for and missing this holiday; I encourage you to reframe the simple fact that you HAVE a family to miss and miss you! Celebrate the support you have and the love you feel for those at home because just as you miss them, they miss you too. I encourage you to take one day at a time and remember that most feelings are temporary; however, it is your daily choice to strengthen your belief in your internal resources and abilities to achieve success. Be confident in your choice, be confident in your mind, and most importantly, be confident in yourself.
Coach Kelsey Gustafson MPC
Cherry, K. (2022, November 8). What is self-determination theory? Verywell Mind. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-self-determination-theory-2795387#:~:text=Self%2Ddetermination%20theory%20grew%20out,Intrinsic%20Motivation%20in%20Human%20Behavior
University of Rochester Medical Center . (n.d.). Our approach- Self Determination Theory . Self-Determination Theory of Motivation – Center for Community Health & Prevention – University of Rochester Medical Center. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/community-health/patient-care/self-determination-theory.aspx