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Human Performance, Performance | Jun 30, 2020
How does an athlete return to a sporting experience that could feel very different from what has been experienced since childhood?

A Leaders Performance Institute article brought to you in association with


As we all emerge to an uncertain ‘new normal’ and feel our way to what is the safest and most productive way to live life, the first step for athletes returning to a sporting experience is to admit, on a visceral level, that things are very different.


By John Burns

At least in the short term, there won’t be any 12th man on the American football field, there won’t be any fans shouting a lingering ‘GOALLLLLL’ on the soccer fields, and there won’t be any seventh inning stretch at the baseball stadiums to carry players through to the ninth inning. The sounds of silence in stadia without fans will likely only amplify the thoughts and feelings within each players head, as the fundamentals of each sport remain unchanged.

At the ReThink Group, we believe in the importance of using ALL thoughts and feelings as information. This is even more important throughout the many phases of this pandemic, especially for athletes returning to a sport that will feel very different than the one they have experienced since childhood. We have found that when an athlete tries to override or change a feeling, it only serves to turn up the ‘volume’ of the feeling.

Traditional thinking around mental skills says that you can’t use negative emotions. Obviously we don’t agree with that. Now is not the time to follow traditional advice that tells athletes to put any uncomfortable feelings behind them, ‘suck it up’, or just be positive.

In trying to push out or override the uncomfortable feelings, they will only become more intense and block forward momentum. I’d encourage athletes to be open to all of their thoughts and feelings. In doing so they will be able to better deal with the unique and unprecedented situations they will face. They will be totally and completely in the moment. Essentially, athletes with an ‘all in’ mindset who embrace the following three ideas should thrive in their return to sport, no matter how different the total experience is:

  • Focus on previous routines, adapt them to the new conditions, and create a framework for mental preparation that can lead to optimal performance.
  • Fill the void of fans with greater interaction among coaches and players, visualize the old experience, write down the previous feelings fan involvement created and read it prior to taking the field or stepping on the court.
  • Whether the cheers or jeers motivated players, they should remember the good and the bad of those thoughts, feelings, and emotions, using them as fuel to carry them forward.

It has felt really good to have a break from the constant demanding pressure, do I really want to start it all over again?

Let’s admit it! A break from old routines, demands and pressures has been welcomed to a certain extent by all of us. But, we can’t downplay the new kinds of pressures we have all felt along the way, either. The pressure has continued to be present, just in different forms.

Have I done enough to be ready to reemerge from this strong enough to play well? Have I rested enough to be ready to reemerge from this ready to play? Have I found a new level of balance between work and life that I would like to hold on to or modify? These were some of the questions and concerns. I heard from the members of the two Hendrick Motorsports pit crew teams I work with. Nobody wanted to be the guy that wasn’t physically ready to return, and yet they didn’t have access to the standard training tools they needed to be on their ‘A’ game when quarantine ended.

With minimal resources and accountability over the recent quarantine, all players will not emerge equally. Coaches and trainers will need to adapt, and each player’s mental state throughout the transition back will need to be assessed and re-assessed every step of the way. Now is an important time for coaches and team leaders to step up and engage athletes to develop deeper connections. Coaches who exhibit greater empathy and show understanding in the struggles players will face as they return will create better players and stronger teams on the other side of this pandemic. Being able to empathize and understand a player’s emotions is a very powerful tool for connecting with a player. Understanding and working through any kind of ‘trauma’ experienced during the shutdown will be an important first step in getting back into the game with a mindset that is open to new kinds of goals and new levels of joy.

A big part of that is tapping into the early motivation players had when they first began in their sport. What drew them to sport to begin with? I’d encourage athletes to sit and ponder an early memory about performing their craft at a transcendent level. Write it down, talk about it, or just take a few minutes to think about it. Let the memory play over a few times. Feel every feeling, thought, and emotion from that time. See all the colors. Smell any smells. Hear all the sounds. Remember how teammates, coaches, and family members joined in the celebration of that earlier moment. What did the future feel like to the athlete then? The attachment to some of these earlier memories can help athletes reemerge with greater mental strength and a renewed purpose.

What role should mental skills play in sport as athletes face a brave new world ahead?

Mental skills have always played an important role in sport, but mastering these skills in the uncertain, ‘fan-less’ future is what can truly lead to optimal performance within athletes. Sport will now require even greater resilience and resolve from athletes. This requires just as much training mentally, as the physical demands of any sport.

Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation will now be of paramount importance to gaining any athletic edge over the competition. Fans will no longer be there to pick players up when they are down, or to drive them to work harder when they get behind in the game, that all has come from within the mental makeup of each player. To do this well, patterns of thoughts and feelings within specific performance contexts need to be tracked. In creating a database of information along these lines, athletes and coaches alike will have the opportunity to clearly see what works and what doesn’t work.

For example, why does a pitcher struggle against the same batter year after year? Why can’t the kicker who performed well all season make an extra point in a championship game? The more a player can understand what they think and feel, the less fragile the razor’s edge of optimal performance is. Performance issues come when players get stuck in the feedback of their own thoughts. And, these are usually thoughts that reference the past. This feedback loop can be difficult to get out of. Only in using multiple nuanced words to describe the feelings and emotions can players become unstuck.

The pandemic has made it so that old reference points (games with fans present) may no longer exist and recent reference points were experienced in isolation, but there is an opportunity to begin to find new reference points that can positively impact performance. Players and coaches alike need to not only be aware of this, but create space to allow this work to be fully developed.

  • Employ the ReThink SuperPower Question: “What am I feeling and why?”
  • Track patterns of thoughts and feelings within a specific sport performance context
  • Show self-compassion in the challenges that will be faced ahead.

John Burns is Senior Consultant and Performance Advisor for the ReThink Group with a client roster that includes hedge fund managers, portfolio managers, and traders, as well as Hendrick Motor Sports NASCAR #9, #88, development pit crews. Prior to this role he worked as a floor trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for 17 years. John has traded futures, options on futures, equities, ETF’s on most exchanges worldwide. He has experience with mechanical, discretionary and algorithmic trading styles.

To learn more about John Burns and the ReThink Group team click here.

To follow the ReThink Group on Twitter click here and to follow John Burns click here.


More from the ReThink Group:

How Your Team Could Benefit from Taking a Risk Versus Reward Approach to Hiring and Management

When the Pressure is On, Help Your Athletes Rise to the Occasion through Radical Mental Skills

Why We Have Been Looking at Slumps the Wrong Way

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