Encouraging athletes to ‘show up’ to challenges in sport.

May 1, 2018

Toshow up is a phrase that is used in a variety of sporting contexts. Watching Sky Sports News on a week night (due to indecision with regards to Netflix), you will undoubtedly hear the phrase, ‘They just didn’t show up today’. It will often be used to describe a team’s lack lustre performance, lack of effort, or inability to rise to the challenge presented. But can we use this phrase to enhance performance, rather than just describing instances where it has been poor?


As I near the end of my PhD assessing mental toughness, a key concept in developing it is showing up to challenging situations and experiencing them, for good or bad.  Mentally tough individuals are consistent in their actions, they have developed an ability to perform in difficult situations. So how have they done that?


They have a willingness to experience these difficult performance moments.


The phenotype of that mentally tough individual is one were they give there all in a fitness test, they work hard in every gym session, they push themselves at training constantly. But what is underneath all of that? It will be comforting to know that they experience all those self-doubts, fears of failure and moments where they feel they can’t keep going. But they find a way to perform, while experiencing these thoughts and discomfort.

Reflecting on the above quote from Mark Twain, you will find an acknowledgement of that discomfort associated with a tough session, that pre game anxiety or that fear of failure. To become a mentally tough athlete you must learn how to cope with these difficult emotions and thoughts, and perform with them. How do we do that?




As the quote suggests, we need to develop a mastery of fear, as we cannot avoid fear, or other difficult thoughts and emotions. We do this through practice. But as an athlete or member of support staff, how can we develop this mastery?


1. Highlight opportunities when we experience difficult thoughts or emotions and ‘show up’ to them.


There are many opportunities throughout an athlete’s day to develop mental toughness. From something as simple as those two blue ticks on Whatsapp because you can’t be bothered communicating, to performing to the best of your ability in a conditioning session when you can’t be bothered. These are opportunities to practice preforming with difficult thoughts and emotions present. Practice showing up to them.


For athletes: Frame these challenges by asking yourself to show up to them. Even within the phrase, show up, that willingness to experience the difficult emotions is captured. You almost pin your shoulder back as you read it.


For support staff: We can help athletes to identify these tough moments in the way we communicate. In a message about a session or task they have to do that is maybe menial, ask them to show up to this challenge. “I know you are tired, but can you show up to that perform in this morning’s session”. It is vitally important for athletes to be aware of the opportunities when they present themselves, you can help them with that.  


2. Reflecting on these difficult moments, can you show up to that?


One thing we do not do often enough is explore why athletes did not perform or failed at something. We encourage athletes to ‘park’, ‘leave behind” or ‘forget’ about these moments. Why?


Probably because its awkward and uncomfortable. Are we showing up to that challenging conversation? If for example they hadn’t performed because they weren’t flexible enough or strong enough, this would be discussed and an S&C program would be drawn up immediately. Is this any different to having a difficult conversation regarding psychology?


For athletes: Can you show up to all the emotions and thoughts surrounding that poor performance, are you willing to relive it and discuss it in detail? By going through this process, you enhance your mental toughness. You perform (have the conversation) while having difficult thoughts and emotions. The nervousness, the anxiety, the hurt and embarrassment you feel, can you show up to it?


For support staff:  Can you develop the ability to have these difficult conservations with athletes? There may be tears, there may be hurt, and it may make you feel bad, but can you have that conversation while experiencing all of that. Why put yourself through that? It will make your athlete more mentally tough and ultimately, enhance their performance.


For more information on enhancing your mental toughness, why not check out our 3 session mental toughness program at this link - https://www.athletefocused.com/psychology 


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