Tough days are inevitable in sport. Sometimes, you might even have to deal with a string of bad days. No matter how hard you try, it’s just not getting any better. But as you become more experienced, you’ll realise that this is just part of your career. It is totally unrealistic to expect yourself to feel and perform perfectly every single day, week after week, month after month.
But how can you push through those tough sessions? Here are some of the ways to get through those hard days if you’re an athlete, and how to help if you’re a coach…
9 ways to push through those difficult training sessions or periods
Understanding that tough days are part of the process
No athlete has gone through their career without setbacks. But it’s how you view those tough sessions that really matters. Seeing them as temporary, a learning process that’s part of the journey and something that will drive you to become an even better athlete will help you to push through it.
If in doubt, zoom out
Something we often say to our athletes in our sport psychology sessions is: “If in doubt, zoom out”.
What we mean by this is that making progress in sport can feel like a long and winding road, which is difficult when we want better results right now. So, sometimes it’s helpful to zoom out a little bit to see the bigger picture, and how much progress you’ve actually done to get to this point.
This often allows athletes to take confidence in the small steps they are making towards a larger goal as well as reflecting more on the process.
Effort and commitment are more important
In those tough training moment, your performance isn’t going to be there. Instead, try and focus on staying committed and putting in the effort. It’s easy to give up when things get tough, but this isn’t how you become successful. Don’t focus too much on your performance, just focus on showing up and putting in the effort and you will get through it.
Remind yourself of previous successes
When your training isn’t going well, this can often have an effect on your confidence. Something that you can do about this is thinking about previous times you have been successful or overcome other tricky situations.
This will increase your self-efficacy, which is how confident you are about successfully completing a task. Meaning, reminding yourself that you have done well in the past can increase the belief that you will do so again in the future.
What are you working for?
When you are struggling, thinking about your goals and what you want to achieve can help to bring back that motivation so you can stay focused and keep working on them.
However, an important thing to note is to use process not performance goals. Process goals are more to do with the actual training process it takes to improve your performance, for example “making it to all of your training sessions”. In comparison, performance goals track your improvement in the sport, such as “taking at least three shots in the game”.
Process goals are more important because without them, you simply wouldn’t get any better. Nailing your process goals sets you up for your performance goals, they give you something to focus on and they are completely under your control. Therefore, they are better to focus on, particularly when you are going through a tough patch.
It is important as an athlete to brace yourself ahead of time. You need to be aware that it’s going to be tough and you’re going to have times where it feels hard. But that’s okay – it’s all part of the process. Mistakes are necessary to learn and become an even better athlete.
One thing you can do is set yourself expectations that setbacks and tough times are going to come. This way, when they do, it doesn’t come as a surprise, and you’ll be more ready to push your way through to the other side.
What can coaches do to help their athletes?
Focus on / praise helpful behaviours
When it gets tough, it’s difficult to expect everyone to be happy and positive all the time. If anything it’s unrealistic and harmful too.
So, instead of looking for positivity, looking for people who are behaving in the right way and then praising those behaviours is important. For example, praising athletes who stick with it, put more effort in, work hard, who are intense or proactive might help. Essentially, we want to praise the behaviours that you want to see again.
Use helpful self-talk
It’s hard for athletes to be positive all the time, especially during those tough days. As the coach, you can help them to change their mindset by encouraging helpful self-talk and incorporating it into your coaching.
When athletes are struggling, they may need extra positive feedback. This doesn’t mean ignoring the critiques, but it may be helpful to add in some extra positive comments to outweigh the negatives. It can be helpful to start with the critique and end on the positive note, as this leaves the athlete with a picture of what they did right and how to be successful. How you feed back to the athlete is also important as it influences how they talk to themselves about their performance.
Build a resilient and psychologically safe environment
Building the right environment is crucial to allow athletes to be able to firstly feel that it is okay to make mistakes and have setbacks, and secondly be able to work hard to come back from them.
Here are some ways that coaches can build a resilient environment:
- Coaches should ensure they know what resilience is and educate their athletes. It is about the ability to withstand pressure and overcome challenges.
- Coaches should encourage psychological skills such as self-talk, mental imagery and goal setting.
- Create an environment that is high in challenge and high in support to help build athletes’ resilience for performing under pressure.
- Finally, ensuring that athletes interpret any challenges through their ABC’s. Athletes need to recognise the Activating event, challenge unhelpful Beliefs and fight against negative Consequences.
A psychologically safe environment focuses on creating a healthy atmosphere that in turn allows athletes to thrive and become the best athlete they can be. It has been defined as a belief that a team feels safe to share “interpersonal risk-taking, such as asking for help, admitting one’s errors, or seeking feedback from others”.
It is a key component in cultivating successful performance. A psychologically safe environment allows for better teamwork, resilience and athlete satisfaction, and is important for the health of athletes. It allows them to ask for help and admit to mistakes, treating failure as a learning opportunity and feeling accepted so they can flourish and fulfil their potential without fear.
Read more about how to create a psychologically safe environment here.
Setbacks and failures are inevitable in sport. But they are important for learning and becoming an even better athlete. More importantly, it is how you view this setback and what you’re going to do about it. Using these skills will help you bounce back and perform at your best, ensuring you can reach your full potential.