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5 ways this sports psychologist gets her athletes ready for the main event

by Kelton Wright

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Life is full of big moments. Graduations, job interviews, proposals on paper and bended knee, races, qualifiers, auditions, even just walking across the room to say hello at the right moment. Sometimes we see them coming a mile away, sometimes we don’t see them in anything but hindsight. But what we can do, no matter the moment, is prepare for them. You might think don’t I need to know the kind of moment to prepare? Not really, no. For all life’s big moments, there are only a few things you need to be: focused, calm, and present.

Katie Warriner, a sports psychologist who guided British athletes through both the London and Rio Olympic Games, knows a thing or two about preparing for a big event. Here’s how she gets her athletes ready:

1. Break down your goal.

A goal you can’t control sets you up for some element of failure. Warriner suggests breaking it down further. “If you go in with a goal that is not entirely in your control,” she says, “you’re more likely to be overly nervous or get more easily distracted. It’s crucial therefore to break your goal down into what you can control.” It’s within your control to put in your best effort. You can control how you train your body, how you train your mind, how you fuel, etc. Make those your goals.

2. Figure out your values.

Warriner has seen that values can be massively performance enhancing, especially when those values are framed as actions too. “Instead of ‘courage’ we’d phrase it as ‘commit fully through the nerves’,” she says. Think about your values carefully when looking at your goal. Why is that your goal? Is it because you want to inspire people? To be admired? Those value-based goals can be achieved through more than just muscle gains and promotions.

3. Think it through.

Warriner uses a tactic called “scenario planning” with both athletes and their coaches. In scenario planning, you’re asked to think of all the things that could throw you off your game, distract you, etc. Then, you walk through kinds of thoughts and feelings that could come up in that specific scenario. “I’m trying to help the athlete be more emotionally agile, to recognize that all sorts of thoughts and emotions will come up in this performance, and that’s OK,” said Warriner. She asks them to experience those emotions, rather than fight or fear them, so that they can then refocus on the job ahead.

4. Meditate.

Scenario planning is limited to your imagination, and sometimes, we can struggle to predict the things that end up throwing us from our game. But meditation can help us manage our reactions, even for things we can’t predict. Three weeks of using Headspace resulted in 23% more compassionate behavior and made users 57% less aggressive and reactive toward negative feedback. In four weeks, meditators showed a 14% increase in focus.

5. Iterate.

Breaking down large goals into smaller process goals allows more room for forgiveness and learning. “No one is 100% on it 100% of the time. Open up to how you’re feeling,” Warriner suggests. “There might be some data in there, some information that you would do well to pay attention to.”

Kelton Wright

Kelton Wright is the Editorial Director of Movement and Sport at Headspace. She is a published author, an avid cyclist, and a slow but enthusiastic trail runner. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @keltonwrites.

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