Let’s jump right in here. A popular phrase to come out of the sport & performance psychology world of late is, “control the controllables”. I’ll admit, the phrase is catchy and seems to be simple enough. Almost a “no duh” moment, whereby when you hear it said all you think is that its the golden ticket to managing stressful situations. And then you find yourself ……. unsure of what you actually control.  The long and short of it is this; all you ever get to have control of is your effort, attitude, & focus. The rest is out of your hands.

Truthfully, a large percentage of us struggle with stressful situations because of a few key factors. First, we often times are so focused on the result we seek that we convince ourselves anything short is a failure. This outcome-focus triggers an automatic response of anxiety that can then create a feedback loop, “Because I feel anxious, I must have something to worry about…” And this is the second issue – being afraid, worrying, or doubting that what we want to have happen won’t. Or worse, the outcome we dread feels imminent and we can’t stop it from happening. And often times, these first two issues are a result of expectations. The source of such can come from others who demand certain things of us, from ourselves and our hopes/demands of who we believe we are supposed to be, or from the imaginary audience whom we ackowledge as the fans (or recruiters, selection committee, etc.). The end result, we struggle to perform well in the moment, because we are distracted by what we want to have happen (or not happen).

My recommendation is to peel it back and narrow your scope, without giving up the intention of being successful. As I noted above, the only things you have control over are your effort, attitude, and focus. EFFORT is likely the most important of the three. Quite simply, you have to be willing to TRY to succeed, accepting the fact that you cannot guarantee that you will be. This requires you challenge yourself, and this can be done with two simple questions. (1) Are you willing to try to be successful? (2) How willing are you to risk failure in your pursuit of success?  The answer you have to these two questions is infinitely more important than the actual difficulty of the situation you find yourself in, because without effort there will be no success.

The second controllable is ATTITUDE. This can be confusing and frustrating. Mostly because as we grow up, we only get feedback from others when they don’t like the negative attitude we present. But rarely are we given direction on how to have a positive attitude. This can leave us wondering what to do, and ultimately feeling like giving up. However, I would argue that bringing the right attitude is critical to motivating the level of effort you need. This too requires asking yourself a question, Can you effectively use hope, positivity, and eagerness in stressful situations? Each of these mental attitudes requires that you anticipate a successful outcome, and are willing to seek out good results, without feeling like the outcome itself is the determining factor of worthiness. In essence, having the will to succeed is critical in making the journey more important than the destination. By example, most people who have a great story to tell are more focused on what happened on the way, rather than where they ended up.

This brings me to the third controllable, FOCUS. And how many times have you heard a coach (or parent, or teacher, or….) yell out, “Focus!” Only to look at the athletes’ faces and realize they have no idea how, or on what, just that they must have their focus on the wrong thing. Realistically, everyone involved in the situation likely has their focus on the wrong thing – the result. The coach is unhappy with the outcome, and the athletes where focused on what they wanted at the end. Once again, the anxiety response is triggered. Alternatively, some might be distracted by other factors. Personal events in life can loom in our mind and pull our attention away from what we are doing. Regardles, what needs to happen is improved focus on the process. Be present in the moment, of what you are trying to execute, of situational factors that are important to respond to. When you simplify it, the only play that is really important is the one you are in right now. Previous plays are done, and the ones after will be reliant upon what happens when this one is over. Metaphorically, you can only climb the cliff face if you know where you are placing your next grip or hold.

Accepting you only have control over these three elements now allows you to be aware of choice. I often remind clients that you rarely get to choose what happens to you, but you do get to choose how you will respond. Life is going to be full of difficulty, and being an athlete means you are risking yourself to a point of failure with every play. Thus, your first choice is in whether or not you are willing to challenge yourself. Are you ready to try to climb one more step up the podium, or take on a higher level of competition? Your second choice is about responding to things that get “dropped” on you. By random draw in the tournament, you are paired against a strong opponent. Are you ready to compete to the best of your ability anyway? Your third choice is about self-care. Is the situation you find yourself in an acceptable risk of challenge, or are you putting yourself in harms way that is unhealthy? By a matter of choice, are you avoiding difficulty and challenge, or taking a step toward the “next level”.

My hope is this article gives you a better understanding of what you can, and cannot, control. The most elemental task is to try. Doing so with a positive attitude will elevate and sustain your motivation. Maintaining your focus on what you are doing now, allows you to be free of negative thoughts. And by employing all three you provide yourself with the power of choice. So, work hard, be energetic, and allow it to happen. Hopefully you have found this both insightful and beneficial in your own work as an athlete or coach. Should you find yourself wanting specific guidance in this area, why wait?  Make the call, bring in an expert.

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