Being a high-level athlete is chaotic. As a budding football, baseball, basketball or hockey player at the ages of 15 and 16, you’re dealing with huge amounts of change and pressure. Your body and mind are changing rapidly and your hormones are all over the map. Challenges are bigger, decisions are more impactful and you’re trying to manage everything, from sports to school to dating, while moving at break-neck speeds.
One of the best ways to help slow things down for an athlete is to keep a journal. A journal, above anything else, is a planning tool; it helps you gain invaluable perspective. With anything in life, those who are the most prepared are the ones in the best position to achieve success.
As a former athlete who tends to write about the human side of sports, I often wish I had Marty McFly’s Delorean that could take me back in time. If I could change just one thing, I would change how I mentally prepared myself for practices, games, and seasons. More specifically, I would begin keeping a journal while I was still in minor hockey.
I wasn’t always unprepared mentally. I actually did start using mental preparation tools such as a journal later in my career. A teammate of mine at the time got me onto keeping a journal to help me track my routines and to help set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Based) for myself. Journaling was a great way to stay in the present and stay grounded, but it was also a great way to gain perspective on my feelings and mindsets. Towards the end of my career, I was dealing with a lot of feelings and emotions; anger and uncertainty were always chiefly among them. Journaling helped me put things into perspective and helped connect the dots as to why I was feeling the way I was. It was around this time that I began to realize that solely connecting my self-worth to my performance as an athlete was a poor decision. I was more than just a hockey player and there was much more to life than hockey. Quite often, as a high-level athlete, you get so focused on your career that you forget who you are without it. Journaling helped me to grow beyond that mindset and in turn, helped me become a more focused, effective athlete.
Here are 5 benefits of journaling for athletes and their continuous improvement on and off the field/court/ice:
1. What Went Well vs. What Didn’t Go Well
In the world of sports, there is a tendency to focus on the negative. It’s all about, “What went wrong and how can we fix it.” In a black and white perspective, it makes sense: If we’re doing some things well on a consistent basis, why should be waste our time on that? However, since athletes are human beings and not robots, it’s important to address both the good and the bad. If the focus is always on the negative, it will have a progressively detrimental impact on confidence and mindset. So, when keeping a journal, be sure to make note of what went wrong, along with thoughts about how to achieve positive outcomes in the future, and also make note of what went well and take a moment to enjoy some sense of accomplishment with that.
2. Notes About Feelings/Emotions
Athletes, more than anyone else, are taught to be “tough.” They are told to “gut it out” and “don’t show weakness,” and this includes both the physical and mental states. With a lot of awareness and attention in sports today being focused on “mental toughness,” there is a misconception that being mentally tough means being able to ignore pain. In reality, one of the keys to being mentally tough is being able to examine your feelings and emotions and make sense of them. If you’re afraid to make a mistake in the game and you’re feeling insecure and anxious, “gutting it out” isn’t going to help you break free of the slump. You need to explore your feelings and get to the root cause of their existence. Journaling can help you track the path of your feelings and can often help you make sense of them.
3. In-Game Tendencies
In the age of system overkill and video analysis, sports are more systematic than ever. The best way to track all of the data pulled from these useful tools is a journal. For years, athletes have used journals to look for repetitive patterns to gain advantages over their opponents. Coaches make notes about systematic tendencies, while pitchers and batters make notes about each other’s swing or pitch selections. In hockey, goalies make notes about opposing shooters and their release points and shot tendencies. In football, quarterbacks make notes about opposing teams’ defensive tells. It’s a big game of cat and mouse and the team and players who prepare most effectively will undoubtedly have the mental edge.
4. Routine Notes
A great way to prepare for a game is to develop a pre-game routine. From what you eat and how long you sleep to the type of music you listen to and whether you use visualization or other preparatory tools, a pre-game routine can help you get centred and focused on what you need to do to be successful. Like anything in life, your pre-game routine may go through various levels of change. If you’re superstitious, your routine may change from game to game. If you’re on a winning streak, what was your routine like during that stretch? One way to help track these changes is to make notes of them in your journal.
5. Goal Development, Performance Measurement and Career Planning
As an athlete and now as a working professional on a career path, the single most effective development tool I learned to use was goal-setting. Using SMART goals to help plan ahead and break down larger processes into smaller components was and continues to be a game changer for me. A business mentor once put it into perspective for me with an analogy. He said, “If you’re planning a big vacation for your family, would you not work backwards from the goal “Big Vacation” and select a destination, then decide how you’re going to get there (air, land or sea), and decide what the bring, etc.? If that makes sense, then why don’t you take the same approach to your career?” The concept of breaking down large endeavours or goals into smaller, more manageable components is an extremely effective way to achieve success in all aspects of life. As an athlete this was first introduced to me by a coach who told me to quit worrying about results and focus on process goals. He told me to write down 5 goals for each game and try to achieve them. For a single game it might be:
- Zero turnovers at either blueline
- 5 finished checks
- Zero missed passes for completion
- 2 shots on net
- 3 forced turnovers
In our plan, if I was able to achieve these small, SMART goals, chances are the result would be a strong performance. It all comes down to planning small and achieving big. A journal is a great tool to help track this process.