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An Athlete's Search for Meaning

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

At TriState SportPsych we have adopted what on paper sounds like a fairly simple philosophy – “Make each moment meaningful.” In a world full of distraction (turns out twirling around one of those fidget spinners for hours on end isn’t all that meaningful) fostering meaningful moments can be a challenge. However, I firmly believe that regardless of the “conditions” (internal and external) as human beings we have the freedom and responsibility to choose how we respond to life’s stressors and interact with the circumstances of our lives. In this sense it comes down to making a conscious decision to choose actions that are consistent with our values. For example, a recent change I made in my life was to read for an hour before bed. Sure, binge watching the newest Netflix show was enjoyable but not necessarily meaningful. And that is the thing – what is meaningful is not always enjoyable in the moment. When we pursue meaningful directions in our lives it can come with a certain degree of discomfort.

Now, research has suggested that the average amount of decisions an adult makes on a daily basis is 35,000. Understandably not all of our decisions can be entirely meaningful. However, by stepping out of automatic pilot and being more aware of our decisions it is possible to start walking in the direction of what is most meaningful.

To cultivate this way of being and moment to moment intentionality I often have athletes complete the following two-part exercise. Below I will describe both parts.

Part 1: Sport Retirement Ceremony:

Take a moment to imagine a sport retirement ceremony being held in your honor. Depending upon where you are in your career this may be some time in the not so distant future or many years from now. Whatever the case may be, at this event there will be people who are important to you and to whom you are important that have come together to celebrate your sport career.

At the retirement ceremony several speeches are given about you from former teammates, coaches, friends, and family. Now imagine the most important person in that room to you gets up to give the final speech of the evening. This could be a parent, child, partner/significant other, former teammate, coach, team owner, etc.

Reflect upon what you would want them to say about you as a person. Not about your outcomes such as statistics and game winning moments but what would they say about your character? What would they say you stood for? What would they say you meant to them? What type of example would they say you set for others? What might they say about how you’ve handled challenges, adversity, pain, losses? How would they say you’ve handled wins, triumphs, accomplishments? How would they say you approached each day?

If you’re anything like me you’ll now need to go back and slowly reread those questions. This exercise is not a race. There is no need to complete it quickly. Take your time, be introspective, and notice what comes up as you contemplate these questions.

As noted above, often we do not have direct control over the conditions in our life but we have the freedom to choose how we respond to those conditions. Perhaps this is best stated by psychiatrist and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning” Viktor Frankl when he said “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” To become more aware of that space and ultimately help athletes become more accountable for their behavioral choices I have them complete Part 2 of this exercise.

Part 2: Your Life as a Documentary:

Now that you have clarified what you want to stand for and the type of person you want to be, it is important to ensure that your behaviors support this intention. So imagine that ESPN is doing a reality tv style documentary on your season. Cameras follow you everywhere to record even the most trivial of events.

Reflect for a moment on your daily actions. Do your actions line up with the words said about you during the sport retirement ceremony? Based solely upon observation of your behavior on a scale of 1-to-10 (with 10 being highest) how much are you acting in a way that is consistent with how you want to be on a daily basis? What barriers (internally and externally) are standing in the way of living your life based upon how you want to act?

The above exercises can be adapted for other individuals involved in an athlete’s life, such as parents and coaches. For example, a parent can imagine what they’d want said about them during their child’s sport retirement ceremony. In this way a parent can reflect upon their own actions and if they are consistent with the type of parent they ideally would like to be.

Ultimately, growth never takes place overnight. However, if you are able to be reflective about how your own behavior and how it lines up with the type of person you want to be you’ll notice small opportunities for growth in each moment.

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