Physically Back on the Field / Mentally Back in the Game

By Linda Sterling, PhD, CMPC

As the pandemic winds down and sports seasons ramp up, making sure student athletes are ready for their return to sport is about more than making sure their uniform fits. Mindset matters.

It’s game time again. After the longest, strangest off-season, sports are back. In the past year, some seasons were cancelled. Other seasons were delayed. Still more seasons were thrown off course with team and individual player quarantines. In a few places, sports never left, but they looked very different with restrictions on and off the field. No matter what the case was with your athlete’s season, it likely caused some mindset challenges for you and your athlete.

As we head into a new sports season, athletes are excited to get back on the field and parents are pumped to sit in the stands. But how do you get your mind right for the season?

Advice for Sport Parents

As a parent, you’ve watched your athlete navigate the extended off-season challenges. You’ve experienced them yourself too. As sport starts back up for your athlete, give them time to ease back in. They may have left the track last spring as a top sprinter and now find themselves doubting their ability. Maybe they were the #1 goal keeper and they feel like they’re not anticipating the shots like they used to. Some of that is normal. The transition back into sport can be challenging. It’s similar to returning from injury.

Some skills will come right back, but athletes may be a little rusty in others. Knowing this is normal and not putting extra stress on athletes to be “back” quickly will help alleviate some of the stress they may feel. Avoid blame about off-season work that did or didn’t happen. Maybe you tried to get your athlete to do off-season training. Stay away from “I told you so” statements even if the first thing  your athlete says after practice is “I’m so out of
playing shape!” Help your athlete not blame themselves too. We can’t go back and change it so don’t give energy to it. Energy goes to what you’re building now…a great season.

Like physical skills, the competitive mindset might not come back right away either. This is not cause for alarm. After sitting out for several months, unable to train as they normally would, it makes sense that it would throw even the most mentally tough athlete off their game for a moment. When we don’t regularly get into “game day mode,” it doesn’t come as easily, but I’ve got some tips for that.

You might be thinking, “This isn’t my athlete at all. My athlete is the most pumped I’ve ever seen her.” That makes sense too. Athletes love their sport and getting back on the field can be super exciting. Staying pumped without getting overwhelmed with high expectations for the season ahead is important. I’ve got tips for that too.

Energy goes to what you’re building now…a great season.

While you’re acknowledging how tough this transition has been for your athlete, don’t forget to acknowledge how challenging it was for you too. You also lost a season. You’re a sport parent. You love watching your athlete play. There is definitely an element of grief happening here. Pay attention to your own thoughts and feelings. Get all of your thoughts and feelings out of your head and onto paper. You might find that you feel better just acknowledging the thoughts and feeling the feelings. As you process, make sure you “turn out” to share. Don’t vent to your athlete. When you think of a lost season, at the center of that loss is the athlete. As the parent, you’re a level out from there. Always turn outward to process. Share with a friend or talk with a professional, but don’t put that on your athlete. Your athlete should be able to “turn out” to you.

One of the best things you can do for your athlete is to help them develop their mental game. Ideally, they’d work with a sport psychology/mental performance coach and you can encourage them as they do the work. Here are a few tips I share with athletes who are returning to play.

Advice for Athletes

Intentional Goals  |  You’ve been out of sports for a while or at least out of your regular sport routine, so it’s a good idea to revisit previous goals and set some new goals. It’s important to set goals that are meaningful and resonate with you, not just ones that seem expected or sound good. SMART goals are great, but they don’t get you motivated to practice every day. To set intentional goals, get a blank sheet of paper and spend some time thinking about who you want to be as an athlete. Write down all of the words that describe the athlete you want to be this season. You’ll find it’s easy to get 5-10 words, challenge yourself to fill up the page. Don’t censor yourself. Think about all components of your game: mindset, foundational skills, leadership, physical training. Once you’ve exhausted your list, group the similar words together. Four categories work well. For each category then write out three things you need to do to make it happen. Once you’re done, come up with a name for your goal…who you will be this season. This doesn’t have to be measurable or meaningful to anyone else, just to you. Then keep that goal close to you all season.

Imagery  |  Imagery is a triple threat mindset technique. It can be motivational and inspirational, but it also helps with confidence (it’s like you’ve been there). Imagery is especially important as athletes wait for the season to start. When you can’t physically play, imagery is the next best thing. Combine the two and you’ve got a powerful combo. To do imagery: Find a quiet space and set a timer for 20-30 minutes and spend some time remembering who you are as an athlete. It can be helpful to remember your best performance or a competition that was really fun. Remember all of the details and include all of your senses. This helps you get back in the game even before you’re actually there. As you get great at imagery, you can start perfecting your game by visualizing it.

Get a blank sheet of paper and spend some time thinking about who you want to be as an athlete.

Intensity Level  |  All athletes have an optimal intensity level. The hype level where you play best. Think about your level. Are you high intensity, mid-level, or chill? If you’re having trouble thinking of where that is for you, it can help to think about your team or competitors. Do you have teammates who are climbing the fences pumped? Are you calmer than that or are you that athlete? No judgment, just determine where you are your best. Once you’ve decided, develop a routine to help you get into your optimal zone. Do you need quiet time? Loud music? After an extended time away, it’ll be important to find that zone again and put practices in place to get ready. This is especially true if your day involves online learning. After you shut the laptop, take a break then set a time to start getting in that practice/competition mindset.

It’s been a tough off-season for athletes and for sport parents, but sports are back. While it’s exciting, it can be stressful too. Be flexible as you support your athlete and yourself. The comeback to sport may not (probably won’t) look just like you thought it would. Be supportive and get support when needed. If coming back to sport feels overwhelming and the pressure starts to grow, take time to appreciate getting to play. Remember the love of the game. Enjoy the season! P

Linda Sterling, PhD, CMPC, a former collegiate softball player, has masters and doctoral degrees in Counseling Psychology and Sport Psychology and is a licensed professional counselor and Certified Mental Performance Consultant. To learn more about her approach, visit

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