The difference between a cool head and an anxiety attack? Ten deep breaths are a start. That, combined with a daily discipline of staying present can help athletes ward off stress when the competitive stakes are high.

Athletes who model poise and behavioral balance – among them NCAA leading scorer Caitlin Clark, gold medalist Simone Biles and former UNC star Kennedy Meeks – have addressed the value of self-care.

Dr. Joanne Perry

“If you only have the capacity to practice one mental skill each day, I’d recommend training mindfulness for 10 minutes per day,” said Dr. Joanne Perry, director of orthopedic and sport psychology at Novant Health Orthopedics & Sports Medicine - Cotswold. It’s the only sport psychology center in Charlotte.

“In athletes, we see a huge correlation between mindful attention and peak performance, in addition to mental wellness. The goal is to practice mindfulness outside of sports and trust that it’s going to show up when it matters.”

Perry knows. She’s the psychologist for several professional sports teams and has served as an embedded sport psychologist within the NFL, NBA, U.S. teams in top international competitions and NASCAR. Fundamental to her discussions with athletes is the need to develop a rigorous self-care routine.

“Self-care is investing in your future self to handle more stress in the moment,” Perry said. “It gives us the capacity to take on more before reaching that threshold of feeling overwhelmed.”

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Is the stigma fading when it comes to athletes acknowledging the need for taking care of their mental health?

Yes, and a lot of that destigmatization is occurring at the college level. In professional sports, I think sometimes there’s a hesitance where athletes may be less likely to be open or vulnerable because they don’t want that to be used against them. If you’re with a team that is intentional about normalizing and supporting this type of work, I think that makes athletes way more likely to develop skills, including mindfulness, breathwork and a self-care routine.


What is mindfulness in this context and how can athletes practice it while competing?

When we’re being mindful, we are present, nonreactive and nonjudgmental. We’re creating space between our experience and our response to it, which allows us to have more control over our response. The reason it’s so helpful for athletes is because it teaches them how to keep their attention in the moment. If your attention is in the future and you’re thinking, “I can’t let down my team,” that’s wasted attention. Our best performances occur when the majority of our attention is in the moment and on the task. When you’re not present, it’s difficult to get in the zone, and you’re not where your feet are.

When I’m talking to an athlete, I explain that mindfulness training is like a drill for their attention. If you’re practicing a drill, you’re trying to highlight a particular technique in the hopes of that technique translating when you’re competing.

What are the best ways to stay present in the moment?

One thing I talk about a lot with athletes is brushing their teeth: What does this toothbrush feel like against my teeth? How does the weight of it feel in my hand? What does the running water sound like? Am I shifting my weight back and forth? What does the toothpaste smell like? This way, we’re checking in with our sensory experiences and anchoring our attention in the present.

I think the majority of us are either living in the future, in the past or on autopilot. We’re a bit disconnected from our experiences. For athletes I recommend 10 minutes of intentional training each day. That could mean using guided meditation with apps like Headspace and Calm. And, I think if you're someone who struggles to sit still, yoga is a fantastic way to move with mindfulness. A lack of control breeds anxiety.


How does breathwork go hand-in-hand with practicing mindfulness?

A skill that’s really simple is focusing on the sound and feel of every inhale and exhale. A lot of us chest-breathe; those short, shallow breaths aren’t doing a lot for our bodies and our physiology. Instead, start and end your day with 10 diaphragmatic breaths. Put a hand on your chest and a hand on your belly; you want that lower hand to move. Doing this every day jump-starts your system to work more efficiently and with less stress and anxiety. It can reset your attention and stress response so that you’re better equipped to think through and make decisions.