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The Mindful Athlete by Stephen Neer, MS, LPC

Updated: Apr 4

The Mindful Athlete by Stephen Neer, MS, LPC, Bergen County Moms

As a person who has competed as an athlete my whole life, I am no stranger to “performance anxiety.” Countless hours put in towards a skill, drilling the movement over and over again. One would think I would be totally confident in my abilities, right? Yet, without fail, I would find my thoughts questioning my ability to perform when it mattered.

Do I even know how to field a simple ground ball hit right at me? I would become oddly aware of all of my limbs and their extremities. I would begin to doubt my ability to coordinate them effectively and at the necessary speed to complete the athletic obstacle in front of me. Leading up to games or meets I would ask myself one million “what if” scenarios that I had never considered throughout practice or training. How am I supposed to go out there and perform?

The Power of Mindfulness and Rational Thinking

Insert rational thinking and the mindful athlete. On the outside, it would appear that sports are completely physically driven. To a certain degree, that would be accurate. However, the athlete who can challenge their irrational thoughts and engage in mindfulness is the one who can fully express their athletic abilities.

The mind is a tool in sports that can hinder or help your performance. Performance anxiety is the mind making the objective much larger or mean much more than it does. An example would be a thought like, “If I don’t play well tonight then I’m not a good player.” That thought can’t possibly be rational because being a “good” or “bad” player never hinges on one singular play, game, or even season.

Techniques for Overcoming Negative Thoughts

You might be thinking to yourself that this is all well and good but how do I get rid of these irrational thoughts and negative emotions? It’s not so much about eliminating the thoughts and feelings as much as it is about approaching them differently. The intrusive thoughts and pre-game anxiety are inevitable.

Despite that, through practice and repetition, we can “rewire” ourselves to acknowledge when we have a negative thought, identify it, and replace it with a more realistic thought. Going back to the example in the last paragraph, a more rational thought might look something like “We are facing a tough opponent but I am prepared.” Notice how this thought does not place any contingencies on the result of the performance.

Humans tend to think that their thoughts are reality when they really are guesses as to how things are going to be. Therefore, any speculations about how things are going to end up are merely guesses as to what the outcome will be. So, what help will that bring?

Mindfulness for Healthier Athletic Engagement

After repetition time and again, replacing irrational thoughts with rational thoughts, we now bring ourselves to mindfulness skills. Mindfulness merely means being aware of the moment. To be mindful is to attend to the variables in front of us in the here and now.

There are infinite ways to practice mindfulness and finding the right one for you can be greatly beneficial to your experience as an athlete (and as a person for that matter). A youth baseball coach of mine used to give us rubber bands to wear on our wrists during our games. He would encourage us to “snap” our rubber bands after a bad play. The symbolic meaning of snapping the band was to “bounce back” from the play. It was a call to bring yourself to the moment and the slight sting of the band helped to come back to the present.

Whether or not my coach knew it, he was facilitating a mindful practice. Trying to hit a tiny ball hurled at you from a close distance traveling up to ninety miles per hour is a challenging enough endeavor. Now imagine you are still thinking about the last play and not focused on what’s happening in front of you.

A Journey Beyond Athletics

Nearly my whole youth athletic years I completely identified as an athlete. Sports were my life. Although this resulted in being willing to put in thousands of hours of training, it also resulted in damaging my perception of myself. Due to being an athlete, if I made a mistake on the field it meant more than just me making a mistake on the field. It meant that I wasn’t good at the one thing that I cared about more than anything.

For me, this eroded my confidence and quite honestly led to an identity crisis when I found myself with a broken L5 vertebrae and was sidelined as a result. As I grew older, I was fortunate enough to recover from my injury and dive into new athletic passions. This time, I was no longer an athlete. I was a son, friend, husband, co-worker, and community member. Realizing there was so much more to me than an athlete helped to maintain a healthy approach to athletics that side-stepped potential burnout and physical injury.

Through this positive and realistic outlook on athletics, I maintained a level of sustainable consistency and managed my performance anxiety better than I ever had in my younger years. The greatest accomplishments of my sports career ended up happening in my late 20s rather than my adolescent years.

Acknowledge Your Potential with the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy

At the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy Department of Sports Performance, we offer individual counseling, and sports performance workshops for athletes, coaches, parents, and teams by utilizing the most evidence-based approaches outlined above.

Contact us today to find out what programs we can build for you, your team, and those that support your athletes.

Stephen Neer, MS, LPC, is a psychotherapist and co-director of the Sports Performance Department at Lukin Center for Psychotherapy, who specializes in treating children, adolescents, and young adults experiencing sports performance difficulties, anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and psychosocial and relational issues. He also has extensive knowledge of the autism spectrum.

Stephen’s use of the therapeutic alliance encourages an open, trusting relationship, and his theoretical approach incorporates the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), behavioral therapy, and person-centered therapy. His objective is to assist clients in recognizing their life goals, and to help them apply rational thinking to overcome the obstacles blocking them from those goals. He is trained in nutritional approaches, and incorporates them into his practice as well. 

Throughout his graduate studies, Stephen served as the director of a therapeutic summer day camp for individuals in need of social skills development and support. He has extensive knowledge of the autism spectrum, and has provided individual, group, and family therapy services at an outpatient setting for clients with autism. Stephen has a background in competitive sports and utilizes therapeutic approaches to assist individuals with sports performance anxiety, self-talk and the support system of the athlete including parents and coaches. Stephen earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in mental health counseling from Marist College.

Lukin Center for Psychotherapy, Bergen County Moms

20 Wilsey Square | Ridgewood, NJ 07450 | (551) 427-2458

60 Grand Avenue, Suite 104 | Englewood, NJ 07631 | (201) 403-1284

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277 Grove Street, Suite 202 | Jersey City, NJ 07302 | (201) 577-8124

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128 S. Euclid Avenue | Westfield, NJ 07090 | (908) 509-8336


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