The Athlete Mindset

(Originally written – Summer 2009)

A mindset is a set of thought patterns and beliefs that drive our behaviors. We have mindsets about many aspects of our lives. We have a mindsets about work, play, family and more. We also have overarching mindsets that color our worlds such as optimist or pessimist. The “athlete mindset” is something I refer to that encompasses a certain fighting competitive spirit even in the face of, or should I say especially in the face of adversity and challenges. It incorporates a number of mental game topics such as mental toughness, focus, determination, goal orientation, etc.

The athlete mindset sees problems or barriers as hurdles… something to clear and keep on running; or like an opponent to out-maneuver or defeat. It also means being there to help your team be the best it can be by supporting team members. Of course athletes display this mindset in varying degrees. It’s quite individual.

Though it is something that athletes come to know on the playing field (or running course). The athlete mindset is not just for the athletic world. It can spill over into other parts of life. Often professional athletes turn their energies and that athlete mindset into successful second careers in business for example. Another perfect example is Lance Armstrong who took his athlete mindset and attacked cancer. He attacked his rehabilitation similarly. And of course to return to elite competition he approached his reconditioning the same way. But it’s not just for the famous or professional athlete to exhibit.

Recently, my family has encountered something that unfortunately many others have had to deal with. My wife Debbie was diagnosed with breast cancer. Aside from the shock of hearing those words and beyond the typical emotional reactions there was something interesting that I observed. The athlete mindset. Deb has been a soccer player (usually defense or sweeper) for many years and had planned to play in a tournament only two weeks after “D-Day” – diagnosis day. Immediately after our doctor appointment she looked to me and said, “I just want to make my tournament.” She didn’t want anything to stand in the way of “living.” This was not an idle comment. There was fire in her eyes and her statement. I would not have wanted to be the doctor telling her she couldn’t! [Yes, she went and played the tournament all weekend long. Her team got to the semi-finals. And by the way, she’s the oldest on the team and starting defenseman.]

Yesterday we met with the oncologist. I sit here today writing as she has her second surgery. The first one wasn’t able to get all of the tumor and lymph nodes. In about a month chemotherapy will commence and last 4-6 months. Radiation is still possible and then there are pills for five years. But what I want to focus on and share is the demonstration of the athlete mindset.

After that first doctor appointment, Deb turned to me and said, “I’m going to fight this. I’m too young and I have too much still to do!”

For the oncologist beyond some of the typical medical questions we asked; Deb asked what was really eating away at her: “How soon could I play soccer?” “Can I play soccer while getting chemo?” “Will the possibilities of osteoporosis stop me from playing soccer?”

The good news is that the doctor (a former soccer player) said that there is no reason to believe she couldn’t return to full activities. What I knew before he answered was that his answer really didn’t matter. She is going to return regardless of what he said.

The night before last she went out to the field where her team was scheduled to play. She dropped by just to tell them she’ll be back by the winter season – save her spot. Of course while there, she had to critique the defense and sweeper. She came home and reported that they really need her back on the team. She exhibits “the athlete mindset.” She takes on a challenge as something to attack just like an opponent on the field. And she’ll fight to keep her position.

So it brings me to this. I think there are questions each of us should think about related to this “athlete mindset.” Just food for thought.

  • How do we demonstrate the athlete mindset?
  • Do you use the athlete mindset in your rebounding from injuries?
  • Do you use it at work or with your career?
  • As a team player, if you have someone in your life in need of support do you take on the athlete mindset?

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