Sport Psychology for the Season on Hold

Sport Psych for the Season On Hold

Yesterday both of my sons’ track shoes came in the mail. A neon green pair of Nike throwing shoes and a neon yellow, green, and blue pair of Hoka distance spikes.

New shoes. New season. Let’s do this.

Should have been super exciting. They’ve been waiting on them to arrive. Regardless of age or sport, new shoes day is an awesome day.

But the day these shoes arrive isn’t happy.

Both of my sons have big goals for the track & field season.

A season that is now on hold.

When the new shoes arrived, so did the announcement. No school and no practice. And no season until…TBA

My middle schooler said, “I just need one meet.”

My high school sophomore hasn’t said much at all. Simply took his new, shiny soled, just-waiting-for-the-2-mile shoes up to his room.

That’s really tough.

It’s tough for athletes, coaches, parents, sport psychs, and even those who are a sport psych/parent combo.

Even with the uncertainty, we can focus on controlling the controllables. Right now a lot of that is mindset.

3 Sport Psychology Tips for a Season on Hold

There are so many things we could dive into, but with so much going on right now, I’d start with these and build from there.

Sport Psych Tip #1 Focus

Focus: You can only focus on so many things while practicing, during competition, or when living through a pandemic. Make sure your focus is where it matters. Train yourself to recognize what you can or cannot control and be able to shift your focus when necessary.

Here’s a quick activity to help you determine where to put your mental energy. Draw a large circle. Within that circle draw a smaller one. Label the inner circle as Things I Can Control. Label the outer circle as Things I Cannot Control. Reflect on life right now and think about what goes in each circle.

Example: You can’t control the cancellations, but you can control your level of physical activity and your self-talk.

You’ll likely find you’re focusing on some things that are out of your control. That’s completely normal, especially with the current life stressors, but it’s also unhelpful to keep your focus there. It’s unhelpful for not only your sport mindset, but for your life-in-general mindset.

Once you’ve identified the categories, you can refer back to it often. When you find yourself worrying about the uncontrollable, note it. “That’s not under my control” and reset to direct your energy to the controllable.

Sport Psych Tip #2 Training Log

Create a Training Log: You’ve got to keep moving if you want to be ready when the season resumes. But how do you stay motivated day in and day out? Tracking your progress will help you see where you’ve been and keep you focused on where you’re headed. Training logs can look different for every athlete. They don’t have to be perfect or pretty. Ideally, it’s going to include the date, objectives, and reflection.

Objectives: 1-3 things you want to focus on.

  • Can be set day of or post-training on the day before
  • May be based on insights from film review, coach feedback, or past journal entries
  • Incorporate mindset (e.g. attitude & effort) along with physical components

Reflection: Review your performance physically & mentally. Ask yourself questions like

  • What did I accomplish today?
  • Did I focus on my objectives?
  • What went well?
  • Where could I improve?
  • What did my self-talk sound like?

Sport Psych Tip #3 Imagery

Imagery: Imagery is a multi-purpose skill. It helps with confidence, motivation, and several other mental skills. When we can’t physically compete, the next best thing is to mentally compete. We often use this skill with injured athletes as a way to get mental reps. The same neurons fire in your brain whether you’re doing or visualizing.

Find a quiet place, close your eyes, and mentally take yourself through your performance. See yourself arriving at the venue. Take yourself through your warm up, the start of the contest, through the highlights, and end with a stellar performance.

Make sure to keep it positive, present tense, and detailed “I arrive at the stadium. I put on my perfectly broken in, bright, bright neon green shoes. I’m confident and ready as I approach the start line.”

When your season is on hold, you step up your sport psychology game.

You know how sports movies have the training scenes? A montage of an athlete working hard, facing, obstacles. Blood, sweat, and tears. All set to music. Leading up to their moment to shine.

That’s where you are. In the training sequence. Your own montage moment. And your mindset will help make it happen.

For support along the way, reach out to teammates and other athletes who are in the same position. At Sterling Sport Mindset, we’re here for you too. We offer free mini sessions to get started. Online sessions available from any location.

Go get ’em!

Dr. Linda Sterling, CMPC

P.S. Are you a former client? Now would be a great time to check-in. We’d love to hear how you’re doing & help you navigate this unprecedented situation. Email or schedule an online check-in appointment.

Grieving the Canceled Athletic Season

Grieving the Canceled Athletic Season


No meets, no double-headers, no conference tournament, no championship.

It’s going to take a while to process.

For some, you were at the culmination of your season…maybe even your career. NCAA Indoor Track & Field competitors, you were at the actual venue. So close to competing. On the brink of realizing goals you’ve worked tirelessly for. As I type, I know these words sound flat. They don’t even begin to capture what you’ve put into this season, this athletic career. And I can only begin to imagine the suck right now.

Actually, right now it probably hasn’t fully sunk in. Doesn’t seem real. What does seem real right now? Nothing is normal. No back from Spring Break social gatherings. Classes moved online. Your favorite jacket locked in your dorm room. Can’t go on a vacation. Not sure if you even want to go to the store.

The world is a little scary right now. A lot of uncertainty. Concern for yourself and those around you. Fear. Panic. Angry social media posts.

Even with all of this going on…

It’s okay to grieve your canceled athletic season.

It’s okay to grieve your season. Even during a pandemic.

It’s okay to be sad. Devastated. Heartbroken. Pissed. Furious. Bitter.

You don’t have to be happy. No need to be brave or smile in this moment.

When asked how you’re doing, I know you may feel the need to say something along the lines of “I know it’s just a game” “there are bigger concerns out there” “we just want everyone to be safe.” And I know you truly do care about the safety of others, but I also know that the following is true.

Diminishing your pain doesn’t keep others healthy and it sure doesn’t help you heal.

You’re allowed to say that to anyone who says otherwise to you.

Side note: No one knows what to say right now. And many will unintentionally say the wrong thing.

Sport psychology thoughts on grieving the athletic season.

Take the time. Feel the feelings. If you bottle them up, it gets worse. Cry. Journal. Stay on the couch for 3 days. Take a walk. Play video games all day. Take some time for you.

Rushing the process doesn’t work. Feeling through it does.

When you’re ready, do a thought download. Write down all of the things you’re thinking and feeling. Really, write it all down. Don’t censor yourself. There’s power in getting it out of your head and onto paper.

Once you’ve written all the things. Do another list. Think about why you play. Write everything you’re proud of from this season, past seasons, and from your entire athletic career. Every training goal achieved. All the practices you pushed through. The bond you developed with your teammates. Your desire to play up until it was called. You’re a badass, even if it doesn’t feel like it now.

Once you’ve given yourself some time (however long it takes), start dreaming again. Sport. Life. You’ve got goals. When you’re ready, you’ll go get ’em.

Dr. Linda Sterling

If you or your teammates are struggling or you’d like help processing, please reach out. We’re here via phone or Zoom from anywhere. You can reach us through our website or via email at

More info about mini sessions available here:

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If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, please call Mental Health Crisis Hotline (24/7): 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

Sport Psychology in the Empty Stadium

sport psychology in the empty stadium

When NCAA athletes began their off-season training, no one could have predicted this. Athletes prepare for many scenarios, but competing for a National Championship in an empty stadium? In the midst of a pandemic. Highly doubtful. But here we are. Thankfully, sport psychology helps in times of adversity.

I’d like to tell you that all of my sport psych clients are prepared for this exact scenario. Of course they’re not, but they know how to get there. Quickly.

Sport Psychology

Sport psychology, the mental side of sport, is often overlooked or dismissed. We think athletes are either mentally tough or they’re not. Unfortunately a stigma still exists. Spoiler alert: Mindset skills are like any other skills. They can be learned.

The mental game is mentioned casually (and usually often after a loss), but most athletic programs don’t spend a ton of time or resources on it. In times like these, it will pay off for the programs that do.

When the competition is fierce, the mental game is the game changer.

And that couldn’t be more true when you’re playing in the biggest of games…with no one in the stands.

Those who’ve done the mindset work will have the edge.

Here are three sport psychology tips I’d share with athletes going into this situation.

3 Sport Psychology Tips

Tip #1: Imagery

See it. Believe it.

I encourage all of my clients to do imagery before competition. The night before and morning of are great times for this. Imagery helps with confidence and motivation. It’s like we’ve been there. In this unexpected scenario, no one has been there, so it’s time to rework the imagery.

Your imagery probably includes seeing the crowd, hearing the crowd, and maybe even “feeling” the vibration from the crowd. You’re going to want to revamp. I’d suggest first creating an image of the empty stadium. See yourself running out onto the court feeling confident, loving this change, playing for your teammates, getting back to basketball. As always, keep your imagery present tense, positive, and detailed using all of your senses.

Tip #2: Composure

Get & stay in the zone.

You’re not going to have the same adrenaline rush. You can’t count on the crowd for an energy boost. The vibe will not be the same. That’s okay, because the fire comes from within for you.

You know how to get yourself ready. You know how to find your zone of optimal functioning.

Your pre-game routine may just need tweaked a little. Find a way to make it special.

If in the past you stayed fairly chill and counted on the crowd to get you pumped, you’ll need to increase the internal hype level. Switch up the pre-game music, connect with what drives you, focus on delivering for your teammates.

Remember when you “flip that switch.” Whether it’s when you first run out on the court, when you take off your warm-up, or right after the national anthem, stick with it. That’ll help you get dialed in.

Tip #3: Thought Work

Thoughts–feelings–actions–results. And you get to decide.

You’re going to hear, see, and read a lot about the decision to have empty stadiums. Fans are bummed. Families are disappointed. And this probably isn’t how you dreamed up this moment.

Feel the disappointment and then feel the fire.

Denying feelings doesn’t help. Take a second to acknowledge your emotions about it. Then know that this is what we’ve got. It is what it is. Arguing with it isn’t a good use of your energy.

You control how you spin it. Embrace the pick-up game atmosphere. Get back to the pure love of the game. See it as a chance to make history, because it most certainly is.

I know that’s easier said than done. Most of the work I do with clients is around thought work. Letting the unhelpful thoughts go and embracing the helpful ones. You really do get to choose, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

With that being said, don’t try to force yourself into feeling positive about this.

If you can’t get to a “I wouldn’t have it any other way” thought then go to a neutral thought. A neutral thought is something your brain isn’t going to argue with. Something like “I’m playing in the tournament” or “I play basketball.” Sound boring? Exactly. It’s neutral.

Neutral feels better mentally and physically than negative and it doesn’t have your brain arguing with itself the way a fake positive thought does.

You couldn’t have predicted this, but you can prepare.

You’ve Got This

At Sterling Sport Mindset, this is what we do. We help prepare athletes for whatever comes their way, in sport & life. Developing a best performance, every performance mindset. Ready to check out sport psychology? Want to tailor these skills to you? Schedule a free mini session and we’ll get started.

Go get ’em!

Dr. Linda Sterling. Sport Psychology

P.S. We are very concerned about the effects of COVID-19 and support taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Sports Movies are Fiction

sports movies are fiction

Coach Carter is one of my all-time favorite sports movies. Why? Because I love how realistic it is. SPOILER ALERT: the team does not win the final game. In fact, despite overcoming all sorts of trials and tribulations, beating all the odds, and coming together as a family; they get bounced in the very first round of the playoffs. Getting to the playoffs was a huge accomplishment in the first place, but the movie did not end with the team hoisting the championship trophy in slow motion with inspirational music playing in the background as the credits crawled up the screen.

It was real.

It was raw.

Sports movies are my second favorite genre of film; second to any type of Christmas movie. And yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but that is an argument for another blog. One thing that I enjoy about sports movies is that they almost always follow an underdog that somehow beats the big bad team in the last game of the year. It’s a classic “good vs. evil” plotline that almost always has the good guys winning. 

But how realistic is that? 

  • What would have happened to Rocky if he got dropped in the first round to Apollo Creed?What if Rudy quit the Notre Dame football team because he had no shot of playing a big role?
  • What if the Titans of TC Williams High School lost the state championship?
  • What if Vince Papale had been cut by the Philadelphia Eagles and never sniffed an NFL field?
  • What if the Average Joes would have lost the final dodgeball match to Globo Gym?

Would movies still be made about these situations if they all lost? 

Probably not.

But why is that?

Because people go to movies to escape reality, not to be faced with it.

Sports are fantastic, and I am forever thankful that my parents signed me up for my first baseball team way back in 1998. Besides the Oklahoma State Little League Tournament of 2007, I have never won a championship. I have received zero individual on-field accolades. I barely played in college. The closest I ever got to playing professionally was the summer before my first year of college when half of my summer team ended up having pro careers. I did not have the most successful baseball career. As a pitcher, if you were to ask me my senior year of high school how many wins I would have by the time I graduated college, I would bet my life that I would have said a number higher than 1. Yes, I do only have 1 win in college.

Stereotypical happy endings are rare.

I believe that sports movies sometimes give us a false sense of entitlement that we have earned the right to have success in the big game because we have overcome adversity, obstacles, and have worked hard. 

The bottom line is that winning is never guaranteed no matter the perception we have of how we have “outworked our opponent” or how we “want it more than them.” Your opponent does not care about your heartwarming story. The fact of the matter is that your opponent might not have worked as hard as you, they might not even care as much as you, but if they are better than you on gameday, then they deserve to win. 

 Another hard truth: winning is not everything.

I never had my day in the sun or my Hollywood ending. I was never carried off the field as the crowd chanted my name. My trophy case is barron, and no director will ever call me for the movie rights for my life. And that is okay. I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.

Like those kids who were coached by Ken Carter at Richmond High, I did not win the big game, but what I did win is something more valuable.I I learned discipline. I made friendships that will last a lifetime. I gained mental and physical toughness. I learned how to work hard. I found my
purpose. I learned lessons that go well beyond any sport I played.

Sometimes we do have a movie ending where we go out on top, but for most of us we won’t. My point is the ending to your own sports movie may not be how you wanted it to end, but it is how it was meant to end. The trick is to figure out how your ending fits into the rest of your life.

I hope you all have the perfect ending to your athletic careers. 

But how are you going to respond if you don’t?

What are the things you will remember the most when it’s all said and done?

Let’s talk about it in a free mini session.

Why I Don’t Listen to Music

why I don't listen to music

…when I workout.

Let me preface this by saying that I love music. You can definitely catch me singing my heart out in my car at a stoplight. It might be bad singing, but the intent is there. Another thing I want to say before I get into this post is that this strategy is what works for me. You might not even have the option to not listen to music because of the gym you workout at. Sometimes gyms just have music playing for everyone to hear. As a former college athlete, myself, I know that tingly feeling you get when you walk into that weight room and hear Metallica blasting through the loudspeakers. It’s awesome. It makes you want to not only lift heavy weights, but to also slam them down afterwards. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that lifting weights with music blaring isn’t always the most sensible choice. With this blog, I want to challenge you with 3 reasons why you should try exercising in silence.

So why do athletes lift with a “pump-up” playlist anyway? You can go to any music streaming service like Spotify or Apple Music and search for a workout mix and they will already have a playlist created that is meant to get you in the mood to workout. The songs are usually filled with fast-paced bangers with a solid, bassy beat going in the background. Some of the songs might even be written by the artist with the intent to be listened to while training like “Remember the Name” by Fort Minor and “Stronger” by Kanye West. Personally, I believe that music in a workout setting causes a reaction inside of ourselves that gets us excited to exercise. It might even be used as a sort of alarm clock to wake up the athletes that are working out if it is early in the morning. Could you imagine walking into a gym at 6 a.m. and hear classical music?

Some athletes refer to their sport as a war, a battle, a grind; I think that is an unfair comparison. But the act of listening to music before an actual battle has been around for centuries. You can even look in the history books and you will find instances of horns being blown before certain battles. Drums and horns were used to keep time and formations during marches. So, the use of music before a big event is not a new concept. The only thing that has changed is the type of music being listened to and the number of choices that people have nowadays.

I spoke with some current college athletes about why they choose to listen to music when they are working out. The common answer that I heard were as follows: it’s fun, it makes the workout go by faster, and it helps distract from some discomfort caused by the exercise. These are all valid reasons to want to listen to music while lifting or running. Some people even said that they make a specific playlist to be played as a sort of timing mechanism if they want to run a certain distance in particular amount of time. If they aren’t to a certain checkpoint in their run by the time a certain song comes on, then they know that they need to pick up the pace. There are valid reasons to supplement your workouts with music, but I challenge you, the next time you run or workout, to not listen to anything. I understand that public gyms have a lot going on, but don’t use headphones. Try exercising in complete silence. Let it be just you and your thoughts.

Here are three reasons why I think that working out in total silence could positively impact your future athletic performances:

1. It is much harder.

When you lift without music, you no longer have that extra motivation or pep in your step. In the 2017 documentary, “Born Strong”, Zydrunas Savickas, one of the strongest men to ever walk the earth said that he lifts alone simply because it is harder. He chooses to train in difficult environments, i.e. colder, darker, quieter, because during strongmen competitions, he is surrounded by thousands of people that give him energy that makes the weights feel lighter. Basically, he is making the training more difficult than the actual competition. I use this example because people use music as a sort of motivation-fire-starter. That type of motivation is fleeting. It’s fake. What are you going to do whenever you take the headphones off? What are you going to do when there is no music? It will be just you and your own thoughts; nothing else.

2. You can fill this silence with your own positive inner voice

Assuming you are doing some sort of training that is causing some sort of discomfort, you will have a choice of what you focus on. You can either focus on the pain you are feeling, or you can focus on your “why” and your goals. If you are able to do a plank wherever you are reading this blog, do it. Do a 30-second plank. During this time, I want you to focus on how uncomfortable you are feeling. Put all your attention on the struggle you are experiencing. Be aware of the pain you feel. You can do this for more than 30 seconds, but for the sake of this post, this will be our benchmark time. After the initial 30 seconds, take a break; not a long break, maybe 20 seconds. Get in the plank position again. But this time I want you to focus on your goals. Say them aloud. Be confident in your goals. Say them with conviction. Encourage yourself. Say things like, “I can do this,” “I am strong,” just say that over and over if you want “strong, strong, strong.” Do this and you’ll be surprised how much of a difference you notice. I’d bet that the second plank was not easier from a physical standpoint, but from a mindset point of view you will feel better.

3. The music won’t be there during competition or practice

Sure, some sports allow music to be played during the action, but you won’t be able to choose the playlist. Some venues do not even have loudspeakers. Of course, you can be singing or humming a song in your head, but in the end, it will just be you and your thoughts; nothing else. That song that got you through that tough workout won’t be pumping through your veins whenever you get popped in the mouth by an opponent. The playlist “Club Hits of Today” won’t be there for you whenever you walk the bases loaded with nobody out in the 7th inning of a conference game. It will be just you and your mindset. David Goggins, former Navy Seal, ultramarathoner, and author of one of my favorite books Can’t Hurt Me describes listening to music while exercising as cheating. “What the f*** do you do when the headphones come off? It’s just you and your own mind,” says Goggins. 

In closing, I did not always practice this strategy. It took me a long time to be able to feel comfortable enough with silence. I was alone with my own thoughts. Nothing and no one else was motivating me to work out, to push myself, to do one more rep but me. But once I made the choice to change my mindset about working out, my confidence went up, my positive self-talk improved, and I got stronger both mentally and physically. I have adopted the mindset of “I can do anything because I did it myself.”

Ready to adopt a new mindset? Schedule a free mini session!