Skills & Strategies

It is becoming increasingly clear that there is a strong link between well-being and performance. Whether it is at work, in the classroom, or on a playing field, our emotional and physical health has an impact on our ability to perform. For student-athletes, this is especially true.

Implementing these strategies will help you perform at the highest level on and off your venue of competition.


Breathing is a function of life we rarely think about and comes to us as second nature. Nevertheless, focused breathing can have profound effects on your ability to relax, regulate your emotions, reduce anxiety, and distract your mind from potential negative thoughts. Every individual is different, however using some of these simple breathing exercises can help you benefit from deep mindful breathing in stressful situations.


You can implement this exercise while standing or sitting, before a competition, in the classroom, or at home. The great thing about relaxation breathing is that it is a tool which you can use anywhere and anytime to help manage stress and emotion.

  • Be in a comfortable sitting or standing position. If seated, have your feet planted on the ground
  • Put one hand on your stomach and one hand on your upper chest
  • Close your eyes if you are comfortable with that, but it’s fine to have them open
  • Take a slow deep breath in through your nose, send the breath down to your stomach and try to move the hand on your stomach out, while minimizing the movement in your chest
  • Exhale through your mouth or nose, noticing that the hand on your stomach sinks in as you empty the air out
  • Ideally, your breath is passing down through your chest to go lower into your diaphragm area
  • Repeat


Another useful breathing strategy is called the Double Exhale. Follow the steps of the Relaxation Breathing exercise, but before repeating it, do a second exhale to push out as much air as possible. This will make room for a fuller inhale the next time. You can also think of it as pushing out more of that negative unwanted emotion which may still be in our system.

  • Be in a comfortable sitting or standing position.If seated, have your feet planted on the ground
  • Put one hand on your stomach and one hand on your upper chest
  • Close your eyes
  • Take a slow deep breath in through your nose, send the breath down to your stomach and try to move the hand on your stomach out while minimizing the movement in your chest
  • As you inhale count to four, stretching the inhale over the full count
  • Exhale through your mouth over a the full count of six
  • Repeat
Will Heininger Demonstrates the 10-Second Breath


There are many things to focus on in life. Add in the pressures of being a student-athlete to the load of an everyday college student and you can be overwhelmed. Nevertheless, helpful cognitive skills and strategies can be employed to process difficult times and achieve positive outcomes.


Cognitive reframing, also known as cognitive restructuring, is a skill taught to individuals to notice negative and intrusive thoughts and actively work to challenge/change those thoughts.

Four steps to change your thinking:

  1. Pay attention to your thoughts. Often we do not realize how negatively we talk to ourselves.
  2. Notice when these thoughts typically occur. This allows you to anticipate and manage negative or untrue thoughts.
  3. Challenge negative thoughts. Asking a few questions can be helpful:
      What would I tell a friend in this situation?
      Is there another way to look at this situation?
      What is the real evidence that my thoughts are true?
      What would my first step be to cope, if my worries turned out to be true?
  4. Replace negative and untrue thoughts with more realistic or helpful thoughts.

The biggest marker of success with this skill is practice. Mastering cognitive reframing does not happen overnight. The more you practice, the easier it becomes and the less time it takes to challenge the thoughts you may be having.

Cognitive Reframing with Kally Fayhee


If I were to tell you, “Don’t think about a polar bear,” what’s the first thing you think of? Many would say a polar bear. Thoughts can be seen in the same regard. So many times we tell ourselves not to think about the negative things. We often end up, instead, focused on them. Here’s a way to manage the worry thoughts so they don’t manage you.

  • Set aside 15 to 30 minutes for “worry time.” This can be daily or less frequently.
  • Select a setting with few, if any, distractions. Turn off your phone and computer.
  • Consider setting a timer for a specific amount of time.
  • Start worrying about anything and everything that comes to mind. Give it the attention it is seeking.
  • Once time is up, visualize packing the worries away in a box, bag, safe, etc., close it and remind yourself you can come back to it another time.
  • Now be intentional about what you want to focus on next and do it.


Mindful self-compassion is a skill rooted in the idea of accepting who you are. This means accepting the good and bad, the success and failure. Mindful self-compassion teaches us how to take a step back from a situation, understand that nobody is perfect, and learn to love and accept ourselves for our imperfections. The first step to utilizing mindful self-compassion is understanding that everyone experiences failure. For many of us, when faced with failure, we immediately judge, criticize, and think negatively about ourselves. The goal of mindful self-compassion is to better respond to ourselves and our failings with kindness and self-understanding. To build mindful self-compassion:

  • Write down a list of 10 positive affirmations about yourself that you can look at when you find yourself in a negative space.
  • Set a goal of writing three positive things about yourself, or about your day, before going to bed. This can help you to get in the habit of recognizing the good within yourself.
Mindful Self-Compassion with Jaimie Phelan


In athletics, visualizing an outcome you desire can be very powerful. Many individuals think visualization is a tool only used for sport. While it is beneficial in the athletic arena, it can be utilized in many different areas of life. Visualization has the ability to activate your creative subconscious and help in working towards your goals. Visualization can be done in many environments and time frames.

  • Start with a relaxation breath or two to center yourself and focus on the moment.
  • Identify the outcome you desire.
  • Begin to visualize the scene, using all of your senses if possible. What do you see, hear, smell, feel, maybe even taste?
  • Picture yourself taking the steps or actions towards the desired outcome and notice what that looks, sounds, smells and feels like.
  • Imagine yourself achieving the desired outcome and the reactions, emotions you might experience. Notice also any physical sensations that may result.
  • Seeing it, even in your mind’s eye, can result in believing it is possible.


Another way to destress and relax is to visualize yourself in a peaceful, comfortable, inviting place. Visualization can be done in many environments and time frames.

  • Start with a relaxation breath or two to center yourself and focus on the moment.
  • Imagine yourself in the scene you have selected and slowly allow yourself to experience what you see, hear, smell, feel and possibly taste.
  • Imagine the scene over time, like watching the sun go down, and how the scene changes and what your senses experience as it changes.
  • Once you decide to end the visualization, bring your focus back to your breath for a moment before moving on to the next thing you need to do.


There are a couple tactics to employ to counteract times when you are feeling anxious. Certain behavioral skills and strategies can allow you to relax, re-energize and refocus.


Having trouble sleeping, need a little “me time,” or feel your body is worn out by all the demands on it, both physically and mentally? Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) can help relax tired and stressed bodies and minds and prepare you for a good night of sleep.

This tool can be used when dealing with anxiety, stress, sleep difficulties, depression, and overall well being. Learning how to relax is a skill which can be used in any situation. Just as it takes time and practice to learn skills for your sport, PMR takes time and practice, but the benefits can be exponentially rewarding. This activity is most effective when you can carve out 15 to 30 minutes of time with minimal distractions. Bedtime can be ideal, but there are other times when it can be effective and it can be done both lying down and seated.

There are many apps on your phone, which can be used to guide you through a full relaxation, for example: Rest & Relax Guided Meditations. Below is also a guide to understanding and conducting your own progressive muscle relaxation.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Guided Meditation for Detachment from Over-Thinking
Five of the Best Sleep-Guided Meditations


Many times anxiety and stress levels can dramatically increase when there are major decisions to be made like what major to declare, whether to continue with sport or not, transferring, internships, and a multitude of other decisions that may arise. Thinking things through can certainly be important, but we can also get lost in the thoughts. Doing a cost/benefit analysis, or a pros and cons list, can help clarify the decision options. These two strategies may also help to avoid making decisions simply based on emotion.

  • Use old-fashioned paper and pen or your laptop to do this exercise.
  • Identify the options you are considering, or can consider.
  • For each of the identified options, write down the potential costs of that choice. This could be monetary, but is likely to include much more than that.
  • For each of the identified options, write down the potential benefits of that choice, i.e., new opportunities, more free time, new relationships.
  • Re-visit the lists in a day or two and see if there is anything to add.
  • Review your lists and see whether the costs or benefits outweigh one or the other. That may help point you in a direction for your decision. It may also help you to identify additional questions you have or information you want to gather to help you make the decision.
  • A friend may also be able to add some things to your lists that you didn’t think of.


As student-athletes we can become so consumed by daily tasks that we don’t notice our thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations. With practice, meditative practices can allow you to develop clarity in your thoughts and feelings, decrease your negative thoughts, and promote a sense of peacefulness and centeredness. Try out a guided meditation app on your phone or a try a mindfulness meditation on your own, for as little as 5 to 10 minutes to start:

  • Find a comfortable position.
  • While focusing on your breathing, allow your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations to flow over you, entering and leaving your awareness at their own pace. Recognize each sensation, but then let it fade away, allowing the next thought or feeling to enter your mind. Continue to acknowledge each sensation, then let it go.
  • You will likely find that your mind is very busy with thoughts about all kinds of things – some pleasant, some unpleasant. Each time you notice that your mind has wandered, gently and without judgment shift your awareness back to your breath.
  • Remember that the goal of mindfulness meditation is not to change your thoughts in any way, but simply to notice them and then, as best you can, continuously return to your breath.
  • Keep it simple. Be patient and kind with yourself. Do not expect that you will be able to “empty” your mind of thoughts and enter a state of deep relaxation. The point of mindfulness meditation is to simply and compassionately begin to notice your thoughts, and then let them go.
Meditation with Stacey Ervin


In this section, we offer digital resources that may offer assistance. These are not intended to replace professional therapies, but to aid and assist in your self-help. A helpful resource is a directory of mobile apps as listed by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). The ADAA does a wonderful job rating each app based on ease of use, effectiveness, personalization, interactive/feedback and research evidence.

The Michigan Athletic Department’s Performance Psychology Center produces a regular newsletter titled Sport Psych News. The newsletter dives into topics specific to student-athletes and their everyday activities and sport performance. These newsletters are considered part of a student-athletes’ “mental training.”