Having Fun as way to perform in Sport
For some, it might be surprising that I identified this as a key mental skill in the Wheel of Mental Performance I presented in this article.
But isn’t it why we do a sport at first? And yet, lots of athletes tend to forget it pretty quickly, mainly due to the pressure to win and lost in many things to think of which are outside of the sport field.
They also tend to associate fun with winning, which represents a very tiny bit of the overall sport experience, sometime not even existing.
When you don’t have fun, you lose mental and physical energy without noticing it.
You are less focused, less relaxed and you (sometimes unconsciously) put less effort in your sport.
You are also more likely to be the victim of negative emotions such as frustration or anxiety.
Having fun doesn’t mean not having a competitor mindset and not being ambitious, not being serious and focused. Having fun doesn’t mean enjoying to lose. So, what is having fun?
Having fun is enjoying the process, dribbling, passing, tackling, the sensations of running, swimming, or cycling, being outdoor or in the water.
Having fun is enjoying the challenge, the competition and to outdo oneself.
Having fun is finding ways to improve.
Having fun is enjoying the reward of being in shape, being healthy and of winning after a tough fight.
Having fun is enjoying one’s time with teammates, coaches, parents around sport.
Having fun is enjoying coming back after a setback or an injury.
Remembering that you are here to have fun helps reduce the nervousness or anxiety of competition. It helps relax and have a better experience. This is actually true for anything in life. When you do something you don’t like, focusing on having fun while doing it improves the experience of doing the thing.
When you think too much, it can lead to paralysis by analysis. Remembering to have fun is also a way to simplify, get out of your head and trust your skills, trust that you’ll know what to do and when, that you are well prepared and that your body and your brain will automatically do what they have to do.
Examples from Champions
Misty Hyman – gold medalist 200-meter Butterfly Sydney 2000 Olympic Games
Misty Hyman won the gold medal in the 200-meterbutterfly in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, beating the highly favorite Suzie O’Neil who hadn’t been beaten in 6 years, in her home country.
Here is what she said in an interview to sport psychologist Dr JoAnn Dahlkoetter a few weeks after her win:
I didn’t get up on the blocks thinking I’m at the Olympics, there’s 18,000 people, this is the biggest race of my life. Instead of building it up like that I said, “OK, this is a swim meet, I’ve done all that I can to prepare, I’m just going to go out there and have fun”.
When I marched out to the pool to swim the final race, they were actually playing a song from that movie (the Cutting Edge). It was so perfect. I walked up onto the blocks and said to myself, “I’m in the mood to kick little ass”. I was laughing at myself that I could actually say that. I thought I’m just going to have fun out there. I’m going to do it.
My Dad was in the stands watching me. He said to me later, “I haven’t seen you that relaxed in a very long time. I knew you were going to do well. You were smiling. On the starting blocks. Richard (Misty’s coach) laughed because I was the last one off the blocks when the gun went off. I told him I was too busy smiling. The amazing thing is that I was not even thinking about the fact that this was the Olympic finals. I wasn’t thinking at all about Suzie O’Neil. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was swimming in front of the whole world.
As you can see there was a deep sense of fun and of the relaxation that goes with it in Misty’s approach to the final. If you can approach your competition with that deep sense of fun, your experience will definitely much more appreciable and your performance will be enhanced. As usual, it is a matter of global balance so having fun doesn’t mean losing focus or not being determined to giving it all. It just means to keep the Fun as part of the game.
Simona Halep –Roland Garros Grand Slam winner 2018
More recently, Simona Halep eventually won her first Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 2018, after losing 3 finals in the previous 4 years, each time in 3 sets. “It has been a long way” said her coach Darren Cahill after the final. What is interesting to notice though, is the way she approached this 4th final. Anyone can imagine the strong pressure to win this time, after 3 failures, and the negative self-talks rising, these “I will screw up again” thoughts and the fear that it might be her last chance. But she actually was intentional to enter the final “smiling”, to have fun, to live it as a chance rather than another potential tragedy. “I couldn’t have succeeded without smiling” she said, ensuring she had managed “to have fun” while playing. Even as she was down 6-3, 2-0, or at 4-4, 30 A on her serve in the 2nd set, she stayed calm. “Last year I lost after leading 1 set and 1 break, so I knew the match was not over”.
It may sometimes feel like having fun prevents us from being completely focused and hungry to win, but it actually helps us. Because it enables to play relaxed, to not be distracted by negative thoughts, and to trust our skills.
Now that we have seen that having fun will benefit our performance, what can you do to reinforce you sense of fun in sport?
- First of all, and very simply, just remember that you are doing your sport mainly to have fun and be intentional to have fun when going into a competition. This very often is enough to take some pressure off, to relax, and to have more fun. I remember some swimmers completely shifting their mindset and performance by just remembering to have fun when competiting.
- Develop your awareness around whether you are having fun or not, in practice and in competition:
- Regularly asking yourself: am I having fun right now? Did I have fun this week, or in this competition?
- Rate yourself on a scale from 1 (not having fun at all, this is a burden to do your sport) to 10 (I am having an awesome time and so much fun in my sport). I you are less than 8, you might want to explore a little bit more what is causing you to not have so much fun. You may want to rate yourself separately in practice and in competition, to see if there is a difference. You may notice some differences depending on your results. Notice if this has to do with the sport itself or with the environment (teammates, staff, parents, friends etc…). When you better understand what’s getting in the way to having more fun, then you can act precisely upon it.
- Because pressure, nervousness, frustration come back naturally specially in competition, you can also use Power Words (also called Affirmations) to remind yourself to have fun. For example, you may repeat to yourself regularly before and during practice/competitions:
- I am having fun whatever happens during the game/race/competition
- I love outdoing myself
- I enjoy when my body is working hard
- I enjoy the difficulty to achieve my goals
or any words or phrases of your own.
If you know anyone who could benefit from reading this, please share with them. And if you’d like to work on your mental games in order to improve your performance while increasing your fun in your sport, contact us via our contact form to talk with a mental coach.