By Nicole Gabana, a certified sport psychology consultant (CC-AASP) and Ph.D student at Indiana University Bloomington.
A former NCAA division one rower, Nicole's doctoral research has focused on the integration of positive psychology and sport, specifically the effects of gratitude on the brain, as well as on athlete wellbeing.
In her book, Positivity, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson begins with an anonymous parable about a Cherokee grandfather speaking with his grandson:
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
“The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
In sport and in life, feeding the good wolf is essential to character development, performing with integrity, and becoming a true athlete. In this blog post, I will discuss how gratitude can be food for the good wolf, leading to gains in both personal and performance domains.
Gratitude has been associated with numerous emotional, psychological, and physical health benefits, including better quality of sleep, subjective well-being (i.e., happiness), life satisfaction, increased positive affect, altruism, and interpersonal connectedness (Wood et al., 2010). The positive effects of gratitude may be amplified when people express appreciation outwardly, rather than just thinking or feeling grateful (Davis et al., 2016).
Athletes and other performers are accustomed to facing adversity in their pursuit of optimal performance. They are no strangers to pain, sweat, tears, and hardship. The greatest performers overcome obstacles by consistently strengthening their resilience, and gratitude can facilitate that process. Gratitude expression has been correlated with greater neuroplasticity in the brain (Kini et al., 2016), and according to Fredrickson’s (2001) Broaden and Build Theory, cultivating positive emotions such as gratitude can lead to better creativity, problem-solving, and resource utilization, factors which can ultimately contribute to enhanced performance. Expressing gratitude may strengthen resilience by increasing perceived social support and developing positive coping skills when times get tough.
For a moment, consider a great athlete, performer, or mentor who has been a role model to you. Would you describe this person as grateful? Gratitude is a quality that is often associated with humility, dedication, appreciation of others, and level-headedness. This means knowing where you came from and who helped you along the way; recognizing and appreciating the experiences and people who have contributed to your growth, both as a person and an athlete. Practicing gratitude, both internally and outwardly, keeps one grounded and maintains one’s perspective.
So how do we cultivate gratitude in sport and in life? Let’s start here.
1.Daily Gratitude Mindfulness Recap – This exercise can be practiced at any time of the day, but may be especially effective in the evening or before going to bed. In your mind, replay your day from the moment you woke up to the present moment, while identifying each thing for which you feel grateful. This can be done through mental recapping (merely thinking of each thing) or by gratitude journaling (writing down each moment of gratitude and why it was meaningful to you). Recapping and identifying these moments after a successful OR difficult practice/performance can provide perspective and strengthen your resilience during times of adversity.
Here are a few examples:
“My alarm went off this morning, which meant I was on time for practice.”
“My roommate picked up an extra bagel for me which shows he was thinking of me.”
“My coach invested time in my growth today by sharing feedback on my technique.”
“My mom/dad called me today to see how I am doing which shows me they care.”
“I had time off tonight to watch a movie and relax, which is good for my well-being.”
Challenge yourself to notice things on both the micro level (e.g., “I didn’t have to wait in line at the post office.”) and the macro level (e.g., “I am grateful for spending time with my family because they bring meaning and purpose to my life.”)
2.Gratitude Letter – Gratitude expression, especially when interpersonal in nature, has commonly been associated with stronger social connectedness. Since humans are social beings, we thrive on meaningful relationships with friends, family, teammates, coaches, and partners. Performance often benefits when our interpersonal relationships are flourishing. Sure, we often think about how much we appreciate those who bring joy to our life and challenge us to grow, but how often do we actually say it? Research shows that writing a letter of gratitude to someone in your life and reading it to them out loud can produce a significant interpersonal experience for both the writer and the recipient (Seligman et al., 2005).
If you are unable to read the letter out loud, other options might include sending a letter, writing an email, leaving a note, or making a phone call.
3.Gratitude Apps – There are a number of gratitude apps out there to serve as a reminder to practice gratitude on a daily basis (see below for a few of my favorites which can be found in the iTunes App Store). Give them a try and see what works for you! I personally enjoy “7s Meditation”. This app sends you a daily thought prompt such as “What are 3 things you are grateful for right now?” or “Express gratitude toward someone who consistently brings you joy.”
Gratitude Journal 365
Moments—A Photo Gratitude Journal
This week, I challenge you to practice one or more of these exercises. Just as you dedicate yourself to a physical regimen, commit yourself to improving your mental gratitude routine. Gradually, as you use these strategies repeatedly over time, you will begin to see a shift in the way you see the world and yourself. Just as we train our bodies to develop physical habits, our mindset is similarly shaped by consistent, repeated thoughts over time. Train your brain to be grateful, and see if you notice a difference… in your ability to be resilient in the face of adversity; in the quality and depth of your relationships with others; in your own sense of purpose in the world; and in your role as an athlete and as a human being.
Don’t forget to feed the good wolf.