Keeping Your Mental Game On Part 2

In Part I “Getting Your Mental Game On”, I shared  four things to help you get your mental game on when things get rough. In review, we’re talking about dreaming,  observing, rehearsing, and learning from failure.

The next six keys will help you keep your mental game engaged and working for you. These are: developing resilience, not second-guessing yourself,  self-soothing, developing a positive mindset, adopting a self-care routine, and having fun and relaxing. This set of skills enhance what you have built in the first part of your mental game foundation.

Learn to be the bamboo. Photo from Creative Commons.
Learn to be the bamboo. Photo from Creative Commons.

5. Develop Resilience – Why is it that some people get back up after they emotionally, psychologically, and sometimes even physically fall down, while others stay down for a long time or quit when the going gets tough?*

Sometimes, it takes a series of set backs and strategy sessions for you to develop inner resilience. Resilience can have two aspects to it. One is a sense of elasticity or flexibility. The rubber band snaps back after it has been stretched, and in fact, the snap has a bit more bite to it when it is stretched further from a surface. The other aspect is that of recovery; that is, a resilient person recovers quickly from falling because she or he has strength and toughness; a fall, though it hurts, will not stop the tough person from dusting herself off and moving forward.

A number of years ago, a professor told me all about the art of planing a bamboo fishing rod. Excited to share his discoveries about the characteristics of this flexible but strong material, he waxed on about bamboo while I smiled and nodded. Finally, he asked me if I knew anything about bamboo. I replied, “I AM the bamboo!”

When you are like the bamboo, you can withstand change, uncertainty, bad news, and even good news and its responsibilities, all in rotating bits and pieces. Few things make you snap. Even fewer things will elicit long-term anxiety. Sorrow may also be more momentary, as your inner container shapes itself to elegantly hold sorrow while you gracefully continue forward.

On the last five miles of my first marathon in May 2014, I was hurting, tired, and hungry. Not only had I lost my gel flask with my nutrition, but the race only provided gels at aid stations that had ingredients I was allergic to. As I ran by a restaurant, some of the onlookers yelled to me, “Stop by and we’ll give you a beer!” Little did they know I have Celiac Disease, so beer is an absolute no-no. Still, everything in me wanted to stop and just quit. Resilience allowed me to connect with my emotions, and yet remain strong to my commitment to finish. I know how I feel when I accomplish something — really great! And that feeling was going to be worth more than a beer for sure! Yet, acknowledging my fatigue and knowing that I’ve always found a way to be with my emotions  is part of that resilience muscle that I could use to tell myself it was time to run home to the finish line.

6. Don’t Second-Guess Yourself – A primary example of overthinking  which occurs when you need your mental game to be the strongest is the process of second guessing yourself. When a new situation arises, you discard your well-thought game plan. You stop trusting yourself, which includes your plans and your instinct. You question if you have good decision making skills. You over-think each decision and become caught in an endless cycle of questioning. The opinions of others, even strangers, echo in your brain.

Athletes successfully race when they execute the plan they have rehearsed hundreds of times before. Photo used with permission.
Athletes successfully race when they execute the plan they have rehearsed hundreds of times before. Photo used with permission, August 2014.

In reviewing the race plan of triathletes, coaches often scratch their heads at how many last-minute changes a triathlete will attempt to make before race day. To head off these changes, coaches often encourage triathletes to practice race-day preparation ritualistically for months ahead of time, minimizing the anxiety that athlete will experience when race day arrives.

To overthink is to undermine your logical mind that thoughtfully prepared for difficult decisions. The minute you turn to these more negative and often confusing thoughts, the more overthinking will likely cause you to continue masticating on a decision like a piece of gum. The gum grows tasteless, and your jaw gets tired. In time, it is useful only to stick two pieces of garbage together!

Instead, consider jumping to Point #7 “Learn to Self-Soothe”, and then return to your decision when you are feeling more calm and can access your game plan with less “freak out” in your veins.

When you stop over thinking, you can balance both your emotional thoughts, which do need to be heard, and your logical thoughts. With balance, you can bring awareness to your real needs in the moment, i.e. “I’m feeling anxious and need a moment to stop what I’m doing and sit down”. You can also connect with your logical routines while staying present with your longings and desires.


7. Learn to Self Soothe – in the movie Prime starring Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman, Streep plays a therapist,  Dr. Lisa Metzger, who accidentally discovers  her college aged son is dating an older woman who is her client. When Metzger connects the dots, she quickly shoos her client out the door at the end of the session and proceeds to have a meltdown. And then, what does she do? She lays herself on the counseling couch and strokes her chest from neck to belly!

Prime (2005) Movie Trailer

Well, that’s one way to do it! I call it self soothing. This is a very effective way to keep your head in the game when you are rattled to the bone. Whether you choose to shout out loud, “Holy F@ck!” after a near-escape from being flattened by a bus, or you plop yourself in a hot bubble bath and listen to Nirvana Unplugged at the end of the day, you are engaging in the art of learning to soothe your mind and body.

Some great self-soothing activities: taking a deep breath, getting a drink of water, singing a song, taking a brisk walk or light jog, engaging in 15 minutes of light yoga, meditating and detaching from deep emotional attachment and pain for awhile, petting your dog or playing with the cat, taking a brief power nap,  dancing slowly, assembling a jigsaw puzzle, skipping rope, listening to music, watching birds and clouds, arranging flowers, doing crafts, drawing, or making a light snack. Doodling, playing piano, and knitting are a few of my favorites.

8. Develop a Positive Mindset – I think developing a positive mindset can be  challenging in today’s corporate and start up environments. You’re surrounded by people who remind you that the odds are not in your favor. You’re familiar with failure and rejection. How on earth do you see the bright side of life when everything feels like someone just blotted out the sun?

A positive mindset does not mean the same thing as harboring a fanciful delusion. It is a choice to keep a list of opportunities for everything from character building to networking that a situation brings to you, even when the situation itself is less than ideal.

For example, think about the worst job you have ever held in your life. Maybe it is the one you are in now (sorry!). Now, let go of the statement, “That is the worst job I have ever had in my life.” Can you think of something that experience has given you that has a positive outcome attached to it? Can you think of a person you met through this experience that taught you something about life, other than a skill? Even if your boss was a mean person, is there anything this boss taught you that can be a positive lesson you can use, such as, “I learned that meanness demoralizes employees. Fear of his meanness did not motivate me.” The lesson learned is a positive outcome, and is a step in the direction of learning to develop a positive mindset.

In the economy of the Positive Mindset, no experience, time, or effort is lost or wasted. It’s like the Vitamix of the Mind; like nutrients, everything stays in.

9. Adopt a Self-Care Routine That Works – Of all things that surprise me the least, a person who describes trouble with staying strong in his or her mental game often takes very poor care of his/her body.  I get a complete analysis of everything that person is doing to stay afloat, including a lot of frenetic work activity, explaining or complaining, and copious storytelling around the people who play a part in the current environment of misery. When I ask the question, “Can you give me an idea of what you do to care for yourself during this time?” I often hear clients say that that they have “slipped a bit” from routine self care.

Humans are not computers. We do not run on electricity with no down time, and we don’t easily replace parts. We need to reboot once or twice a day (long rest, plus an occasional nap), eat enough to stabilize blood sugar levels, move our bodies around to take care of heart, lung, muscles, and improve circulation, and get air and sunlight. As a friend used to remind me, she would often say, “We’re more like hot house flowers than machines.”

If you do not have a self-care routine, then you may not have experienced the benefits to your mental game that a self-care routine brings. If you do have a self-care routine but you haven’t been applying it, it’s time to get back to the things that end up caring and nourishing your body and mind.

My self-care routine is so important to the success of what I do not only as a psychotherapist but a compassionate human being, I jealously guard it from all other activities. When I eat, I focus on my eating and try not to be rushed. When I sleep, I make sure it is is quiet and can’t easily be interrupted. When I exercise, I don’t carry things that could distract me, such as a smart device other than a wearable tracking device [Note: this might change when the new fitness devices all become smart devices]. I’ve been known to put my iPhone aside and just walk away for a few hours to half a day or more when I’m not in the office.

10. Don’t Forget to Have Fun and Relax –

[This should be pretty self explanatory, right? :)]

If you don’t understand the point in relaxing and having fun, something has gone horribly wrong. But rather than leave you there if this is your particular stuck point, let me offer you this nugget of wisdom: not relaxing and not having fun is a bit like finding yourself in quicksand. The more you flail, the faster you drown.

My secret sauce: a little bit of down time every day with one of my furry clowns.

Your Turn — how will you keep your mental game on? Everyone gets tired. Everyone encounters obstacles, including unsupportive people. Everyone experiences challenges without easy solutions, and choices that aren’t always pleasant. Can you think your way through these six keys (and may a few keys of your own!) to help you stay mentally and physically strong?


*Clearly I differentiate this example from illness and harm that is meant to stop a person in his or her tracks. In this situation, it is wise to stop what you’re doing, seek medical attention, rest, and allow yourself all necessary care.

By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, AIP Coach and PN1-NC, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 30+ years in healthcare (22+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is a two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018); she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for 100 Mile trail races and a backyard ultra. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, camping under the stars, and cooking real food.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *