Mental Strategies for Uncertain Times

By Maurice Tanel

In times of uncertainty, our fears can prevent our ability to move forward with the normal routines necessary to keep us focused and in the right direction.

Below are some mental performance strategies our development partner Bryan McLaughlin, Mental Performance Consultant, of Mindful Mental Performance has provided.

These strategies can be implemented into your daily routines and will help you remain more focused and on the right path.


During competition, it is common for coaches or teammates to tell other teammates, ‘just relax’, which is often easier said than done. The reasoning for this is that the majority of coaches, players, and parents often focus on the process of ‘rising to the occasion’ or ‘getting fired up’, then when the time comes to calm ourselves down, we cannot do so. Arousal is a blend of physiological and psychological activity in a person falling along a continuum from deep sleep to extreme excitation, which can have two effects on performance. Arousal is often associated with the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) that activates in the ‘fight or flight’ response, where if an athlete is relaxed their parasympathetic nervous (PNS) system is engaged. Anxiety is referred to as the negative emotional state (fearful) characterized by nervousness, worry, and apprehension and is associated with activation or arousal of the body. The two components to anxiety are the thought component, which is the constant worry, and a somatic component which can be increased heart rate, muscle tension, and or galvanic skin response (sweat) (Hanrahan & Andersen, 2013).

Before starting any relaxation techniques, whether you’re preparing for sport, everyday life, school, or you just want to be more relaxed, the first step is to establish proper breath. Place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest… Inhale… Exhale… (repeat 5 times). Which hand moved the most? Was it the top hand or the bottom hand? It’s ok if you don’t want to share but a proper breath comes from the diaphragm (belly breathing). If you found that when you were taking your breaths the top hand was moving mostly, which is considered a suboptimal breath. What happens when athletes become stressed and their anxiety levels rise in the sporting arena, the breath becomes shallow, rapid, and quickly moves up to the chest towards an inefficient breath. This experience tends to reduce the fluidity of sports techniques (i.e., pitching, hitting, etc.) and ultimately causes unnecessary mistakes for athletes. To reduce these mistakes for athletes the first step is awareness of what is going on. If you’re not aware of a problem, you will never find a solution. One breathing exercise for beginners to try to overcome this experience is the 1:2 ratio of breath. This means if you are to inhale for 2 seconds, your exhale is 4 seconds, and if you were to inhale for 3 seconds, your exhale is 6 seconds, and so on. This is a simple however effective technique for individuals to use in the sporting context, in school and everyday life where you may want to be in an optimal state. If you find yourself in a panic and you forget how long you are supposed to inhale or exhale, a quick troubleshooting strategy is to remember, if you want to be in a relaxed state, your exhale needs to be longer than your inhale. The exhale is associated with a relaxation response (Williams, 2010).

These breathing exercises are not just applicable to the sporting context, using these breathing techniques throughout the day can help alleviate stress. Next time you feel your mind start to wander where it may not be beneficial for you, take a step back and perform 10 diaphragmatic breaths. The best way to go about this exercise is a daily routine, you can set an hourly timer on your phone to perform x10 mindful breaths.


What are your goals? Have you made any? Where did you write them down? Did you write them down? Often athletes and individuals will make meaningful goals they truly want to achieve but there is a disconnect from the time they write them down and achieving them. In North American society, most of us have an outcome focus, which can be very detrimental to our journey to mastery. For each goal that we set they must follow SMART guidelines (S-Specific, M-Measurable, A-Achievable, R-Realistic, T-Timely). The types of goals we will discuss include process, performance, and outcome goals. Process goals are the specific procedures in which the performer will engage in during performance (e.g., focusing 100% of the time during practice). Performance goals include focusing on improvements relative to one’s past performance (e.g., improving batting average compared to a prior season). Outcome goals represent the standards of performance that focus on results of a contest, meaning did you win, or did you lose. Now if we look at these three types of goals the biggest difference is the athletes’ control over them. Athletes have full control over process goals, they have partial control over performance goals, and they have less control over outcome goals. If that does not make sense to you, think of it like this. You can only control what you can control (i.e., effort, attention, energy, emotions), which fuel process goals (focusing 100% of the time), where an outcome goal of winning a game, this is where a collective unit needs to come together to win. So, you can have the best game of your life but still lose, you can also have the worst game of your life and still win.

As we begin to set goals let’s be aware of why we are setting these goals. Goals can help individuals mobilize effort and attention to the aspects needed to achieve the task. If this is your first-time setting goals here are a few pointers to help you along the way.

  • Set positive goals opposed to negative goals, try to focus on achieving success rather than avoiding failure (e.g., increase strike-outs instead of don’t get hit off so much)
  • Write down your goals and make it visible for everyday
  • Create a social support team (i.e., let family, friends, coaches, teammates know about your goals)
  • Don’t be afraid to modify unrealistic goals

When we are setting goals for sport, life, school, or work, remember to set all three types of goals but focus on the process as if that is neglected often the performance or outcome never arrives. During these difficult times we can focus on the process of our fitness and mental well-being. Making daily process goals to, ‘perform 5 positive affirmations to myself every hour for 10 hours’ is a good start.


Self-talk is the internal dialogue that never stops when you wake up to when you go to bed, sometimes it doesn’t even stop then! This is that voice that you only hear, which at times can be your best friend or your worst nightmare. As human beings, we tend to have about 50 000 to 70 000 thoughts a day, can you imagine if we told ourselves that, ‘I suck at this sport’ 50 000 times? How well are you going to play? Probably not as well as you wish. The thing about self-talk is that you will never have an empty or quiet mind, but becoming aware of how you think, and how you talk to yourself is the first step in changing. If you’re not aware of a problem, you can’t find a solution. Self-talk is useful in all walks of life as it can serve an instructional purpose of a motivational purpose.

When you are trying to become of how you speak to yourself throughout gameplay, working out, or just day to day living here is an exercise to do so. Grab a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle creating two sides. On the left-hand side title it ‘Worst Performance’ and on the right-hand side title it ‘Best Performance’, the same applies to working out or best day etc. Start on the left-hand side and try to recall all the things you said to yourself and be very specific. Once you completed the left side at the bottom write down how you felt overall. After that is completed now complete the right-hand side and do the same. Review this for a couple of minutes. This should bring you awareness of how powerful the words you speak to yourself can have on your performance as well as how you feel overall. The more you engage in the positive self-talk (i.e., best performance strategies) the more positive your experience may be and the more you practice being aware of how you speak to yourself you can start to see how your thought patterns influence your behaviour.

During these difficult times, the way we talk to ourselves can be beneficial or detrimental. We don’t realize how much weight our words have until it’s been compounded many times and now our thoughts are becoming our reality. During today’s world right now, it is beneficial to talk about ourselves in a positive framework instead of a negative. Instead of ‘man this sucks I didn’t even get to finish my season and now I can’t even see my buddies’  maybe reframe that to, ‘I now have the opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments I had this season and later I can FaceTime my buddies’. I know this is not an ideal situation for anyone, but you can either move forward in other facets of life and sport or you can sit back and play the victim card. It’s ultimately your choice.


According to Statistics Canada, 43% of men and 55% of women aged 18 to 64 reported trouble going to sleep or staying asleep which poses many negative outcomes for us. Sleep is essential in our daily functioning as it allows our bodies to release hormones to help repair cells, impacts our immune system, appetite, breathing, blood pressure, and cardiovascular health. Keeping this in mind, with almost half of Canadians lacking in sufficient sleep patterns, what can we assume to happen to our health overall? I’ll give you a hint, nothing good that’s for sure.

Immune System

When you go to sleep and you dream about playing in the Major League, with everything you’ve ever wanted in this life, what your immune system is doing is building up protective infection-fighting substances. As you’re living your dream, your body is working to help prevent you from becoming ill while you’re awake.

Cognitive Functioning

The recommended guidelines for proper sleep are to obtain 7-9 hours a night of sleep. Now before we go any further, you can obtain 8 hours of poor sleep, as there is a difference between sleep quantity and sleep quality. Sleep quantity is the number of hours you are at rest for whereas sleep quality refers to how well you slept for. You could be restless for 7 out of those 8 hours, which you will most likely wake up to that annoying alarm clock feeling more drained before going to bed. If this happens, how well do you think you’re going to function during the day? Probably get further running in two different directions.

When we do not achieve adequate sleep the night before, the executive functioning of our brain, which is an umbrella term for neurologically-based skills that involve mental control and self-regulation, tends to be diminished.


Prevention of inadequate sleep can be more difficult for some and easier for others, which is like everything in this world. Some general tips for everyone to place themselves in a good situation for adequate sleep patterns are listed below.

  • Try to limit technology/ and or screen use two hours before bed.
  • Avoid caffeine intake past noon, this one also may take some extra effort for our coffee enthusiasts. Try a decaffeinated coffee if you just enjoy the taste or try hot water and lemon if you want to throw yourself a curveball
  • Attempt to go to bed every night at the same time and get up at the same time. This will get your body into a routine and eventually you won’t even need that annoying alarm clock anymore.

For more Mental Performance insight, you can reach out to Bryan at [email protected] or follow him on Instagram @mindfulmentalperformance