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The Importance of Gratitude in Athletic Performance

By Greg Chertok, Director of Mental Training at CourtSense, a high performance junior tennis academy in Bergen County, NJ, as well as private consultant with Telos Sport Psychology in the greater NY area. Greg has a Masters of Education in Counseling/Sport Psychology from Boston University and is a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. He has worked with athletes from the junior to Olympic level.


It may seem a bizarre link to pair the act of being grateful and athletic performance. However, several years ago, the New York Times published an article offering some practical advice for cultivating an “attitude of gratitude”. Research outside the sporting arena has linked gratitude to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others. Some suggestions were offered to better practice gratitude:

• Keep a journal listing five things for which you feel grateful, like a friend’s generosity, something you have learned, a sunset you have enjoyed. Research has demonstrated that people who do this once a week for two months will report more optimism and happiness, fewer physical problems, and more time working out.
• Try it on your family. Do one small thoughtful or generous thing for a member of your family, perhaps once a week to start.
• Write a short letter to someone who changed your life for the better. Be specific about what the person did and how it affected you. Deliver it in person.

The tradeoff seems rather advantageous: make a list, do a generous deed, write a letter, and better health & heightened quality of life await. Granted, completing these tasks won’t guarantee a better life, but living your life purposefully – with a bit more gratitude – is sure to make at least a bit of difference.

There’s wonderful applicability to athletics. Research within sport has identified a relationship between gratitude amongst adolescent athletes and increased team satisfaction, less athlete burnout, and greater overall well-being.

But, being grateful for what, exactly? The trees? The dirt? Making the team?

Gratitude, for the purpose of this discussion, can be defined as “an estimate of gain coupled with the judgment that someone else is responsible for that gain”. Estimating and appreciating gain (performing well; being promoted from bench player to starter; recognizing physical improvements in the gym) and identifying that other people were involved in making it happen, then, appear like important steps towards feeling grateful.

Here’s a splendid example: the former Olympian Carl Lewis reports in his autobiography that feeling grateful to his competitors became part of his competition routine. Without opponents, Lewis could not have been personally challenged to the extent that he was with opponents. He could not have experienced victory without opponents. There would be no Gold without opponents. Lewis chose to embrace the presence of his competitors as required figures in his quest for performance excellence. This attitudinal shift seemed to serve him well.

I suggest you live your sporting life purposefully, with a bit more gratitude, and you will become more embracing of each competitive experience, too.

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