The Lifelong Pursuit of Joy in Sports

Jun 01, 2022

[Please note: This article references burnout, stress, and nerves in sports, NOT clinical anxiety or depression. If you experience clinical symptoms, please consult a professional]


Sometimes your team just needs a break.

Maybe you’re struggling after a long tournament, maybe you’re in the middle of a losing streak, maybe you’re about to go into finals week. Maybe you’ve just been working so hard for so long that you’ve lost the spark.

When my team needed a break the most, do you know what my coach would do? He wouldn’t cancel practice. He wouldn’t give us an easy practice. He would have us play indoor soccer (and he’d play it with us).

Let me remind you that this was my BASKETBALL coach.

The simple act of doing an activity that we were all pretty bad at changed EVERYTHING. These indoor soccer practices were so much fun. The room would be filled with laughter, we would be playful, joyful, and totally lose track of time. We would let go of our egos and try to bounce the ball off our coaches head.

And guess what? The next day at practice would be so much lighter.

Which brings me to my big question today: How are you carving out space for joy in your sport?

As competitive athletes, we are hard workers. It’s second nature for us to put in the time, put our heads down, and grind. But this type of mindset has diminishing returns. Sometimes, the answer isn’t to work harder. Sometimes the answer is to invite joy, fun, and playfulness back into it.

Because sports are supposed to be fun.

In this blog, we’re talking about something that frankly is often put on the back burner for competitive athletes, and that is how to cultivate joy in your sport. We’ll discuss why joy is absolutely vital to athlete success, the difference between joy and toxic positivity, warning signs of burnout, and actionable ways to cultivate joy.


Fall in love with the game again." - Dr. James Hollingsworth


Why is Joy Important?

Joy is the anecdote to a lot of what your athletes are struggling with including burnout, frustration, and self-doubt.

  • Joy fuels effort, time, and energy investment - Research shows that the higher the enjoyment, the more likely an athlete may be to invest more effort into their sport.
  • Joy influences long-term success - The most successful athletes have passion for their sport. This intrinsic motivation drives purpose, resilience, investment, and goal achievement, which are all hallmarks of successful athletes.
  • Joy protects against burnout - Hard work without joy can lead to burnout. Without joy, athletes may either quit before their time or (even worse) feel trapped by their sport. Many athletes will drain their energy reserves trying to keep up the hustle and may even grow to resent it beyond repair.

We’re often taught that sports have to be hard, but without joy, what is the point?

For more about what makes joy important, check out this episode of The Mindset Coach Academy Podcast, How to Find Joy (And Why It Matters)


Real Joy vs Toxic Positivity

I believe that there is so much room for JOY in sports. That said, if there's something I can't stand, it's toxic positivity. ⁠
And yes, there's a big difference. ⁠

  • Toxic Positivity - Tells us to quickly move past negative emotions by slapping a motivational phrase on the problem or dismissing the pain of it altogether. It aims to avoid negative emotions altogether. ⁠
  • Joy - Carves out room to feel all of it; the disappointment, regret, embarrassment. To look at it square in the face and, in spite of those feelings (maybe even BECAUSE of those feelings) choose it over and over again.⁠

Because there’s so much joy in giving ourselves to something so completely that it hurts when it doesn’t work out.

Do you love this sport enough to sit in the pain, acknowledge the disappointment, and get back out there anyway?⁠”
You can find JOY in that.


Signs of Burnout

Your body is resilient and is built to be able to handle a certain level of physical and mental stress for a certain amount of time. There’s even an argument to be made for some amount of stress being good for you, but that’s a conversation for another day.

But when your body isn’t given adequate time to rest and recover, your fuse becomes shorter and shorter until you’re running on fumes. This is burnout.

Burnout is a response to chronic stress and over fatigue. It often comes from a “more is better” mentality, which is common in sports. Ultimately, burnout can take a very harmful mental and physical toll on the body, so it’s important to stay diligent and work to prevent burnout.

Here are some signs that you or your team may be experiencing burnout:

  • Loss of stamina, chronic fatigue, and diminished school or sports performance
  • Increased frustration, irritability, and moodiness
  • Persistent anxiety, depression, and low self esteem
  • Difficulty focusing, learning new things, and retaining information
  • Disproportionate reactions to normal, everyday stressors
  • Physical deterioration such as joint pain, weight loss, and frequent sickness
  • Loss of enjoyment when playing sports

If you or your athletes are showing any of these symptoms, you may be experiencing burnout. Burnout can be treated with proper mental and physical rest, hydration, nutrition, and coaching to reframe the psychological pressure you put on your sport. If burnout becomes serious, the individual experiencing it may need physical and/or psychological evaluation and care by a licensed professional.

With that in mind, it’s important to note that joy isn’t a panacea, but sprinkling it in helps.

It’s not going to solve mental health issues, but it’s an easy, important, intentional way to help prevent burnout & assist recovery.


4 Ways To Cultivate Joy in Sports

Cultivating joy on your team is an ongoing practice and it has to start with YOU. As a coach, you set the tone for your team. Not to sound too woo woo, but your aura MATTERS. If you don’t love your sport, how can you expect your athletes to?

With that in mind, here are 4 actionable ways to cultivate joy in your sport:


1. Find Purpose in the Struggle

One of my favorite coaches of all time was the hardest on me.⁠ I love her to my core not because she was a ray of sunshine all the time; but because she loved the game and cared about her athletes so much that she held us to a high standard.

She taught us that real joy is purpose-filled.

When we would lose a game, mess up, or disappoint ourselves, she would remind us that the tough times are the cost of admission.

JOY means finding PURPOSE in the losses, the long training days, and the difficulty that comes with being in a competitive sport.

Create a culture that supports the dichotomy that you can be pissed, sad, and frustrated and ALSO feel joy.

2. Practice Gratitude

Gratitude takes focus off yourself and instills an appreciation for things that can’t be scored, like camaraderie, friendship, accomplishment, and blessings, whether big or small. And, by being grateful, we can tap into what makes us tick as athletes, driving us harder to do better.


We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures." - Thornton Wilder, playwright and novelist

At any given moment, you’re either building a case for or against your sport.

So pay attention to your inner dialogue through wins, losses, long practices, and everything in between, and ask yourself, “What argument am I making?”. It’s so easy to get stuck in a negative cycle and start collecting reasons why your sport sucks. But when you do, you train your brain to look for negativity, and stop seeing the positives that are right in front of you.

So what are you grateful for in your sport?

Here are some easy ones…

  • I’m grateful that my sport helps me feel strong, fit, and badass
  • I’m grateful that I get to play my sport outdoors
  • I’m grateful that my sport brings my family, friends, and community together
  • I’m grateful to be able to make so many fun memories with my teammates

Not so fun fact: For most of history, playing sports was a privilege. In an excerpt from Aristocracy in England, published in 1886, author Adam Badeau said this about the great sport of the time, hunting:

...this pleasure [sport] is a matter of privilege ... strictly reserved for the great … God’s uplands and valleys themselves are the playground of the nobility ... for the amusement of the aristocracy."

With that in mind, I’d make the argument that the accessibility of sports today is something to be grateful for.

Practicing gratitude trains your brain to focus on the deep well of joy in sports that’s yours for the taking.

For more on the science of gratitude, check out this Mindset Coach Academy Podcast episode, It's Okay to Feel Good. 


3. Focus on Abstract Wins

Winning matters. I don’t even entertain people that try to tell me that it doesn’t. Winning is important, but winning can also take on many forms.

Winning can mean:

  • Fighting hard the entire game and never giving up
  • Being brave & taking risks
  • Pushing yourself harder than you thought possible
  • Pulling up your teammates when they have lost hope
  • Playing being better than you did the day before.

When we obsess about winning only on the scoreboard, we enter into a counterproductive mindset that makes winning less likely to happen.

Think less about winning now and more about ‘winning’ in abstract ways that actually measure improvement. By focusing on abstract wins, you’ll get into a better headspace, reduce game day stresses, notice improvement, play bravely, and, in fact, get closer to being the literal winner of the game.

4. Train Your Brain

There are a million ways to train your brain to experience joy in your sport. But one of the most effective ways to train your brain is to practice visualization.

Our ‘Love of the Game Visualization’ helps you re-connect to the childlike love you once had for your sport. It reminds you what made you love it in the first place.

Here’s a brief outline of how to do the ‘Love of the Game’ visualization. Before you teach this to your team, I highly recommend you expand on the 3rd paragraph. Take some time to fill in specific details about your sport, describe all 5 senses, and make this visualization as fully immersive and individualized as possible.

“Find somewhere comfortable and close your eyes. Take a deep breath and start paying attention to your breathing. When you’re ready, Inhale happy memories in your sport, times of joy. Breathe out frustration, negativity, and fear.

Now, imagine looking out over your sport as if you’re sitting in the grandstands. Look down below and watch people playing and having fun, then notice someone else, a little kid. That little kid is you. They’re standing on the sidelines, wanting to play, hoping to play, and when they finally get out there, they’re having more fun than they’ve ever had in their life.

Immerse yourself in this image as you watch a younger version of yourself laugh and play with reckless abandon. Let yourself remember those feelings of joy, sacrifice, possibility, and putting everything you have into your sport, for the pure joy of doing it.

Finally, walk down to the field, walk over to that little kid, and give them a high five. Tell them, “That was fun, wasn’t it?”

Take some final deep breaths, feel light, calm, and centered, and open your eyes.


Positive Performance Insider and Certified Mindset Coach, Meredith Brick shares her experience with the Love of the Game Visualization:

"To cultivate joy we have to remember the times when our sport was joyful for us. The Love of the Game visualization can bring out emotion and remembrance from when we played as young athletes. I used this tool with our HS girls soccer at the beginning of a preseason practice.
Prior to this practice, I requested a picture of each girl playing soccer when they were young. We projected each picture of the fierce and reckless days at the end of the practice. This created a visual to help remember the times when they were young and played freely. Some players said, "I saw those fields at the beginning of practice!

We have to remember who we are and why we are playing this sport. Tapping into memories that evoke emotions create a stronger connection to our own self. The little kid in each of us is still capable to find the joy when playing or coaching. Having fun helps me remember to create joy in the game!”

- Meredith Brick, Founder of Brick Wall Training | IG@brickwalltraining


If you are headed towards burnout or simply want to get the most out of life, it’s time to be intentional about inviting joy, playfulness, and fun back into your sport! Because it doesn’t matter how much hard work you put into it if it doesn’t give you joy.

In this blog, you learned that joy is something that can be cultivated by:

  • Practicing gratitude for your sport
  • Doing visualizations to remind yourself of the joy that you felt for it as a little kid
  • Building a case for your sport by celebrating abstract wins
  • Finding purpose in the struggle

So supercharge your sport with joy, remind yourself why you love it, and protect yourself against burnout with these tips! 


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