Equanimity to avoid the roller coaster of emotions in sport

Photo by Jennifer Latuperisa-Andresen on Unsplash

Equanimity is usually defined as a mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain (calmness; equilibrium) but also under positive emotions. It is the ability to keep the same state of mind no matter what happens, negative of positive.

Rafael Nadal is a great example. He takes his career very seriously, is super motivated, highly competitive, hard-working AND, he accepts whatever comes, without being attached to it, good or bad. He is never in the excess. Here is what he said last year after coming back to his best level and winning his 16th Grand Slam:

“I’m not someone who has lots of emotional ups and downs. When I am in a negative moment, I don’t go very low. And when I am in a positive moment, like today probably, I don’t believe I’m the best. When everything is going well, stay calm, when everything is going wrong, just keep working on what doesn’t work. In the end, I’m very much normal”.

Well, not so normal. What he takes for granted is what has helped him go through the ups and downs of his career, to stay grounded in the face of success and to keep motivated in the face of adversity (injuries, personal issues). 

Why is it important?

If you are riding the roller coaster of emotions, you lose energy and focus, you react (rather than respond) to what happens, it prevents you from working consistently, and it gives you a stressful experience. You get more and more addicted to higher and higher ups, and fear more and more the downs.

Counter intuitively, if you want to be more resilient and bounce back after setbacks, in addition to working on this specific skill, you also have to work on the way you react to success and positive experience. If you make it the only important goal, if you get so attached to it that it becomes the only rewarding and satisfying experience, then as soon as you won’t have it (and it will happen), you will feel frustrated and you’ll drop down on the roller coaster. On the contrary, if you put it into perspective and see it as an outcome among any other outcome, then you won’t be so attached to achieving it. This will help you with all the other mental skills, like dealing with nervousness and being free to fail which are often linked to high expectations, with being resilient (how to bounce back after setbacks), or having fun. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ambitious, competitive, wanting to be the best, work hard to get there, and enjoy and celebrate your wins, but just that there is more than the outcome, that you can’t control everything but you can control how you respond and that your experience will be better if you accept what comes, good or bad. So simple, but not so easy. There will always be some sort of roller coaster in your emotions but you want to make it like a kids roller coaster rather than the biggest one in the world.

What can you do to develop equanimity?

  • Learn to enjoy the process (playing, swimming, running, practicing, competing, outdoing yourself and doing your best, improving a skill etc.) even more than the outcome.
  • Practice accepting whatever comes, good or bad. You may want to try to respond the same way in all cases (like a routine): notice what else there is in your life, what you can learn from the experience, what you can celebrate (even in failures) and what you can improve (even in wins), etc… This will help reduce the gap in how you feel with opposite outcomes.
  • Be motivated, competitive, enjoy and celebrate your wins but don’t be attached to them.
  • Remember Nadal’s quote: When everything is going well, stay calm, when everything is going wrong, just keep working on what doesn’t work.

Take care,

Evan

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