The Role of Gratitude in Sports Performance

There’s a multitude of research and psychological study about the power of the mind in athletic performance.

Researchers have examined visualization techniques, the attitude of successful athletes, and how the mind can trip us up in our quest for success. Sports psychology is a booming field, and it’s becoming more and more common for coaching staffs to employ psychologists to keep their athlete’s mental skills as in tune as their physical skills.

On the edge of the field, in the intersection between positive psychology and sports performance, a new idea is getting explored: gratitude.

In a blossoming era of self-care and emotional openness, gratitude is growing as a practice, and it’s been shown to increase the overall quality of life among those who hone the skill. Individuals report more open-mindedness and compassion, greater happiness, and better health.

So, if it can do that much for the average human, what can a gratitude practice do when incorporated into the training schedule of a disciplined athlete? Let’s find out.

What Is Gratitude?

Like most semi-abstract concepts, there’s a prescriptive and a descriptive way to talk about gratitude.

When prompted, most of us think of thank you cards, Thanksgiving litanies, or verbally expressing thanks to another human. When you dig into it, though, the concept of gratitude encompasses much more than a holiday or kind-hearted card.

Defining Gratitude

The dictionary defines gratitude as, “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” The word originates from the Latin gratus, meaning pleasing and thankful.

Colloquially, gratitude is often used interchangeably with giving thanks or being thankful. Based on the above definitions, though, that doesn’t tell the whole story. While acknowledging the good things in our lives and in the world is certainly a key component of practicing gratitude, eminent happiness scholar Robert Emmons argues that there’s a social component to gratitude.

According to Emmons, part of gratitude is acknowledging that other people or external forces have influenced our lives positively. We are given gifts both great and small that allow us to exist in our current state – deliberately calling out these gifts reinforces the social aspect of gratitude, that we are “supported and affirmed” by other people.

At its core, gratitude involves a sort of personal inventory and appreciation of what you have. When we express gratitude, we strengthen our social bonds (whether that’s our internal perception or a verbal confirmation to another person).

The Intersection of Gratitude and Athletics

When discussing gratitude in relation to athletic performance, it may seem counterintuitive to acknowledge the social aspect of something that can feel inherently individual, like running. Whether you play a team sport or prefer to “go it alone,” there are definitely still distinct impacts points.  

Primarily, no one truly goes it alone, especially not in our age of connectivity. Even if all your training runs are solo or you’ve never worked with a coach, there’s no way you haven’t Googled something. The online experience can create community even where it feels like none exists, from getting questions answered to knowing you’re not the only one hating your speed workouts. At the very least, it lets you know whether to lance a blister or tape over it.

Secondarily, health is kind of a crapshoot, to be blunt. Regardless of your beliefs on karma, deities, or universal chaos, there’s always a chance that you’ll be on the wrong end of a car accident or lose the genetic lottery and wind up with a chronic illness. The ability to move you body, at whatever stage of training you’re in, could disappear tomorrow. That’s worth acknowledging, and it creates an appreciation for what you have in this moment.

Those key opportunities for gratitude can have an impact on your mental resiliency in training and your overall attitude. The impacts can extend beyond the mental benefits, too. Gratitude has been shown to impact the physical health of practitioners as well.

How Does Gratitude Impact Your Life?

At its most basic, practicing gratitude can start to “reorganize” our mental focus. Gratitude has been shown to increase happiness as well as physical and mental health. Moreover, an individual will begin to shift away from resentment, jealousy, and other negative emotions.

letter writing

Along with a more positive outlook, individuals who regularly practice gratitude often sleep better, express more compassion, report feeling more alive, and have stronger immune systems. It’s also related to higher levels of optimism, life satisfaction, and well-being, and a greater likelihood of engaging in prosocial behavior. It would seem that gratitude is like a supplement for your brain – reducing the noise and focusing in on what matters.

One study performed at Berkeley asked individuals in states of mental distress to write gratitude-focused letters (participants were not required to send the letters). Results showed that individuals who wrote letters experienced positive mental health beginning 4 weeks after the study (and they lasted up to 12 weeks after the act of writing).

Researchers also noted that letter-writing participants experienced different motivations when asked to “pay-it-forward” in an experiment. While in an fMRI machine, participants were gifted a sum of money and asked to donate part to a charitable cause.

By monitoring brain activity, researchers were able to note which areas of the brain were active while participants were making their decisions. Those who wrote letters were more likely to be motivated by gratitude than by guilt or obligation.

The differences in brain activity demonstrated that a continued focus on gratitude over time will actually create physical changes to the prefrontal cortex. You can physically change your brain and train it to be more gratitude-ready.

Impact of Gratitude on Sports Performance

So, even if gratitude practice has the ability to rewire your brain, what does this mean for your performance? That’s what you’re here for, right?

Beyond the benefits to your outlook, immune system, and sleep schedule, a few studies (and plenty of anecdotes) have documented the positive impact that gratitude can have on an athlete’s performance.

Team Impacts

Remember the social aspect of gratitude that was discussed earlier? Here’s where that comes into play for athletics.

team huddle

When athletes regularly take time to appreciate their teammates and the support of their coaches, they strengthen the bond of the team. Former Olympic team coach Teri McKeever regularly asked her swimming athletes to write gratitude lists before practice, and then share them verbally – not only did it put her athletes in a stronger mindset, but it made practice feel more cohesive.

When the support of a coach is paired with individual gratitude, it imparts a resiliency to athletes. They feel that they can accomplish tasks, rely on their teammates and coach for the necessary support, and are more likely to push themselves during training.

 Plus, having a coach actively work to keep athletes in the moment and grateful for chances to excel can increase performance during stressful game situations. Rather than focusing on the fear of failure or opportunity to misstep, athletes keep their mind on the chance to learn and grow, and the joy of playing the game.

Individual Impacts

Not all athletes have teammates to rely on, though. While online communities and forums can create a social aspect for solo athletes (like runners or triathletes), there’s no chance to share gratitude lists before a run or have someone tell you that you make their runs brighter.

Instead, you’re in charge of your mindset.

You can still reap the same gains, though. Maintaining an intentional and grateful mind through training can add resiliency to hard workouts. When you’re grateful for the opportunity to run, or thankful for being able to be outside safely, it makes it a little bit easier to head out when you’d rather head back to bed.

Beyond the added resiliency, being actively focused on what you have (and cherishing it) lends itself to healthier goal setting. Your goals are more likely to be centered around performance and personal growth than aesthetics or benchmarks that rely on factors out of your control. In a way, you begin to highlight your own diligence and the ways you can capitalize on opportunity.  

Incorporating Gratitude Practice Into Training

Psychologists recognize that gratitude exists as a temporary emotion, but it’s also a dispositional trait (meaning that people differ in how naturally inclined they are to express gratitude). So, while gratitude can be a spontaneous emotion, there’s also demonstrably evidence that cultivating gratitude as a trait has positive impacts. But what does that look like? How do you become a more grateful person?

The most common method is to start keeping a gratitude journal. This involves taking a few minutes every day to reflect on what you’re grateful for – and it doesn’t have to be related to athletics. It can be literally anything that brings you a sense of thankfulness.

After the first couple days, you may have to look a little harder for things you’re grateful for. You can only write down indoor plumbing so many times before the exercise becomes trite and monotonous. And remember what we mentioned earlier; it can take up to a month to start reaping the mental and physical benefits of a gratitude practice, so stick with it. Challenge yourself to write down something new every day for 30 days.

As you get more used to your gratitude practice, work on incorporating it into workouts. Before you start exercising, verbally affirm that you’re thankful for the opportunity, and be specific about it. Or, challenge yourself to find 5 things you’re thankful for throughout your workout.

Another method to practice gratitude is to spend 10 minutes a day meditating, but instead of clearing your mind, focus on holding a positive thought or something you’re grateful for in the front of your mind. Examine how it makes you feel, how it improves your life, and what forces you have to thank for it.

It might feel silly at first, but over time, cultivating a practice of gratitude will improve not only your physical and mental well-being, but your athletic performance as well.

Gratitude in Athletic Performance