Developing a Growth Mindset in Sports

I was a professional athlete for decades. I’ve achieved thousands of wins and several world championships. Want to know one thing I’ve learned over my career that might surprise you? 

The margin between champions and everyone else is actually razor-thin.

What do I mean, and what sets apart great athletes from the average?

It’s all about mindset.

Average athletes have average performances. They have average mindsets. The greats? The true champions? They operate with a completely different mindset. They use fear to their advantage. They know how to remain calm in the highest-stress scenarios imaginable, and they know how to make resilience a part of their entire being. 

That’s what this blog is going to explore today – how to develop a strong mindset, based on principles I’ve used throughout my entire professional sports career. 

Why Fear Is Your Secret Weapon

Fear can paralyze you. That same fear can also drive you to conquer your limitations.

In sports, fear is the secret weapon that keeps the best athletes going. It’s what the world’s top performers use on the biggest stages. Why? Because they know that embracing their fears and pushing through them is the key to unlocking their athletic (and mental) potential.

But how do you overcome fear and develop a growth mindset in sports? How do you use fear as an ally, and not an enemy?

Reframe Your Fear

In my blog about how to overcome limiting beliefs, I brought up the topic of cognitive reframing. There’s a reason I keep talking about it – it works, extremely well. In the context of fear, reframing takes several meanings:

  • Instead of labeling fears as something to be scared of, or nervous about, reframe them as excitement, anticipation, and preparation. It means going from something like “My body is shaking, I’m so nervous about this” to “My body is priming itself for peak performance.” Acknowledge the anxiety, label it, and understand this fact: it’s simply your nervous system preparing you for action. It’s natural, and you need to learn how to accept it, use it, and power through it. 
  • Combat negative self-talk with empowering messages. Swap “I’m nervous, I’ll mess up” with “This energy fuels my focus and reaction time, and it’s going to make me razor-sharp.” Repetition is key: rehearse these affirmations until they become your default inner dialogue. Once you get into the habit of doing this anytime you have negative thoughts, it will become almost automatic. The gap between negative thought to positive affirmation will become so small it almost doesn’t even affect you. Remember to reframe using your own words, ones that have deep meaning to you, for greater impact.

Beyond affirmations, learn to harness the power of mindfulness techniques. Deep, controlled breaths will anchor you in the present, calm your mind, and regulate your heart rate. All of this works to lower your fear and get you in the zone, which brings us to our next topic – the power of Zen. 

Finding Zen in the Chaos

In high-pressure situations, it’s important to find calm amidst the chaos. There is a reason why Zen principles were so highly regarded by the Samurai of Japan—maintaining calm in high-stakes environments is what separates champions (and warriors alike) from the status quo. It’s what having a growth mindset in sports is all about. 

mental health for athletes

Mindfulness

Mindfulness, much like an anchor, keeps you attached to the present moment. Not the future. Not the past. The now. Techniques like deep breathing exercises slow the racing heart rate and quieten the distracting mental chatter. Practice breath-based meditation daily, not just pre-performance, to build mental resilience in the face of pressure. It 100% does have an impact on your ability to endure, focus, and get in the zone (and stay there) – it’s something I used throughout my entire career in professional sports. 

Visualization

Close your eyes and imagine yourself executing the perfect performance. See yourself flowing through the competition, responding flawlessly to challenges, and ultimately achieving victory. This mental rehearsal, a cornerstone of Zen practice, programs your mind and body for success. Repeat these visualizations regularly, making sure to include ultra-vivid details and emotions, to create a powerful blueprint for peak performance. I did this before EVERY single race.  

Detachment from Outcome

Zen teaches us to find joy in the journey, not just the destination. When your worth is solely defined by victory, the pressure becomes unbearable. Cultivate a detached mindset, focusing on the intrinsic satisfaction of competition, the joy of pushing your limits, and the learning that comes from every attempt. This frees you from the burden of expectations and allows you to perform with a sense of freedom and spontaneity, often leading to your best results.

When I was racing, there were moments when time slowed, and I could see everything happen in near-slow motion—that’s the zone. When you’re in it, every detail becomes hyper-acute. You hear the subtle shift in the wind, feel the precise balance of your body, and anticipate the opponent’s every move. It’s almost a meditative state, and it’s what champions across all sports leverage to increase their performance levels. The underlying principles of Zen will get you there.

Making Resilience a Repeatable Skill

In sports, you don’t control the outcome alone. You can give it your all and still lose. But every great pro athlete has something in common—a strong mindset. They have something called resilience. And want to know something? Resilience is a repeatable skill, and it has a huge impact on performance. 

It can be learned, developed, honed, and repeated. Day in, day out. Resilient athletes have these 3 traits:

1. Embrace the Grind

Losses aren’t roadblocks to champions, they’re data points. Top athletes view defeats not as losses, but as brutal training sessions. What did you learn about your weaknesses? And after a crushing loss, dissecting the game with coaches and mentors is their norm—they don’t sit around wallowing in self-pity. They identify technical errors, analyze tactical missteps, and strategize improvements. This grind in the pursuit of self-improvement is what builds their resilience, and is what turns setbacks into stepping stones towards winning.

2. Channel Disappointment into Fuel

Disappointment after a loss is natural. But laying on the couch and coating yourself in negativity cripples you. Champions leverage this raw emotion as fuel—it’s what I did any time I had a poor performance. I channeled that frustration into an intense training focus and pushed myself harder in the gym. This controlled burn became my driving force, pushing me beyond whatever self-imposed limits I thought I had.

3. Build Grit

True resilience goes beyond just “bouncing back.” It’s about staying in the fight when things get tough. Imagine pushing through fatigue in the final quarter, every muscle screaming. Mental toughness, developed through deliberate practice, is your shield against failure and doubt. Visualization exercises, like I’ve already talked about, build the strength to stay present and focused under pressure.

Growth Mindset for atheletes

You can also seek out challenging environments outside your sport, like high-altitude training or extreme adventure sports to forge mental toughness in real-world scenarios. The point is simple: You want to build grit? Do things that hard. And then do them again. And again. And again. 

Developing a Champion’s Mindset 

Remember, the road to becoming a champion isn’t paved with overnight achievements. A growth mindset in sports doesn’t come overnight, either. It’s a relentless pursuit of self-improvement, fueled by a growth mindset and unwavering resilience. 

  • Embrace the challenges
  • Harness the power within
  • Find your inner zen 

The frameworks and approaches I talk about aren’t just theory—they are what I used to become a world champion. They are what I use as a coach and speaker. They will empower your performance and allow you to conquer every obstacle, both on and off the field. 

I leave you with this: Believe in your potential, and remember, the champion you seek already exists within you. 

Go out there and unleash it. 

Not sure where to begin? I’m here to help.