Mind & Body

Life is challenging. We cannot avoid this basic fact – but more importantly, we shouldn’t want to. Human experience wouldn’t be deep and full if we simply avoided all challenges. It is often in the overcoming that we find a sense of meaning, purpose and joy.

As Harvard psychologist Dr Susan David says: “Tough emotions are part of our contract for life. You don't get a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”

Having said this, “forgetting” about a tough situation and focusing on performing (be it on the golf course, at work or at home) can be difficult. So, how do we not become immobilised by the sometimes very painful events of life, and perform when we are required to?

Here are three tips to help:


Dr Kirsten van Heerden chats to Olympic double gold medallist and swimming legend Penny Heyns about performance and purpose.

1. Allow it to give you perspective

We recently saw Erik van Rooyen dedicate his PGA Tour win at El Cardonal in Mexico to a terminally ill friend. In his interviews he said how the illness made everything else, including winning a tournament, seem minor in comparison. Springbok rugby guru Rassie Erasmus has said that pressure on the field is small when you compare it to the real pressure so many South Africans face of just putting food on the table every day. While being successful in a golf tournament is important and meaningful, tough life events can help us keep that importance in some kind of perspective, which ultimately allows us to play with a bit more freedom.

2. Don’t ignore it – it makes it worse

There is so much research that shows we cannot stop feelings or thoughts. All we do is dam them up... often for them to burst and flood us later! We always need to acknowledge when we are feeling sad/disappointed/anxious/scared and accept that this is how we are feeling. If we try to ignore it, it actually amplifies the thought or feeling, and interestingly, continues to amplify it even when the stressful event or situation is over.

Basketball legend Kobe Bryant spoke about having an obnoxious roommate in his head – and how this helped him deal with thoughts and feelings. But why on earth would you want an obnoxious roommate in your head? Well, think about having a roommate standing outside your room who really wants to get in. If they knock and you ignore them, what happens? They get more vocal, knock louder and maybe even start shouting obscenities! If you rather open the door and let them in, in general they quieten down after a while.

This is what Bryant did with thoughts and feelings – he accepted that they were there and let them in rather than ignoring them and allowing them to get louder and louder.

3. Expand the spotlight

Acceptance is not about being passive, or having a “whatever happens, happens” attitude. It is actually an active decision we take to deal with the world as it is.

One of the active steps we can take is expanding our attention. Think about being in a dark theatre: the spotlights shine on the actor on stage and all our attention is drawn to them – we see nothing else. But as the play ends, the theatre lights go up and we begin to notice everyone on stage, the orchestra in the pit, the people around us.

After we have accepted an event and our thoughts and emotions, we then need to not get stuck focusing all our attention on to them like a spotlight. We need to expand our focus so it doesn’t consume all of us: maybe ask a friend how they are, pay attention to something beautiful in your surroundings, or put on your favourite music and sing along.

Then, of course, probably most importantly of all, we need to remember that we don’t need to do this alone. Sharing our struggles or fears with someone we trust, even if they can’t make them disappear, is vital in helping us cope. As Simon Sinek (of TED fame) says, we need someone who we know “will just sit in the mud with us”, someone who will acknowledge the struggle and walk alongside us. This connection is the antidote to being overwhelmed by life.


About the author

Dr Kirsten van Heerden is one of only a few people in South Africa to have represented her country as an athlete and hold a PhD in sport psychology. She has worked and travelled extensively within high performance sport for more than 15 years. She has published a book on the challenges athletes face when they retire from elite sport called Waking from the Dream and hosts her own podcast called ‘Behind the Dream’ where she talks with some of the world’s best athletes about the ups and downs of being a professional athlete. She is also the founder and chairperson of Girls Only Project – a non-profit company focusing on women in sport issues. She is in private practice at Newton Sports Agency.