The Athlete Warrior: 10 Principles for Becoming a Champion

USA Gymnastics Magazine
By Alison Arnold Ph.D.

Alison Arnold Ph.D. is a mental toughness coach for Head Games. A former gymnast, she views training the mind as important as training the body.

this article will give you five more training tools in the development of the Athlete Warrior. In order to implement these techniques, set aside a week for each one. Focus on it, practice it. Train your mind to become the champion you are. The move toward Eastern philosophy has been fueled by our Western desire to be more. As we strive to increase difficulty, increase consistency, and increase our joy in gymnastics, we look to new philosophies to fuel our old ways of thinking. The teachings of eastern and martial arts philosophy give us new glasses to look at old ways. They answer questions like, “How can I compete my best?”, “How can I train my mind as well as my body?” and most importantly, “What is my big picture purpose as I do gymnastics everyday?” Teaching yourself the principles of the Athlete Warrior helps you how to live as well as how to succeed in gymnastics. Isn’t that why you do this anyway? 

I’m coming out of the closet. For a while it wasn’t ok to say, so I hid it under the guise of simple sport psychology training. But now, the times are a changin’ and it’s become fashionable to admit what’s been true all along. I am a closet Eastern Philosophy junkie. It all started growing up with Kung fu, moving to the Karate Kid and the Dalai Lama. Although I learned a lot in my graduate programs, the truth is, most of my drills, workbooks, and presentations are based on the wisdom from the East. The Eastern philosophers are the masters of the mind, and in gymnastics, controlling the mind is just as important as controlling the body. 

Thanks Phil. Phil Jackson let the cat out of the bag with his book “Sacred Hoops”. In this book, the former coach of the Chicago Bulls and current coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, shared how much of his Training style and techniques are grounded in Native American and Eastern philosophy. This best seller ignited the curiosity of athletes and coaches all over the United States. People began to ask, “Is there something we can learn from these guys?”

What is the Athlete Warrior? The Athlete Warrior is someone fully committed to sport and life. Someone willing to face every day and every workout with eyes open, heart open, and ready to push their body to the maximum. It is an athlete ready to do your sport with no regrets. An Athlete Warrior practices fearlessness. Fearlessness in facing adversity, pushing themselves, and being a team leader. The Athlete Warrior does not back away from difficult situations. They are ready to face your sport and life with a big, full hearted… “Come on!” 

Principle Number One: Intention
Setting intention as an athlete is extremely important. Without setting intention, your life wanders around aimlessly without goal or direction. Intention is the motor that starts everything in motion. It is the all-important decision. It is the decision that you are going to be the best athlete you can every time you walk out on the floor. Remember to set specific intention. Think of it like the laser beam for your life. The wider and unfocused your laser is, the less likely you are to hit your target. Laser-like intention helps you create a direct hit on your goals. Remember, the Warrior doesn’t settle or make excuses. They make the commitment and decision to be all they can, and do what it takes to make that manifest. 

Training tips for Principle One:

  • Set a goal for each training session. Even if it’s a small one.

  • Create a list of words describing the athlete you want to be this season. Examples of words include, motivated, determined, confident, fearless, etc.

  • Visualize or repeat verbally the correction you want to implement before the next turn.

  • Review your goals throughout the season.

Principle Number Two: Belief
We know how important belief is. Think of two gymnasts walking out onto the floor for a competition. One believes she is able to hit four for four, the other questions her ability. You can tell the difference in these gymnasts simply by the way they look. One has her head down, looks nervous, and performs with hesitation. The other is confident, aggressive, and relaxed. The only difference is belief. The mind is the creator of all things. Negative thoughts are the destroyers of belief. Become aware of the way you talk to yourself and how that affects your mind and body. Be sure to do the drills, pressure sets, and numbers that are required to build belief. Act with confidence, even in times you don’t believe it 100%. The old saying “fake it until you make it” is very applicable here. Sometimes “acting” the part, can create confidence in yourself when you feel doubtful.

Training tips for Principle Two:

  • Notice negative self-talk. Keep a strong hold on what you are saying to yourself.

  • Practice “actor skills”. Change your face, body, and energy level to create confidence.

  • Express belief in your teammates. Remember what a powerful figure you are in the lives of your friends.

Principle Number Three: Awareness.  Awareness is about waking up. It’s essential that the Athlete Warrior is aware at all times. Aware, alert and ready for action. No sleepwalking allowed here. The Athlete Warrior knows and understands what’s happening both on the outside and the inside of your being. They know who they are, what they stand for, and what they are capable of. When the gymnast is aware, they can respond to all situations with efficiency, grace, speed, and skill. Without awareness, change is virtually impossible. Think about it in terms of a simple correction. If you cannot feel the difference you cannot make the change. The Athlete Warrior is aware of both the body and the mind. They are aware of thoughts, so they are able to change them. They are aware of their body, so they can improve technique. They are aware of how they come across to others, so they can build character. 

Training tips for Principle Three:

  • Become more aware of who you are and what you do.

  • Notice your thoughts and feelings.

  • Really feel your body. Notice your body position.

The Athlete Warrior Principle Four: The Present  What is that mystical place called “The Zone”? Some say it’s magic, some say it’s the place of total trust and non-thinking. One thing for certain, being in the Zone is being totally in the Present. One of the most destructive patterns of any gymnast is focusing too much attention in the past or the future. Focusing on the past keeps an gymnast in the land of “what happened”. “I can’t believe that happened”, “Why did that happen to me?”, “last time I did that, it was a disaster.” The past is over, there is nothing we can do to change it now. Gymnasts who stay in the past over-think and paralyze themselves from getting into the Zone. A gymnast focusing too much in the future, finds yourself stuck in “what if”. “What if I make a mistake?”, “What if I do the wrong thing?”, and “What if I don’t win”, are all thoughts of the future. No one knows what is going to happen in the future. An gymnast living in the land of “what if” is filled with worry and doubt. They may have a tendency to hold back or be over-cautious in their performance. 

The Athlete Warrior trusts the Present. They know that the past is over and the future is theirs to create however they want. They keep their mind focused on each element they are performing only using the past or the future for information and planning. They have heightened awareness, noticing what is going on around them and responding in each moment appropriately. They are accurate in your perceptions, not clouded by the illusions of the past or fears of the future. Without the worries of past or future, the Athlete Warrior performs with effortless confidence. 

Training tips for Principle Four:

  • Focus on your breathing. It’s the mind/body connector.

  • Notice when you are stuck in past or future thinking.

  • Use drills to pull your mind back to the present.

  • Let go of the past. Don’t use words that keep you stuck like “always”, and “never”.

The Athlete Warrior Principle Number Five: Discipline The mind is a thought factory. Running around like a crazy monkey, it creates thought after thought after thought. Taming the monkey-mind is essential to the Athlete Warrior. Are you a victim of your thoughts? Do you control your thoughts, or is it the other way around? Disciplining the mind is one of the most important lessons in becoming an Athlete Warrior. Disciplining the mind is not an easy task. It takes commitment, patience, and perseverance. Just as you pull your body back into proper alignment, you must work hard in order to pull your mind back into position for success. Many gymnasts allow themselves to become victims of their mind’s irrational behavior. The Athlete Warrior is awake, aware, and in control of the stormy waves of the monkey-mind. They are ruthlessly committed to reigning in negative thoughts, thereby, retrieving the mind from an out of control abyss. 

Training tips for Principle Five:

  • Learn to differentiate between “tight mind” and “loose mind”.

  • Use keywords to anchor the mind during routines and skills.

  • Observe your thoughts without getting emotionally caught up in them.

  • Find the lesson in every situation. Find the opportunity in the struggle.

Principle Number Six: Trust
Trust is one of the most important elements in gymnastics. A gymnast must trust their training, trust their coach, and most importantly, trust themselves to get the job done. When you are ready for a new skill, you must trust your body. When you compete, you must trust the numbers that have been put in during training. Ultimately, trusting life is the most important lesson of the Athlete Warrior. The Athlete Warrior believes that everything is evolving exactly as it should be. Sometimes life is hard to understand. It is full of curveballs, questions, and situations that appear as setbacks. The trusting warrior is not a victim. They see the gift in adversity and face challenges aggressively. Trust is a difficult skill. Many of us question and doubt training, decisions, and ultimately, the course of life. Look at your life. Everything that has ever happened to you has brought you to this moment. Even the seemingly “bad” events have taught you valuable lessons and have made you stronger. Every occurrence in life has a lesson. Everything is your teacher. The Athlete Warrior sees the value of each situation. They find the gift amidst the pain and disappointment and use it to fuel them toward the future 

Training tips for Principle Six:

  • Practice seeing the gifts amidst adversity.

  • Do your numbers and then trust your numbers.

  • Trust the decisions and requests of your coach.

  • Say trusting statements to yourself. Say things like “I know I can do this,” “I trust my training”, and “If my coach says that I’m ready then I’m ready”.

Principle Number Seven: Joy
The best performances come when a gymnast is having fun. Being frustrated, or feeling burned out at times is a normal experience for any high level gymnast. The Athlete Warrior knows that burnout is temporary. He or she focuses on what’s good in his sport and keeps a positive attitude even during difficult periods. Think about the beginners in gymnastics. They are lost and entranced simply with the experience of doing it. Be it the feeling of flying through the air, or flipping upside down, the beginners love to do gymnastics because they love the feeling of doing gymnastics. Most of the time, the magic is lost when you focus too much on outcome. Scores, awards, placements, take away from the sheer joy of the sport. Focusing too much on future goals also takes some of the joy away from simply being in the moment. This moment is so precious. There will never be another like it. You will never again be in this day of practice, with these people. Don’t miss the moment by forgetting the beauty and joy of it. Remember, joy is not just about goofing around. The most joy in sport can come from times when the athlete is working their hardest. 

Training tips for Principle Seven:

  • Don’t forget to have fun in the gym. Especially during the height of the competitive season.

  • Keep in mind that this is the only day you have. Take advantage of every workout.

  • Don’t freak out over bad days. Work with it, get what you can out of it, and move on.

  • Encouraging others is a good way to enjoy your workout. Remember, you make yourself better when your teammates are better.

Principle Number Eight: Compassion
The Athlete Warrior is incredibly strong. He or she is awake, alive, and in touch with both the joy and sorrows of the world. The Athlete Warrior is strong enough to feel the struggles of others and ease their suffering. They are not afraid of pain, but invite pain in order to live fully. The Athlete Warrior stands with strength, courage but also with a tear of compassion running down his cheek. The Athlete Warrior knows that supporting and confronting can both be forms of compassion. Sometimes a teammate needs a pat on the back and sometimes a teammate needs a kick in the butt. A superior gymnast has the wisdom to know when each is needed, and has the ability to confront with skill and kindness. The Athlete Warrior is compassionate yet disciplined with themselves. They understand the difference between motivation and deflation. They are patient, yet disciplined, with themselves and others They don’t take things personally and hold grudges. They don’t label and judge, but rather understand human nature and the ways we all struggle in the world.  

Training tips for Principle Eight:

  • Notice your self- talk. Is your self-talk brining you up or beating you down. Notice when you are being motivational to yourself, or when you are simply beating yourself up.

  • Be compassionate to your teammates. Don’t judge others or participate in gossip.

  • Help your teammates be the best they can be. Encourage them and be happy when they succeed. Don’t be a jealous teammate.

  • Model kindness with other gyms, ex-athletes, or ex-coaches.

  • Do random acts of kindness for your parents, teachers, coaches, and others w ho support you day in day out!

Principle Number Nine: Impermanence (everything changes)
The only guarantee in life is that everything changes. Especially in the world of sports. The Athlete Warrior is ready for change and adapts in ways that fuel performance. Life is full of ups and downs. It is rarely steady. The Athlete Warrior handles the ups and downs of life gracefully, without getting frustrated, angry, or discouraged. How can you use turbulent times as motivation to take you to the next level? Being able to adapt and use frustration as fuel divides the mentally weak from the mentally strong. Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.” Every moment of training and competition is an opportunity. The power to seize that opportunity, lies within every athlete. What if you believed that nothing “bad” ever happened to you. That everything that happened in your life was simply an opportunity for growth as and gymnast and a person. Using everything as fuel means seeing and acting on the opportunity presented in every situation. Seeing each situation in the best possible light. Finding the positive amidst the negative. Searching for the gift inside the gloom.  

Training tips for Principle Nine:

  • Understand and know that change is normal.

  • Use adversity as fuel. Even an injury can help you become stronger!

  • Stay positive during hard times. Keep doing whatever you can to be a better athlete and person.

  • Remember: during the difficult times is when you grow. Search for the gift in every situation.

Principle Number Ten: Purpose
When you know your purpose, everything seems to make more sense. Why do you do gymnastics? What is your gift to give? We all are involved in this sport because we love it, that is for sure. But what’s the bigger picture? Why do you sacrifice so much day in and day out? Everything you do should have a purpose. Every day in the gym, even down to every turn you take. Having purpose brings you full circle in this article. All the way back to Principle number One: Intention. When you have purpose your intention is clear. When your intention is clear, you make your dreams happen. Think of not having purpose in a workout. You would simply not have any direction! Take the time to decide what you want to do with each turn and make it happen. 

Purpose is also about why you do gymnastics. Is it JUST to get a college scholarship or hang out with friends? You do it because it is teaching you about life. All the lessons you learn in the gym are life lessons. How do you handle adversity? How do you deal with gossip and meanness towards a teammate? How do you handle the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”? Everything in gymnastics will come back around in your life after the sport. The way you deal with training your hardest and then not making it to Regionals is not very different than not getting the job promotion you have worked for months for. Use gymnastics as your teacher to help you handle later life experiences. 

The deepest of the three levels is your purpose in life. Why did you come here? What are you supposed to do? What are you supposed to give? How can you make a difference? Your purpose in life is independent of place, time, money, or circumstance. It is something you can do in any state, any job, or any situation. Think about something you have always done well. Something you have felt “born to do”. Your purpose is something that comes very easy to you. It is your special gift that has been with you possibly all your life. Maybe you inspire others. Or have the ability to connect with children or animals like no other. Maybe you are here to teach. Or help others see their own greatness. Whatever it is, finding your purpose helps your entire life flow no matter what obstacles come your way.  

Training tips for Principle Ten:

  • Decide on your purpose every day in training. Take advantage of every turn.

  • Give your gifts. Be a team leader, motivator, and role model.

  • Remember: gymnastics is about life lessons. Gymnastics teaches you about overcoming obstacles, leadership, pushing through fears, staying positive, compassion, and determination.

Living the life of the Athlete Warrior means living a life awake, open, with purpose, and with no regrets. These ten principles will help you live fearlessly, and more joyfully. Not to mention, taking your gymnastics to a whole new level. Try it. Become the Jedi Master of your gym! 


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