Controlling the “Controllables” in our Lives

Prior to, during, and even after competition; players, coaches, and spectators focus on the weather, the field conditions, the referee decisions, the other team’s supporters, the behavior of the other team’s players and coaches, even the status of the other team or their prior achievements. All this focus is put on so many things, none of which are under the control of the athlete as they try to perform.

A better, more productive, approach is to focus on those things that are “controllable”. Here is a recent social media post from world recognized sports psychologist Dan Abrahams that relates to this issue of “controllables”:

via @danabrahamssport on Instagram

Lists of “Controllable” actions, factors, or characteristics are prevalent across numerous platforms, and have been for years.  Below is an adaptation that I have found to be very useful.

By aiming to control what they can, a sense of empowerment can be created for the athlete. Focusing on the “controllables” can reduce anxiety and frustration, and confidence can be improved due to feeling more in control of the factors such as preparation and not outside events. This is not just true for the athlete. Focusing less on “uncontrollable” factors and more on “controllable” factors can also help ease stress and anxiety on the sidelines as well.


Parents and coaches can help kids stop focusing on things they can’t control. Help them recognize when this is happening and refocus their thoughts. This will allow them to feel empowered. It will also boost their confidence and success in sports. Here are some suggested activities: 

  • Identify Controllable vs. Uncontrollable – make two lists. One list should be the controllables, which are those factors athletes can do something about. The other list should be the uncontrollable, which are the elements of performance athletes cannot do anything about.
  • “What if” Plan – Creating this can help prepare athletes (or parents and coaches) for any obstacles or challenges you may encounter in the ever-changing, fast-paced, unpredictable environment. Address the things you really fear in the game. Just list them all. Then address them one by one, asking yourself, is it controllable or not and if it happens I will….say a focus phrase, pull up my socks, take three breaths…
  • Concentration Cues – Coaches can help athletes highlight and develop a list of correct cues athletes should be focusing on when on and off the ball. Use trigger words or short phrases to reinforce specific concentration cues for a task or skill i.e “drop back” or “bend from your hips”.
  • Uncontrollable Simulation – incorporate pressure games or drills to train positive responses to adversity (e.g. Use time pressure, 1-0 down or bad officiating decisions etc.).

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