Swscd profile image


April 10, 2020

Esther Kearney: Strategies to build mental strength

If you watched Bianca Andreescu’s historic win at the 2019 U.S. Open, you were probably as impressed with her ability to withstand the intense pressure of the match as with her powerful passing shots. Coaches and athletes are increasingly understanding the importance of the mental side of competition. We sat down with Esther Kearney, a yoga practitioner, avid runner and expert on mindfulness to learn more.


How did you get interested in supporting mental health?

I have been a runner and a yoga practitioner for a long time, and I have personally found both to be very powerful ways to meditate and manage stress. In my work supporting local school boards, I have helped high-school students develop mindfulness skills to help improve mental health, decrease anxiety and improve their general sense of well-being. Putting these techniques together with yoga can help any individual build mental strength for their day to day lives and as part of their athletic training.


What kind of benefits does mental strength bring to athletes?

Just as we need to train our bodies to swing a golf club or nail a free throw, we need to train our minds to control emotion, manage adrenaline, stay focused and deal with mistakes and setbacks. And I’m not just talking about elite athletes here, I think anyone who does any kind of sport can benefit from improving their self-discipline, even if it’s just pushing yourself to walk outdoors on a cold morning when you’d rather be in bed.


How can athletes incorporate mental training into their regimens?

I’m a yoga instructor so of course, I recommend that as a starting point (laughs). Yoga is a great way to work on mental training while you’re also building physical strength. Even a few minutes of yoga can have a great impact on your mental, physical and emotional well-being. I’d say find a style of yoga you like and a great instructor and have them work with you to create a routine that fits with the rest of your training.


But yoga is more than just getting onto a mat a couple of times a week

Absolutely! Ive been practicing for over 30 years and its really a way of being. First and foremost, it's a way to be compassionate in words, actions, and thoughts.  With yoga, I have found a way to live with a heart and head connection, knowing each breath grounds me in the here and now. In other words, when I reach for mental strength, regardless of the situation, my training makes it available to me.


Let’s talk about mindfulness. We hear all about how important being mindful is, but I’m not sure everyone really understands it.

Mindfulness is simply about staying present in the moment. It’s about bringing attention to the experiences that are occurring in the now – not the past or the future. Jon Kabat Zinn has outlined the core attitudes necessary to cultivate mindfulness as: non-judgement, acceptance, patience, beginner's mind, trust, non-striving, letting go, gratitude and generosity.


By living in the present, we can begin to be connected to the moments of our lives. Taking the pause is a powerful tool.  The pause to be in the moment, taking in all the sensations, before for example, the first whistle of the game is a wonderfully present experience.


Mindfulness training helps us notice our feelings with objective awareness and without judgment. This objectivity is key because now we can figure out what to do about the emotions that are getting in the way. There is plenty of science that shows that mindfulness has both psychological and physical benefits, including reduced stress, improved focus, better working memory, and a more compassionate inner dialogue.


Give me some examples of how we can deal with emotions as we notice them.

Begin by noticing the emotion and with kindness, label it. By labelling the emotion and then noticing the sensations in our body, we can begin to tune in to the idea that sensations in our body are temporary. Staying connected to breath, begin to notice the emotions and sensations that fade over time. 


I also recommend trying out mindful movement. Try walking and noticing how that feels. How do your feet feel in your socks? How do the soles of your feet feel when they touch the pavement? The idea is to stay focused in the now and not worry about what happened yesterday or five minutes ago or to stress about what’s going to happen next.



Okay, but what if what we’re noticing now is stressing us out?

Well, that’s another technique, which is called emotional tolerance and it’s how we respond to a stressor, like a missed shot or an opponent scoring on us. We teach people to find a physical way to direct all that negativity out of their bodies. For example, you might use your middle finger to dispel negative energy, or you might use a bit of mindful breathing to push the stress out. A very effective technique is to direct your negative energy to the soles of your feet and out of your body to the ground below.


These tools would be pretty powerful outside of sports as well

Mental strength, like physical strength, is part of being healthy in general. Mindfulness strategies and interventions can help with social and workplace stressors and we see that when clinicians add it to their practices, health outcomes are improved. I find that even a brief mediation in the middle of a tough day can build my resilience and give me the strength to push through.


What’s the best way to get started with mindfulness?

There are all kinds of apps and websites devoted to developing a mindfulness practice. If you are working with a coach, ask them for recommendations. It’s really important that your mental and physical training are complementing each other.


For those of us who love to move, there are lots of simple ways to get started. Check out these articles to see how you can incorporate mindfulness into a walk around your neighbourhood or give yoga a try: 







More mental strength resources

You’ll soon find a style of yoga that makes sense for your body and your goals. From there, check out the SeeWhatSheCanDo Athlete Advisor to find a local studio or instructor you can work with.


For mindfulness, check out The Centre for Mindfulness. They have tons of programs for individuals, professionals and organizations. I particularly recommend their mindfulness for beginners program. Another great resource is Getting Started with Mindfulness.


If you’re new to meditation, there are also apps, such as Headspace and podcasts with guided meditations such as Meditation Oasis. I quite like Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, who talks about how mindfulness lights up parts of our brains that are ignored when we are on “autopilot”.


The Canadian Sport Institute Pacific Mental Performance Team has resources that coaches and athletes can use to help with the mental aspect of training high-performance athletes.


Canada Retreats helps you find yoga, meditation, health and wellness retreats anywhere across Canada.


Sugar Ridge Retreat Centre in Wyebridge, Ontario provides a place for people to reconnect with a part of themselves that may be neglected or hidden, to connect with others or just getaway for some fun.



Check our Athlete Advisor – your online business directory for all things active. Rate and review your favourite yoga studio or mindfulness clinic. See what others have to say about the ones you’d like to try.


Find or start a group or event. Organize a virtual mindfulness retreat or walking group. Visit our SWSCD Hub.


Explore fresh thinking, inspiring articles, and advice on our Yoga activity page.


Share your story about yoga, meditation or mindfulness directly on our Discover blog or by using #seewhatshecando in your social media posts. 


Connecting you to active women, local groups, events, businesses and more.

Choose your location


Don't use my location, default to Toronto, ON.