How to Increase Self-Regulation

~3.5 minute read

Whether you realize it or not, you make thousands of decisions each day. A key aspect of decision making includes self-regulation, or the ability to regulate your own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Since athletes are often under a lot of pressure, they engage in many self-regulation tactics. Calming down your nerves during a game, continuing to push yourself through a tough conditioning circuit, and making yourself go to sleep early the night before an early morning practice are all examples of self-regulation. Higher levels of self-regulation decrease the chance that you’ll engage in behaviors you might regret, like staying up late, partying, or skipping class. Improving self-regulation allows you to better control your behaviors, emotions, and thoughts in the pursuit of long-term goals.

It can be exhausting to regulate yourself all of the time, and research even shows that engaging in activities that demand high levels of self-regulation doesn’t necessarily lead to higher levels of self-control at all times. Instead, self-regulation and self-control are limited resources, and the more you use them, the more you deplete them. Understandably, your brain gets tired after having to closely monitor and control your behaviors and emotions all of the time, and it needs time to unwind and recharge. Ever found yourself watching TV late at night instead of getting some rest after a long day of school and practice? You’ve likely been practicing self-regulation all day to stay focused in school and practice and now even though all that’s left to do is get some good sleep, your self-regulation and self-control resources are all used up. Increasing your self-regulation allows you to pause at the moment between thought and action. So rather than mindlessly clicking on the next Netflix episode, with a little more self-regulation you might be able to pause between the desire to turn on a show and the actual action of turning it on. During that pause, you can decide to watch the show on the weekend instead by reminding yourself that you’ll be happier tomorrow if you wake up rested. Here are a few suggestions on how to increase your capacity for self-regulation:

1. Give yourself time to recover after high pressure situations

High pressure situations use up a lot of your decision-making resources. Since your brain gets tired after having to make decisions under pressure, it needs some time to unwind and recharge. After stressful situations, like a game or test, take time to relax your mind and body. Examples: Take a shower or bath, practice deep breathing, listen to music, journal, do yoga.

2. Outline your goals and values

Knowing what your priorities are makes it much easier to make decisions that align with those priorities. If you’re overwhelmed by a big challenge or decision, try breaking it down into smaller steps or decisions. Stepping away and coming back to the problem later can be a game changer. It’s also helpful to identify scenarios where your values and long-term goals might get challenged. Develop a few planned responses for situations when peers might make you feel pressured to act against your values and goals (Ex. “No thanks, do you wanna go play video games instead?” or “I’ll get grounded for life if I do that.”) 

3. Pause and practice mindfulness between thought and action 

You can also stay grounded in your values by taking that pause between thought and action to reflect on how a decision might help or hurt those goals. (Ex. When you’re tempted to stay up to watch another show on Netflix, take a moment before clicking that next episode to reflect on bigger goals – are you hoping to improve in your sport or do well in school? Reminding yourself of those bigger goals can help you exercise the self-control required to commit to a good night’s sleep rather than binging another episode.) If you find yourself consistently regretting decisions you make with a certain teammate or friend group, try to identify those moments where you make an impulse decision you later regret. Did you feel nervous or pressured in that moment? Next time you feel nerves or discomfort, try to use those feelings as cues to pause between thinking about doing something you might regret and actually doing it. The more you practice pausing between an impulsive thought and an impulsive action, the more you can practice staying grounded in your values and feeling a sense of control over your actions. 

4. Surround yourself with supportive people

Who you choose to spend time with can greatly impact the decisions you make. The older you get, the more freedom you have to make different friends and the more independence you have when it comes to hanging out with them. The less you expose yourself to dangerous options or behaviors, the less likely you are to engage in them. Prioritize healthy friendships and relationships so that you can give yourself the best chance to make healthy choices. 

You might feel frustrated with figuring out how to best regulate your own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. That’s completely understandable. It’s a lot of work to check in with yourself so frequently. Remember that this process is a learning experience, and it’s okay if you make mistakes along the way. The important thing is that you can continue to reevaluate your choices and feel comfortable reaching out for help at any point.

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