All posts by Kara Zakrzewski

Coach Kara, Kinesiologist, M.A. Sport and Performance Psychology, and Olympic-class athlete, is the Founder, CEO, and Chief Mental Toughness Coach at Mental Toughness Inc. With over 17 years of experience in the sport and performance industry, 7 of which was spent competing as a professional athlete, and after working with 1000s of athletes to develop their mental toughness, Kara is recognized as a leader in the field of sport and performance psychology. Together with her Mental Toughness Team, Kara is committed to sharpening your mental edge so you too can MAX OUT YOUR PERFORMANCE.

Acceptance Matters

I’m really starting to understand the power of acceptance, like the acceptance of whatever happens – that’s not saying that I don’t ever want it to be a different way, or that I won’t train myself to do something different the next time if things don’t work, but rather accepting whatever happened because it already happened.  No use dwelling on it, since it’s now in the past and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway.  As I say to my athletes, performance only happens in the present.  So any thoughts of the past only distract me from my performance right now.

I’m also beginning to grasp the true power of self-acceptance, accepting every bit of me (even those things I wish were different, like my tendency to cry when I’m really frustrated.  It’s just what I do, why resist it.  There’s so much comfort and power in accepting it).  I’m so hard on myself, I can be my own worst critic.  I can get so frustrated with myself.  And, what I’ve noticed is that doesn’t really help me!  So I’m choosing today to accept myself and my actions, all of me!

Here’s a practice I’m taking on this next week (with the full intention of continuing this practice indefinitely): I’m going to accept everything I do, whatever I say, and however I react.  I’m not going to judge it, or wish it was different, or put myself down.  Instead, I’m going accept whatever is, learn from it, assess, maybe even laugh and move on.

Will you try this with me?  Please send me an email next week telling me how it went!

Instantly, when I think about this practice, I take a deep breath and sigh, like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders.  I’m the only me I’ve got, might as well love every inch!

Battling Nerves

courage expander tool - mental toughness - free downloadThe other day one of the athletes I worked with at a workshop asked me the following question: “I was wondering if you could tell me what to do when your nervous for a race or something”. 

I figured some of you might have this same question, so I’d answer it here. 

Now the first thing I want to say is that there’s not one right answer here.  As an athlete, you will always have to play around with different mental toughness strategies until you find the one(s) that work best for you. 

That being said, here’s one way I’d coach my athlete to deal with their nerves:

    1. Awareness: The biggest key in dealing with any aspect of mental toughness is awareness.  So the first thing I’d have you do is pay attention to how you’re feeling.  What does your body feel like? What do you feel like emotionally? What sort of thoughts are floating around in your head.  If you’re not aware, these feelings and thoughts can take over and sabotage your performance.  Just by becoming aware and saying to yourself ‘Man I’m nervous!’, you’ve already won half the battle.


    1. Reality Check: Next I’d have you do a quick reality check by asking yourself “Have I ever before felt nervous and performed well?” or “Do I usually get nervous before a race, competition or performance?”  The reality is that when you care about something and want to do well, it is natural for you to get butterflies in your stomach and start feeling nervous in anticipation of the event.  This is a normal thing for athletes, as normal as sweating.  Notice you don’t start becoming concerned when you sweat, however you do when you get nervous.  Being nervous is as natural as sweating, so don’t sweat it.  It’s ok, it’s normal, and unless you start worrying about it or thinking that it’s going to affect your performance, it won’t.  The point here is to accept your nervousness a s a natural part of your performance (and if you’re not nervous, that’s fine too – some people sweat more than others too!).


  1. Have Fun:  At the end of the day, if you’re not having fun, what’s the point?  Get connected to why you’re competing in the first place: Why you play your sport? What do you love about it? Focus in on all the things you love and do those things.  Enjoy every moment, whether it’s going well or not, since you’re going to have difficult times, you’re going to lose, you’re going to fail, so might as well have fun doing it :D.  Besides, in the difficult times, in the failures, that’s where you usually learn the most.

How to harness anger to perform better

At Mental Toughness Inc., we teach that passion aids in the myelination of the neural pathways of the brain. These pathways link our thoughts to our feelings and behaviours.

Imagine racing determinedly to be first to the soccer ball, risking an off balance strike, and scoring a critical goal. The passion to pull it off, and the heightened emotion at the result, increases the production of the conducting material in the brain, effectively making this same emotional and physical response easier to tap into the next time.

How to harness anger to perform at your best

Negative passion unfortunately has the same effect. Imagine now digging a ball in beach volleyball so that your partner can set it perfectly for you. You scramble to your feet and run into position, launching yourself in the air in preparation for a monster kill …and your attack is just out at a critical point in the game. You’re angry with yourself. Your blood is pumping, your body is in fight or flight mode with the adrenaline of the point, and you are furious with yourself, seeing the gaff in your mind over and over. Guess what kind of neural pathway you are reinforcing now?

Positive Psychology researcher Robert Biswas Deiner has co-authored a book called the Upside of Your Dark Side. In the book he explores other perspectives from which to consider our negative emotions and inclinations.

He points out that ANGER may have a positive purpose:

  1. The science shows that anger is associated with risk taking and optimism.
  2. This means someone who is feeling anger may be willing to stretch themselves. As an athlete this may translate into testing the physical boundaries or pushing oneself beyond previous levels of exertion.
  3. Anger is a signal that someone or something may be threatened.
  4. This could relate to your teammates or even your long held personal goals. If the competition threatens these precious relationships, anger can spark a passionate outpouring of commitment and physical determination.
  5. The third area where anger might be an asset is when anger, in the form of outrage, connects principles of right and wrong.
  6. This is often associated with social justice behaviours. When honour, fair play and sportsmanship are threatened, anger may fuel the kind of behavior that many believe is the hallmark of a great athlete. Passionate social justice behaviours in the realm of sport look like extra ordinary effort, outstanding team play, and unmitigated fairness and maybe even ‘within the rules’ punishment of the offender.

So the next time you feel angry ask yourself what kind of pathway do you want to be able to access the next time.

Make a choice how you use the anger you are feeling: to generate negative feelings toward yourself or teammates, or to fuel you to greater athletic feats. Hardly a choice now is it?

Psych Out the Stigma

What an honour it was to be part of history, at the beginning of a movement aimed at abolishing the stigma of mental illness in sport.

One week ago Monday, over 30 former Canadian athletes, parents and mental health advocates rallied at Cherry Beach in Toronto to talk about how to raise awareness and ‘psych out’ the stigma of mental illness in sport.

AND, it was all captured on the CTV 6pm News in Toronto!!  So now, in the tens of thousands of people who watched the news, there are some athletes and their parents who know it’s ok to have mental illness in sport and what’s important is that you talk about it.

You can watch our interview by clicking the image below.


I am so proud to be one of the Psych Out the Stigma founding members, and look forward to this movement growing across the world.  Our vision –  all athletes everywhere will feel free to share what their mental health without stigma!

We then went out paddle boarding on Lake Ontario to close off the event (thanks to Paddle Sport Performance).

Stay tuned for future initiatives aimed at blowing the whistle on mental illness in sport.  If you’d like to take part, please join our Facebook Page, or email us.

Be Your Own Inspiration

Inspiration can come in many forms . . . and you never know when it’s going to hit you, but when it does, it’s a force to be reckoned with and you want to harness it with as much intensity as possible.

As an athlete or high performer, you can get really bogged down in the details, the everyday training, the repetition, the failure.  You can start to go through the motions versus taking inspired action, and the results are often less than spectacular.

So how do you keep inspiration present despite the repetition, failures, and details?  On Purpose.  You keep inspiration present on purpose and in action.  You see, inspiration isn’t a fluke.  It doesn’t just happen when all the stars are aligned and everything magically falls into place.  No.  Inspiration is a choice.

At any given moment you can choose to be inspired.  You can create your inspiration actively.  In sport psychology, we often use ‘Past Positive Experiences’ or ‘Vicarious Experiences’ to fuel everyday inspiration.

Mental Toughness Tips

1. Rely on your Past Positive Experiences

Take a moment to write out your Top 10 past positive experiences – did you win the championship, or have your best game, or even break a record.  Use all 5 senses: How did it feel, taste, look, smell, sound?  Write down your past positive experience in detail so that when you read it in the future you’re automatically transported back to and inspired by that moment.  Keep that list somewhere close to you at all times, like in your phone or gym bag, so you can refer to it for information whenever needed.

2. Collect Vicarious Experiences from others

Ever notice how other people’s experiences inspire you?  With Vicarious experiences, you literally live vicariously through other’s experiences and successes, using these victories to inspire you.  For example, another athlete might set a new record or do something you know how to do.  Then you might say: If s/he can do that, so can I!!!  Again write out a list of other’s experiences that inspire you (photos and videos work great to) and refer to them whenever you need a kick.

The point is, however you do it, it’s imperative that you actively remind yourself to be inspired.  And here are 2 new ways for you to take on your inspiration today.


Your only access to impacting life is action..

“It is important that You get clear for yourself that Your ONLY ACCESS to Impacting life is ACTION!

The world DOES NOT CARE what you intend,

How committed you are, How you feel or what you think, and certainly it has no interest in what you want and don’t want.

Take a look at life as it is lived and see for yourself that the world ONLY moved for you when you ACT.”

~ Werner Erhard

Psych out the Stigma

Today I’m sending a different sort of email – usually I provide you with some tip or trick or insight to elevate your mental toughness, today I’m asking for your assistance.

I want to introduce you to a movement that has been started by a community of elite athletes for athletes, with the goal to ‘Psych out the Stigma’ of Mental Health in Sport.

Just last week we learned of a 15 year old high school athlete who committed suicide. This past spring, a a female athlete was told by her doctors that she had to stop playing for fear of a heart attack brought on by her anorexia.  And that’s only 2 athletes of millions across Canada.

Student athletes are the 3rd most likely population to commit suicide and 20-30% of athletes are recorded to be dealing with mental health issues like eating disorders, obsessive compulsiveness, depression, financial concerns, and addictions.  Yet the message is loud in clear in sport: ‘Be Tough’ and ‘Suck It Up!’ – So we often suffer in the dark.  If nothing changes, if we don’t step in, many athletes will continue to suffer in silence, abuse their bodies, and take their lives.

Now’s the time for us to ‘Psych out the Stigma’ of Mental Health in Sport.

4 ways you can help:

  1. You can like our Facebook page.
  1. You can share this email and the corresponding blog with every athlete you know, so we can open up the discussion and get more people involved.
  1. You can send us an email with your story about how Mental Health has impacted your sporting career – whether that be personally, because of a teammate, or coach or family member.
  1. You can take part in any of our upcoming events (stay tuned as we release more events in the future)

My own story in a nutshell

In 2001 I had the awesome opportunity to train and compete with the Canadian Senior National Volleyball Team in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  The plan was that I would train for 9 months, take the Christmas holidays off, then return to my University of Ottawa Gee-Gees team for the second half of the season; but, that’s not what happened.

I’ll be honest, training was tough and I was really hard on myself.  I was homesick and couldn’t bring myself to get really close with any of the other athletes.  We had a busy training schedule: training 6 times per week, sometimes 3 times a day when you included our weight workouts.  By the end of the 9 months, my knees were shot and I was physically fatigued.

However, I didn’t want to let down my Gee-Gee team, and in fact I wanted to impress everyone when I returned to the team, so instead taking my Christmas month off, I trained even harder, lifted more, and push myself to my breaking point.

It all broke when I returned to Ottawa.  I couldn’t bend my knees past 25 degrees, and I was in great pain every time I played. Our team was in first place before I returned, and we didn’t make play-offs after I returned.  All of the pressure and burn out got to me, and I found myself crying after every practice.  But I didn’t tell anyone.  I kept it all to myself because there was no room in sport for me to share.  I am almost quit volleyball that year, but with rest I was able to come back.  I never want to be back in that dark place again, and I know it would have been so much easier had the stigma of mental health not been looming over my head.

I don’t want any athlete to ever have to deal with this – I want the Stigma to End!

Our Inaugural Event – SUP with the Stigma

paddlerWe are inviting all former and current National Team, Professional, Varsity, and all other athletes, and their supporters to join us in our inaugural event ‘SUP with the Stigma’ to be held during the Pan Am Games in the GTA.  At this event, we will combine a round-table discussion (about mental health: how it has affected our teammates and ourselves and what we can do about it) with a fun Stand Up Paddle Board Challenge on Lake Ontario (exact location TBD, most likely in the West Toronto beaches). The event will be fun and FREE … and probably competitive too, since we are all elite athletes!  You don’t have to have personally dealt with mental health issues yourself, we just ask that you be open to transforming the stigma along with us.

Our proposed dates for our first event are July 20, 23, 27, or 30th. . . Please reply to [email protected] by Wednesday July 1st with the date(s) that work best for you. We will then choose the date that’s best for the most athletes.

With Greater Discipline Comes Greater Success

By Kara Zakrzewski, Chief Mental Toughness Coach

It’s easy to get side-tracked by whatever comes across your path – There are many bright lights, and fun ideas, and opportunities in every given moment.  You can live life like a feather in the wind – just blowing where the wind takes you – or you can intentionally create your life. I choose the latter.

Achieving your goals requires discipline, not only on the field, court, stage, etc. but in every area of your life.  How you do one thing is how you do everything, and that habit will trickle into your performance where it matters most.  Do you keep your room keep? Are you on top of your bills and assignments? Are you managing your nutrition?

Yes, discipline is required everywhere to be your best athlete or performer.

Now here’s the interesting thing about discipline: It’s not about doing what you want in the moment necessarily, but rather it’s about taking the action that’ll best set you up to achieve your goal.

Let me show you what I mean then I’ll give you some Toughness Training so you can train the habit of discipline this week . . .

I just got back from a 2 week trip to California where I delivered Mental Toughness Workshops to over 200 athletes and parents.

And let me tell you, the beach was calling the whole time I was there. It was saying: ‘Just cancel the workshop, and come bathe in the sun’.

There was one workshop in particular where I wanted to just stay at the beach (I had taken my office to the beach that afternoon).  Instead I chose to be disciplined and drive myself over to Culver City to do what I REALLY wanted to do (not just to follow my urge in the moment which was not in line with my true goal).  You see, I’m really committed to exposing every athlete in the world to Mental Toughness Training, both to elevate their performance and also to give them great joy and peace of mind in their pursuit.  When I got connected to my true commitment, my true goal, it was easy for me to leave the beach (although the beach was what I wanted at that very moment).

So, like it is said the quote above: Discipline is literally choosing between what you want now and what you most most (your goal).

Your Toughness Training for this week:

I’m going to give you 3 steps to follow this week to train the habit of discipline.  They might seem easy, but the third one especially is not. Let’s see how you do with this :D.

  1. Get Connected to your Ultimate Goal 

What do you want and why do you want that?


  1. Observe your Discipline

When do you sell out on your Ultimate Goal to do whatever tickles your fancy in the moment?


  1. Choose Discipline

When you notice you’re not being disciplined, choose discipline instead.  For example, when you leave your room without making your bed, stop and make your bed.  It sounds like a small thing, but the more you train discipline in EVERY area of your life, the more you’ll groove this habit in your brain.  And with greater discipline comes greater success.