The mental game

Benjamin Beetham

   You are the star player on your school’s basketball team. Your team is down 15 points in the 3rd quarter, and you’re shooting 1-12 from the field. Your frustration keeps building. The team is running out of time for a comeback, and morale is at its lowest. You’re trying to think positively, but your ability to control your emotions is failing.

    “You shouldn’t be positive when things aren’t going well. That would be like you are trying to lie to yourself. And that doesn’t work. You don’t need to think positively or feel confident to play well. It is easier to play well if you are, but that is because when we feel positive it is easier to focus on what we are doing,” Dr. Eddie O’Connor said.

   O’Connor is a sport psychologist who specializes in removing barriers to peak performance. O’Connor has worked with youth, high school, collegiate, national and international, Junior Olympic, and professional athletes and coaches, as well as artists and musicians.

   O’Connor says positive thinking is not the solution when things aren’t going well. Trying to manage emotions and play a sport at the same time is impossible. Competitors need to understand their feelings to refocus on what is important during the moment.

   Every athlete should try to be positive. However, the truth is, we can’t always be positive. Being positive all the time isn’t something a competitor should be doing. Negative thinking can also often be helpful. Negatively thinking about losing might be uncomfortable, but ideally will also spark action and inspire you to prepare. If an athlete is under-trained before a game, being positive about their chances to win will likely result in overconfidence and an inevitable loss.

   Positive and negative thoughts will always be there, but they aren’t what matter. What matters is how the player reacts to them. Thoughts, emotions, and the struggle to get rid of them will distract the player from winning.

   “So to truly perform well, we can cut out the ‘middle man’ of positive thinking and learn how to focus on the WIN: What’s Important Now. This would specifically be the best focus to execute your skill in the moment,” O’Connor said.

   No amount of positive thinking ensures a win. Whatever team scores the most wins. An athlete can make a game-changing play with confidence, fear, doubt, happiness, joy, anger, or any other emotion. A player won’t hit a game-winning 3 because of positive thinking. As long as they release the ball right, their emotions don’t matter. Accepting these feelings and refocusing on what is important in those moments is what every athlete needs to do.

   Paul Chapman, West Ottawa’s Women’s Varsity coach said, “I would have the player focus on the process of doing things correctly.  Trust their training and continue to do things the right way.” 

   In addition to positive thinking, self-confidence won’t always be present during an event, so athletes can’t rely on confidence to win.

   “Yes, I absolutely believe confidence is overrated and given too much attention. Confidence doesn’t win games. Execution of skills resulting from ideal focus maximizes performance and gives you the best chance to win,” O’Connor said.

   Of course, self-confidence makes playing easier to play because confidence makes it easier to focus on what we are doing, but it’s not a necessity to play well. Self-confidence comes from practice, and the improvement an athlete sees in their training. When an athlete thinks too much about their confidence, it becomes an evaluative thought, and getting caught up in these evaluations becomes a distraction.

   “I believe confidence is the natural result of preparation. Michael and Kobe were confident- but that’s not what made them great. They were ultra-prepared and outworked everyone. That’s why they won. That’s where their confidence came from,” O’Connor said.

   Actions are completed independently from thoughts or feelings. Feelings of nervousness or disappointment are natural. Athletes cannot let their attempts to control their emotions take their focus away from what’s important.

   Learning to accept negative emotions and refocusing them on what the next step to success is is what will separate an athlete from the rest. Every athlete will experience frustration, that just comes from passion, and their desire to excel. Once an athlete experiences these emotions they have to ask themselves if their current reaction is moving them toward the end goal. Letting the frustration fuel them instead of bringing them down will increase performance dramatically.