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Mental Toughness Stems from a Healthy Perspective

 

 “Baseball is what I do, not who I am.”

 “I might get beat, but I’ll never be defeated!”

“Baseball is not war. I compete fiercely, but it is just a game.”

“I love this game.”

Note: This article references baseball, but it is applicable to any sport.

 

  • Why does one person break down under pressure while another breaks through?
  • How can an athlete perform so well in practice, then struggle so mightily in the game?
  • Why do many fine athletes work hard and have talent, but play so inconsistently?

Many coachable, hard-working athletes perform far below their potential because they are unaware of their deficient mental skills. With awareness, all mental skills can be trained, including focus, self-control, imagery, and confidence. All are parts of the answers to the questions above, but none address a foundational problem found in most inconsistent athletes’ mental game: a flawed perspective.

If a competitor does not win, does that make him a loser? Absolutely not, but socialization into America’s competitive, capitalist culture teaches many elite athletes to feel this way. Our culture promotes the false idea that winning on the scoreboard is all that matters. The idea that value depends on achievement is a distorted belief. A person’s worth does not fluctuate based on today’s performance on the diamond. All humans have inalienable rights; our value is immeasurable and it cannot diminish.

A healthy perspective on success defines that word in controllable terms. The idea that success depends on achievement is also a distorted belief. It is an extremely common belief, but it is false. Achievement is a logical by-product of success, but sometimes logic is bypassed because of factors outside of the person’s control.

Perspective is the “ability to see things in a true relationship” to one another. It can also mean “a specific point of view in understanding things or events.” Top athletes explain life to themselves honestly. They also look at the truth in a manner that is useful. A healthy perspective allows athletes to improve faster, lead effectively, and perform well through adversity and pressure. Honesty is critical because they will not be able to lie to themselves. Finding a useful angle with which to view the truth is also critical. There are two sides to every coin. While both sides are real (true), only one is most useful for creating confidence, an ideal internal state, and maximizing productivity. For example, a 12-ounce cup with six ounces of water in it can accurately be called half full or half empty. It is most useful, assuming you are thirsty, to view it as half full.

The first step to a healthy perspective on baseball is to recognize that it is just a game. Sports pose no life-or-death propositions. Parents will not stop loving because of what happens in the third inning. Athletes in “big” moments on television may have literally millions of eyes on them and be “tough” enough to perform with total freedom. Many kids in youth leagues seem to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. The source of these polar opposites is not the situation, but the way the athletes perceive the situation. A healthy perspective empowers competitors to be free from worry, which in turn allows them to get totally engrossed in the moment. When an athlete is in the moment, he is powerful. He is slowing the game down and focusing with tunnel vision on the task at hand. It makes sense: to focus effectively, it is necessary to look at things the right way!

An attitude of gratitude is a foundational piece of a healthy perspective. Being thankful improves the heart's rhythmic functioning, which reduces stress, promotes clarity of thought, and aids the healing process. It is physiologically impossible to feel stressful and grateful at the same time. Grateful athletes are more relaxed, more coachable, more forgiving, more present to the task at hand, and generally more positive than their counterparts. They are less likely to complain. Author Jon Gordon says, “Remember that complaining is like vomiting. Afterwards you feel better but everyone around you feels sick.” Champions live out the words of John Wooden, “Don’t whine. Don’t complain. Don’t make excuses.” They are consistently grateful.

“I won the lottery when I was born.”

Athletes love to be “in rhythm;” this is more likely to happen when they are “in gratitude.” Winning the lottery means gaining immense wealth at odds of perhaps 10,000,000 or more to 1. America has some real problems, without a doubt, but when compared to all the present and past times and places to be born, living in 21st century America is quite a blessing. The odds of landing somewhere with this many opportunities for health, wealth, freedom, happiness, contribution, and satisfaction are, statistically speaking, much greater than the odds of winning the lottery!

An ideal perspective for performance recognizes that “who I am is important.” How things go in competition today will certainly impact how much fun is had. It may also impact things like material possessions and reputation. These are important, too, but not nearly as important as the reputation an athlete acquires with himself. Great athletes refuse to be in an adversarial relationship with themselves, and they have integrity. They think, speak, and act in comfortable alignment with their personal values.

Winning is far better than the alternative, but the “winning is everything” perspective is a problem because it does not encourage effort if the victory can be obtained easily. It also does not encourage effort if maximum effort is not perceived to be likely to lead to winning. In fact, it (often subconsciously) discourages it because the person who loses without maximum effort can still defend his win-driven ego by believing that if he had tried harder, he might have won. However, if he took the chance of giving maximum effort and did not get the desired outcome, he would have no solace. He would feel like a “failure.” Not giving his best effort is not only easier, it is also perceived to be safer. Many athletes keep this “safety net” for their psyche. Great competitors do not know what will happen, but because of their perspective on success, they do not fear the unknown. Their healthy definition of success means that they do not need a safety net.

Performance outcomes do matter. Besides affecting enjoyment, they provide feedback. Outcomes reveal the truth about what works. However, no single outcome should ever be given too much importance. No loss should ever be seen as a catastrophe. No “failure” should be allowed to carry an emotional scar of inadequacy. Fear of “failure,” which everyone has to some degree, does not interfere with performance if the athlete has a healthy perspective. He can be scared, but act courageously because he believes that by putting forth great effort, he cannot fail. His success is inevitable because he designs, practices, and executes his plans (a.k.a. performance routines) to the best of his ability. He defines success like John Wooden did in 1934: “The peace of mind that comes from knowing you did your best.”

Winning begins now!

The idea that game days are more important than other days is a dangerous way to look at competition. John Wooden won a National Championship as a player and 10 more in his final 12 years as a basketball coach at UCLA. His father taught him to count his blessings and make each day his masterpiece. The father of football coaches John and Jim Harbaugh (the opposing head coaches in the 2013 Super Bowl) taught them to “attack this day with enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” Today is all an athlete can control, and it is exactly when approaching potential happens.

Athletes who handle pressure well use their excitement to enhance performance rather than allow their nerves to detract from it. They care about their performance in practice as much (or—being realistic—almost as much) as their performance in competition. American society leads the other way. Since practice outcomes do not have as many ramifications as game outcomes, the prevailing attitude is that it is okay to take a “do-over” in practice, even though no do-overs exist in competition. Certainly, more practice is appropriate when mistakes are being made, but the next one does not make up for a mistake on the last one. There are no do-overs in life.

To get closer to the goal of caring as much about practice as games, the most useful perspective puts approaching potential at the top of the healthy athlete’s goals. Achieving this goal through steady discipline provides peace of mind and maximizes chances for getting all the rewards that normally define success: championships, recognition, money, etc. The rewards that most people think define success are actually a by-product of the goal, not the goal itself. The essence of success is continual improvement.

Best effort now is all an athlete can do. It is never achieved easily; it requires hard and smart work. A champion appreciates that the only time he can control that affects approaching potential is right now. An athlete wins the mental side of the game when he gives his best effort now, accept whatever happens, and then repeats this process. Champions are intense people. The importance of now raises his intensity level throughout practice, which allows the “clutch” situation to feel similar. He is, as much as is possible, comfortable being uncomfortable.

A winner’s attitude towards a “clutch” moment in competition is impressive. He views every performance as an opportunity to evaluate and display all of his preparation. Others may focus on the pressure, but he knows that increased pressure is the shadow of increased opportunity. This opportunity is his chance to “show off” to himself (especially), his family, his teammates, and others the combination of his talents and his industriousness. The bigger stage is the better stage, as far as he is concerned, because he has earned the right to be proud and confident. In fact, he lives for that big moment that follows the thought, “Bring it on! I know I will succeed because I have a detailed plan to give my best effort one pitch at a time.”

Every athlete experiences many challenges and setbacks along the journey to find out how good he can be. Fortunately, no baseball player has to travel this path alone. In fact, a winner knows that trying to be the best he can be by himself is fruitless. Together Everyone Achieves More, so an athlete with a healthy perspective is also a leader who appreciates his teammates. He not only works hard and has a consistently positive attitude, he also goes out of his way to help others. He admires those who excel, rather than criticizing them. In fact, he has a personal rule against criticizing a teammate in public. He has no interest in competing with his own teammates. Rather, he encourages and complements them. He is patient with those who struggle, knowing that he, too, has weaknesses. Everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are different. He is encouraging and optimistic when times are tough and comfortable expressing joy and appreciation when times are good. His teammates love having him around.

A healthy perspective causes this leader to get better fast by thinking like a scientist. He is racing to perform his best and he views each obstacle as a stepping-stone. Winners compete, with themselves first and foremost, but they do not worry about losing. They hate losing, but they do not worry about it. Challenges and pitfalls provide motivation for them to get better; they are not viewed as disappointments or “failures.” A scientist just wants to find out which things work and which things could be done better. Outcomes are no longer bad or good, they are always both. Emotions stay on an even keel. Adversity provides an opportunity to both learn and practice avoiding the negative snowball effect. Champions use mistakes constructively rather than letting them snowball into a “slump.” Plus, skill will not improve as quick if the athlete does not push the limits of his familiar zone (often called his comfort zone). Yes, mistakes are good. Because of a healthy perspective, the athlete improves at asking and answering the ultimate questions:

“Where am I?”

“Where do I want to go?”

And, “How do I get there?”

“Who are you competing with this weekend?” The best answer is “myself.” In a big game, a mentally tough athlete’s confidence is doubled by his superb mental skills and that of his teammates. He is doubtful that his opponents have such a healthy perspective on the game or that they are as thoroughly prepared as he and his team, both physically and mentally. The ironic truth is that the person who wants to produce positive outcomes because he defines his success by his achievement is much less likely than the person with a healthy perspective to get that good outcome. So it is: trying to win by outscoring the other team decreases the chances of that happening; trying to win versus oneself increases the chance of winning on the scoreboard. It boils down to this: the athlete with the flawed perspective does not know if he will be comfortable looking at himself in the mirror after the game. The healthy athlete knows.

 

 B.E. = A.G.E.
Your best effort is always good enough!   

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