Mental Toughness

BY DR. VIRGINIA SAVAGE FOR FLORIDA TODAY

Two rival soccer teams are meeting for a match that will decide who will move ahead to the bid for state title. Obviously, it is an important match and the pressure is on.

One team, the dreaded Dixie Cups, arrived late last night from their hometown, a bit bedraggled but you could plainly see the team spirit as they ran onto the field, smiling and giving each other thumbs-up. The home team, the Barbarians, strutted onto the field before the cheering crowd, staring straight ahead, alone in their thoughts, ignoring the accolades from the stands.

Before the game the Dixie Cups’ coach talked about team strategy and wished each other the best of plays.

“Each of you knows what is most important. If you remember that you will be winners today. Now go out there and have fun.”

The Barbarians’ coach focused on a few key players to handle the game, warning the team to come back with the ticket to the title or else.

“Today is the day so don’t screw up out there. This is your big chance.”

Depending on your personal history you might predict the more aggressive, rested, and individually focused team might win — the Barbarians.

After all, soccer is an aggressive sport right? Research would predict differently, however. What is most important in team sport competition is a collective spirit of cooperation. We have so often been surprised to see the underdog rise to the top simply because everyone on the team brought it home for the winning goal.

Everybody knows competition is the event that decides who wins, who is the best, which team takes home the trophy in the end. But when each player is centered only on his or her own performance the most essential aspect of getting the ball to the goal is lost: how the team works together.In addition, your mental state can be both exciting and terrifying as the big match draws near.

Depending on the importance of the game, who is watching, and how confident you are feeling can either enhance performance or literally make a team fall apart, especially if teamwork isn’t strong.

For some people, competition is what it’s all about, the reason to play, a chance to shine. For others it is a relief only when it is over: it’s not about winning but avoiding the shame of failure.

Competitive behavior is not always on the field either. We have all witnessed the unsightly behavior of parents, coaches, and fans who are caught up in ridiculous displays of competitive fever.

How distracting and embarrassing is that? It’s not that competition is bad. In fact it is a hallmark of our American culture, from grades and scholarships to career choices and making money. Those who win seem to have more, do more, and even win more.

Sports offer the chance to practice competition in healthy ways, in the field of fair play.

But often it is competition that creates an attitude of fear and failure rather than strategy and support.

There is nothing like the feeling of doom on the night before facing an opponent that has a better track record and a tough reputation: and everyone will be there to see the annihilation. It is enough to make the biggest and the best throw up.

What can be done to prepare you to go out and face Goliath with confidence and a positive attitude?

First, it is important for you to understand that competition is different for every individual. Each player walks onto the field with a different set of personal traits that determine how you see your own ability as a player, whether you feel you have control over your performance, and even the way you regard your opponent.

On top of that your immediate state of mind (your relationship with teammates, support from your family, inspiration from the coach and whether you feel supported as part of a solid team) can determine whether you feel doomed or have positive feelings of self-worth. Your attitude can override even the most challenging inner fears.

Second, how you respond during the game will determine whether you have the necessary focus to win. If you quickly refocus after fouling a play you can rally the will to play your best game and move on. The body and mind react together to concentrate energy or to lose power and your response can be felt and seen immediately. Your internal motivation and confidence are the internal factors that can change quickly during competition.

Third, the consequences that occur following competition can determine whether you see things as a success or as a failure. In other words, if you missed the goal three times in a row, you will experience it differently if your teammates, your coaches and parents support it as an opportunity to learn something new or if it is a source of blame, ridicule, and jokes at your expense.

These kinds of consequences also serve to determine how you will approach competition in your next big game.

Finally, it seems we are compelled in many ways to compete, both in sports and in other areas of life. We compete against ourselves, against a clock or record book, and against the elements. Research has shown time and again we are faster when we race against someone else than when we race against the clock.

It can be a healthy motivator and a great way to prepare for the adult world of business and global peace. The way to do this is to learn about yourself in the process.

Competition typically fosters the idea that success for one player or team automatically means failure for the opponent.

However, it is possible to lose a game and still come out winning. Outcome goals aren’t everything.

Performance goals are an essential part of every elite athlete’s training and mindset so that if the game is played well it is more important than the score. Coaches and parents can help a lot in this regard by identifying and supporting a performance goal for each game.

Teams, soccer in particular, never achieve consistent success on the field without the collective achievement of players working together.

Players who reflect their own personal goals over team support quickly become the source of interrupted plays, confusion and conflict among players on the same team, and ultimately a breakdown in the strategy needed to win the game.

The reward of playing well must be shared equally among all participants. Group success depends on collective achievement. There may be some stars on the field but it is because of a team effort that individuals are given the opportunity to shine.

Finally, boys and girls compete differently. Boys are more aggressive in their physical contact. Girls may have more little cliques of competition within their own teams. Aggressiveness is more productive when it is focused on competitive strategy than a heightened emotional state.

This attitude must be modeled by coaches and all players to be effective. Competitive attitudes and isolating members within a team does nothing for the feeling unity that is vital on the field.

By the way, the Dixie Cups were the real winners.