Head Games: The Mental Side of Sports

By James Smith, Class of 2014Image

Sports to the average fan seem to be only about players’ physical talents. However, what the eye does not see is that the game starts before the National Anthem is even played.

It starts before the announcer reports the starting lineups. It starts before the player even gets to the arena. The game begins in an athlete’s mind, and is purely mental until the officials start the game.

“Mental preparation starts about a week before the game [for me],” said Zach Hopf, pitcher at Saint Peter’s College. “I like to look at hitters’ trends and how they hit to make a game plan to follow before I even step on the mound.”

No matter the sport, every aspect can be visualized of every game. Every situation can be assessed, every angle can be played out, and every outcome can be imagined. The idea of mental preparation is to ready the mind for whatever the body encounters in the game.

“Confidence, or swagger as some may call it, is what separates a good athlete from the great athlete,” says Sean Cashman, head coach of the Saint Peter’s College baseball team. “One gains this swagger by being more mentally prepared than the opponent and having the capability of living in the moment (play by play) better then the opponent.”

What is difficult for even athletes to understand sometimes is how much time is necessary for athletes to mentally prepare for games. It is considered just as important as working on a swing, or fine tuning a jump shot, or working defensive positioning in the net. If one is not mentally prepared for a game or match, an athlete can almost expect failure.

“John Wooden, the greatest coach in history, would tell his UCLA teams that ‘failure to prepare is preparing to fail,’” says Mark Wald, a Psychology professor at Saint Peter’s College. “This includes the mental aspect of the game.”

“When coaches have their players arrive two hours before performance time. It is not just to get taped, warm-up, and run through some drills. It is time to get focused on that days performance, visualize the performance, block out all distractions, etc.”

Another issue coaches and athletes have is when the world seems to be falling around him or her. Steve Knight, author of the Winning State series of books, which are mental help books for all sports, calls this situation a meltdown. A meltdown, as defined by the book, is when an athlete’s mental state is in complete disarray, and there is no escape from negativity.

“When an athlete has a poor performance, or a series of subpar performances,” says Cashman. “It takes a certain know-how, that is unique to each player, to get them out of their rut.”

“Some players need to be coddled while others need to get hollered at, it all really depends on the situation and the previous as well as current mental makeup of the player.”

It is so crucial for any athlete to be mentally strong, and to practice mental drills daily to maintain a steady mind. If one retreats into a meltdown, an athlete has to know how to bring him or herself out of it to keep calm and perform at his or her peak.

“Some people might be born with [mental strength],” said Hopf. “I know I’m not, and I work hard on it every day to make sure my mind is as strong as my body.”

At the end of the day, it is an athlete’s mental capability that can hold an athlete back, or propel him or her to greatness. The mind is just as important as the body in every sport. If the mind is not ready, then the body will follow. Once an athlete finds the mechanisms in his mind to reset negative situations, and can maintain focus in positive situations, nothing can hold him or her back, and the sky is the limit.

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