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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Sports


Sport Psychology Excerpts

John F. Eliot, Ph.D

Every smart coach I've known, if he has to choose between an athlete who lacks a great mindset and an athlete of lesser physical gifts but whose mind is ready to maximize his potential, will pick the confident player.

A player who can win the inner battle knows how to win. He knows his game will hold up under pressure -- the most crucial element of a clutch performer, of someone who will carry his team to championships. Players who spend all their time on the physical game only know how to block, run, lift, shoot, or swing. There are a lot of athletes who know how to do those things. Only a few really know how to win.

Quantity versus quality is like trying to dig a hole with a thimble. Yes, you're working hard, but you're going to get beat by someone with a shovel. Give athletes great coaches and someone to teach them about maximizing performance and youíre giving them a shovel.

In this age of videotape, media coverage, and slow motion instant replay, our attention is drawn to the visible aspects of performance. Sports analysts go on ad nauseam about the skills a dominating athlete displays rather than commenting on the preparation they put in behind the scenes to make those skills soar. Why? Because mental preparation is not glamorous or easy to videotape. But itís what got them on top in the first place.

Study after study shows that physical size and IQ are not nearly as helpful in predicting success as are accurate measures of confidence and attitude. People who have a great mindset tend to succeed. People who haven't yet learned a great mindset tend to fail. Yet most teams don't train their players in confidence, or don't devote nearly as much time and effort to it as they do to teaching something like passing skills. That's because passing skills are tangible and measurable. Confidence happens to be neither. It also happens to be more important.

There are no guarantees. If there were -- if every time you thought great, you succeeded -- everyone would be thinking like a world champion. What people fail to realize is that the converse is almost always true. Every time your thinking falters, you will likely come up short of your potential. Athletes with the edge understand this, and want to work hard to ensure their mind is always where it needs to be. It doesn't guarantee success, but it does set the table with the best possible chance. And that's what they're after. That's what separates them from the pack.

Peak performance is often a matter of small graduationsóa few millimeters here or there, a few seconds on the clock, just a touch more rhythm or timing. Such is the case with the mental game. Athletes who win, and similarly teams that become dynasties, may think only slightly different from those who don't. They marshal the right thoughts and attitudes on nearly EVERY play, EVERY day. Others admit distractions several times a game. Over a long season, subtle differences become magnified. They add up to have an enormous impact on results.

At the professional level, athletes from team to team are all fairly equal in talent. They all put in the same amount of practice. They all hit the weight room. They all have good coaches to learn from. What generally separates the teams on top is a commitment to excellence. Great thinking is usually the difference between finishing .500 and winning Championships.

Great example: John Daly wins long drive contests everywhere. 375 yards! But he can't seem to win golf tournaments. All that talent adds up to zero with a sub-par mental game. Thank goodness heís not team sport athlete or his teamís owner would be getting zippo on a hefty, multi-million dollar investment.

Success in athletics is not a matter of how much you know about the mental game. Lots of people, coaches included, know the principles. It's a question of who applies those principles consistently and who applies them at the right moments. Physicians, for instance, have the best and most expensive education thatís available on human wellness. They understand better than anyone how to stay healthy. Yet polls clearly show that their diet, sleep, and exercise efforts are among the poorest of any single occupation in the country. Knowledge isn't much good unless you use it.

The optimal state of mind can be fleeting, maddeningly elusive. It emerges from a confluence of factors, some very subtle. And the factors can vary from athlete to athlete. The optimal state of mind, therefore, is something an athlete must have help with and work on patiently, every day.

An athlete whose attitude enables him to tap a higher percentage of his store of God-given talent can and will beat the one who doesnít know how to maximize what he has. Itís man against man -- letís find out who can tap everything heís got. Thatís what sport has always been about, to the time of the legendary Greeks and before. Thatís what it will always be about.

Being the best in the world means freeing it up and going for it. Obstacles are part of the equation. No one has even become great by sitting on his laurels, or sticking to what worked in the past. Every year in sport, the slate is wiped clean, and the team that keeps moving forward is the team that winds out on top.

John F. Eliot, Ph.D., is an award winning professor of management, psychology, and human performance. He holds faculty appointments at Rice University and the SMU Cox School of Business Leadership Center. He is a co-founder of the Milestone Group, a consulting firm providing training to business executives, professional athletes, physicians, and corporations. Dr. Eliot's clients have included: SAP, XEROX, Disney, Adidas, the United States Olympic Committee, the National Champion Rice Owl's baseball team, and the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Eliot's cutting edge work has been featured on ABC, MSNBC, CBS, ESPN, Fox Sports, NPR, and highlighted in the Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Entrepreneur, LA Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and the New York Times. Dr. Eliot serves on numerous advisory boards including the National Center for Human Performance and the Center for Performing Arts Medicine. His latest book is Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance. For more information, visit Dr. Eliot's site at

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