The Mental Game of Sports


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   We hear all of the time that athletes are just athletes and they just play a sport and it's no big deal.  If we hear an athlete is frustrated or stressed we wonder why?  Sports are not just for fun and to relax.  Most sports are a mental game.  In fact, the first thing an aspiring athlete learns about when starting up a new sport is the mental game. 
   The two most mental sports out there are golf and coming in a close second is tennis. Scientists determined this based off of how many books and articles were written about these sports.  Golf clearly has the most.  
   It has also been proven that the deciding factor between athletes is the mental game.  Most likely, two athletes at the same level of a sport will have around the same type of physical skill and conditioning.  The difference will all come down to whoever has the best education of the game.  
   I am a tennis player and I know what it is like to know the mental game of a sport.  The professional tennis players make it look so easy on TV.  It looks like you just hit a ball and run for it, at least that's what I thought when I started playing tennis.  However, I quickly learned there was way more to tennis than hitting a ball.  In fact, if that's all you know how to do, you will probably not make it past playing with 10 year olds.  In tennis there are different zones of the court.  Someone who does not know this would just hit the ball anywhere on the court and hope the other player misses.  But, if your opponent knows tennis better than you, he will know exactly where you are hitting the ball and then he will know exactly where to hit it back so you will not expect it or be able to get it.  
   There is a myth that sports psychology can't change the innate mental abilities of an athlete.  This is false.  The psychology behind sports can help athletes become better than they ever thought they would be.  Sports psychology can not just be read, it has to be practiced.  Just like on a football field.  The players can sit in on their coaches telling them all about the new plays they created for their next game, but the players will never get it right if they don't perform these new plays on the field.   
   I always say, the team that will win is the team that mentally stays in the game until the end.  There are some teams in sports that take an early lead and then by the end of the game they lose because their mind was already set on winning.  There are also certain athletes that just give up when it doesn't go their way such as a player in a slump.  
  There are players such as the ones who enter the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby, who mess up their swings because they start to over think the basics of the sport they once learned.  They modify their swings so that they can hit more home runs.  However, in the long run this messes them up more than it helps them.  This article written by Jim Reeves for ESPN, says how the derby is not worth the risk.  The player's try too hard to hit home runs.    According to the article from FOXSportsDetroit.com, Dave Hogg analyzed the players in the Home Run Derby's statistics 10 games before the All Star Break and 10 games after. 
  "Before the break, the average Home Run Derby contestant is performing like, well, an All- Star.  They start out July hitting .288 with a .385 on-base percentage and a .535 slugging percentage.  The slugging starts of early July turn into league-average hitters in the second half of the month.  The batting average is down to .261, the on-base percentage is .345 and, most worrying, the slugging percentage is all the way down to .419.  The number of homers hit by the players drops 38% after the break."
   Those stats truly amaze me.  The players physical condition or training never changed.  However, mentally, they forgot the basics of their swing and changed it just to hit the ball further or harder.  Each sport has it's own mental game.  A players ability to learn and understand their sport, will make them better than they could have imagined and could be the difference between a good and a great player. 
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2 Comments

I think the mental aspect of sports is so underrated. I grew up my whole life playing sports and I would be lying if I said that I didn't find myself getting butterflies in my stomach before a high school soccer game. I honestly can't even imagine what goes through LeBron James's mind when he is at the free throw line in the NBA finals or a professional soccer player setting up to take a penalty kick in a world cup match. I definitely agree with you on your points of how impactful and important the mental aspect of sports are, and many of us seem to put that on the back burner. We find ourselves on Sundays watching our favorite NFL player on our favorite team drop a pass that should have easily been caught, but the player was thinking that he already caught the ball before he actually made the catch, all mental. I also liked how you described how psychology can be a huge advantage to an athlete if they understand the mental aspect of their game. Athletes at the professional level, especially the cream of the crop, usually partake in the same amount of offseason training, they all know the rules of the game, etc, but the ones that come out victorious, are the ones who truly believe in the 10% physical, 90% mental concept. This past summer, I read a book that was basically a novel of how athletes should prepare mentally for their sport. The book was amazing, it had tons of different scenarios and quotes from different athletes and thoughts from sports psychologists. I honestly wish I had read it earlier because I learned so many different ways that we should not go about mentally playing a game and it could have been useful in my playing days. (I highly recommended the book!)

I think it would be interesting to see how different pro athletes play before and after seeing a sports psychologist. For instance taking players who crack in big moments, or baseball players as you described in your post, who slumped after the home-run derby. I believe it could really make for a great study.

Something to ponder, do you think the mental aspect of the game should be taught sooner to younger athletes to get them more prepared for heavier challenges ahead in their careers?

As a former high school football player, I can not agree with this more. After a week of preparation for a big friday night game, I would be lying if I said that the pressure of the friday night lights did not get to me. Remembering all formations and certain situations while under the pressure of a game is almost impossible as a player. The heat of the moment gets to all players. Whether it be a kicker if a desperate situation after the opposing coach tried to "ice" him by calling a time out, or a lineman forgetting the snap count by losing focus. The mental game plays a crucial role in the way a football game unfolds. Your stat about the home run derby does not come as a surprise to me at all, as players can get a "big-head" or too much confidence. More stats about other sports would be extremely interesting to find.

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