Some of you may not know it, but my wife Theresa was a much tougher competitor than I ever was. A former Miss Basketball in Illinois and holder of numerous records at Saint Louis University, she had serious game! As I got to know Theresa in college and beyond, what impressed me even more than her game was her mental approach toward competition.
Throughout my career, I often struggled with confidence and how to best direct my focus leading up to a game or in the midst of one. In the 11 years I knew Theresa while playing ball, we rarely talked about technicalities of the game, but we often discussed the mental side of it. Over the years, I wrote down thoughts and ideas she shared with me, and I often revisited some or all of them prior to games as I felt my mind drifting from where it needed to be. Below are a few I kept on my phone for quick referencing…
Let loose. Play with freedom. Don’t worry about the outcome.
- My tendency was to care too much. It caused me to tighten up and try to avoid making mistakes. Understanding it’s not a perfect game, there would be mistakes (turnovers, missed shots, etc.), and I can’t control everything allowed me to play more carefree and confident.
Don’t judge yourself while you’re playing.
- There’s a time to look in the mirror and pick apart your flaws. There’s a time to review the game film. My problem was that I would constantly do this during the game. Game time is the time to be completely engrossed with what’s right in front of you. And when (not if) you make a mistake, it means forgetting it and moving forward instantly. Have a short memory during the game.
You’ve put in the work. Trust in that.
- Remember the work I put in. Remember the reps and sweat and time I put into my craft. “You don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.” – Joshua Medcalf
Stop giving your opponent too much respect.
- Failing to respect my opponent was never an issue for me. On the contrary, I tended to exaggerate my opponent’s strengths while focusing on my own weaknesses. Identifying the holes in my opponent’s game was beneficial for me. Even better was not worrying about the opposition at all. I was best when I spent the majority of my mental preparation on what I had complete control over – my own game.
Focus on your strengths. Not what you think you need to work on.
- Game time is not the time to self-critique. It’s the time to go all-in on what I do well. It’s the time to focus on strengths so I can best impact the game for my team.
Feelings come and go. Don’t be concerned with how you feel.
- The problem is our feelings speak to us. Mine told me, “You’re exhausted…Your shot is off today…I don’t know if you have what it takes…” There’s a quote I love that goes, “Stop listening to yourself, and start talking to yourself.” This is an approach and habit I’m still very much working on today. Feelings can be all over the place, but we don’t have to be led by them. Speaking truths, strengths, and positive affirmations is powerful.
Get others going.
- Encouraging and celebrating my teammates took pressure off myself. Athletics, even in a team sport, can be very self-centered. My college coach, Bruce Weber, always said those on the bench who are engaged and cheer for their teammates play much better once they enter the game. I found this to be true at every level I played.
God already knows the outcome.
- I don’t believe God plays favorites in an athletic contest. I do believe He is all-knowing and sovereign. I also believe He cares more about the way I play than what the final score or box score says. Understanding God is in control and I am playing a game gave me a healthy perspective and performance freedom.
You are divinely equipped to succeed right where you’re at.
- “Imposter’s syndrome” – where one thinks they don’t belong is a condition I had that never completely went away. Sometimes I thought it was just a matter of time before I was found out. When would people wake up and realize I had no business being on the court? This truth — that God is with me in everything, and that I have everything I need to excel in the present moment — was a powerful reminder whenever I began questioning if I belonged.
Your biggest growth is going to come in your mental approach.
- Theresa told me this back when we were dating in college. Naively, I didn’t understand this until the last few years of my professional career. I always looked at the physical traits and basketball skills I needed to further develop, but year after year I slowly began to understand I could train my mind just like my body. This will be lifelong training.
Screw what everyone else says.
- I wouldn’t tell just anyone to do this. Personally, however, I cared too much about what others thought. Playing to please anyone – even my coach – never allowed me to play my best. This was not a selfish, “I’m doing my thing. Forget coach. Forget the game plan. Forget my teammates.” This was a reminder to block out all the “noise” and not worry about what others were saying or thinking. Play my game with no regrets, and I can live with any outcome.
Be delusionally optimistic.
- It’s tempting to think positive thinking is soft or wishful thinking, but true optimism is tough. It fuels us to persist no matter what the scoreboard says.
In the book “Mind Gym,” renowned sports psychologist Gary Mack shares stories from the likes of Alex Rodriquez, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and more. There are numerous gems from how the very best trained their minds to succeed at the highest levels.
Insight from the book: “Everyone has an optimal number that corresponds with peak performance. I tell all athletes I work with that they need to “know their numbers.” They also need to recognize their early warning signs. Imagine you are a car. How many rpms should you be producing so your motor is running smoothly and efficiently, not chugging along too slowly but also not going over the red line? An athlete’s ideal numbers—the optimal level of performance— depend upon (1) his or her temperament; (2) the time or length of the event; and (3) the nature of the task. A sprinter wouldn’t have the same number as a marathon runner.” – Gary Mack