What is the first step on the road to mental toughness? To being capable of competitive greatness?
Competition is a broad topic. It doesn’t have to be relegated to physical activity or zero-sum games. The mainstream notion of a competitive person is someone who flips the board when they lose at Monopoly or injures small children in a game of touch football. That’s a different conversation. I’m writing this from a basketball-immersed perspective, but I want the core philosophy to apply to all physical competition. I work with students on a daily basis who have unhealthy approaches to physical competition, either from insufficient exposure, a deficit of mental toughness, or both. This is meant to be a guide of sorts — it establishes a starting point and provides checkpoints to evaluate development.
To me, the first step is effort. You have to understand your own effort is one of the few things you can control, and start there. If you give your best effort, there is nothing to regret. Once you are committed to effort, you will start to realize you never truly lose, unless you give up. Remember, Michael Jordan never lost a game, he just ran out of time. No one wants to get in a fight with someone who doesn’t know when they’re beaten.
Stage one: Never surrender.
Once you have effort mastered, you need to learn how to react when effort does not pay off. Maybe you sprinted down the court to beat the defense on a fast break, then you blew the layup. What now? You know not to give up, so you immediately hustle back on defense rather than throw a temper tantrum, but what if that failure sticks in your head and pops up the next time you have a clear path to the rim? How can you balance learning from mistakes but not dwelling on it to a point where it negatively affects the next play? You need an automatic response for these moments when your body betrays you. A dropped pass. A missed free throw. It’s simple, really. Identify what went wrong if you can (“I was out of control.” “I took my eye off the ball”. “I didn’t use my legs”.), then resolve to have a different outcome the next time.
Stage two: Make the next play.
The beautiful thing about the “next play” mentality is that it works with successes, too. It promotes balance. You’re never too high, or too low. It reminds me of one of my future tattoos, “This too shall pass.” I am not necessarily serious about the tattoo angle, but I do think it would be a brilliant mantra for a basketball team..
Speaking of balance, let’s talk about practice. Allen Iverson was the first athlete I idolized, and somehow I found a way to look up to him as a competitor and still look forward to my practices every day. Practice is the homework in the equation, games are the tests. Inexperienced athletes think they can flip a switch in games, shift into a higher gear, and perform at their best. Practice is something to endure, if you show up at all. Problem is, if you practice at one speed and play at another, your body thinks you’re playing two different sports. One day you’re meandering through layup lines, the next you’re flinging basketballs off the backboard and wondering what went wrong. Performing at your athletic best requires a balance of power and finesse, and finding the sweet spot takes practice.
Stage: three: Practice at game speed, aka “same energy”.
Stress affects performance, just ask the police. If you can hit the right target in the right place 9 of 10 times in a controlled environment, expect that success rate to decrease up to 60% in a high-stress environment (I’ve seen a lot of numbers on this and they’re all significant, but that’s the one that stuck with me). How do you solve this? Increase the stress you practice under, and that will contribute to decreasing the stress you perform under. Close the gap. It is nearly impossible to simulate life-and-death situations, but, thankfully, the stakes are much lower in sports. If you can approach practices like you approach games, the performance payoff will be two-fold: you will perform better under stress, and you won’t be as stressed to begin with.
I brought up death intentionally. Perspective helps. Framing matters. Humans are naturally loss-averse, so we tend to fear losses more than we pursue gains. I see this every day on the basketball court. Players who are afraid of getting blocked rather than excited about the opportunity to draw a foul. Players who are afraid of having a turnover rather than excited about the opportunity to make a positive play. If the coach draws up a play for you to take the game-winning shot, is your first thought about how horrible it will be if you miss it? Or how glorious it will be if you make it! In every situation, you can choose to focus on what you might lose, or what you could gain. One of the valuable aspects of sports is the opportunity to gain exposure to these situations in a *relatively* low-stakes environment. As players gain experience, they should learn to have a healthy perspective toward risk and reward.
Stage four: Failure is not fatal.
Now that you mentally approach every practice like a game, you start to gain perspective. Games and practices, they aren’t so different. Everything boils down to trying to be your best, ultimately. That’s the good life. The best thing about sports is the pursuit of excellence in a comprehensible, contained environment, and if you fail, you just learn from it and keep moving forward. Remember, heroes get remembered, but legends never die. No one ever became a legend by being scared of making a big play. Now you’re starting to see adversity as a welcome challenge, because you recognize it brings the best out of you. You long for the opportunity for greatness, and you are tempted to be bored by opponents who don’t challenge you. If there is no risk of failure, what is the point? So you change the definition of failure against inferior opponents. Narrower margin for error. Higher standards. Now it’s possible to win the game and still “lose” to your personal standards, and competitors don’t want that.
If you find yourself nervous before a game, investigate further. Am I excited? Or afraid. If I’m excited, great! Games should be exciting, and feeling nervous is just your body’s way of showing that you care. It would be a problem if you didn’t care! Now you just have to channel that energy correctly. If you find you’re afraid, keep probing. What I am afraid of? Once you get to the root of it, you should find that any fears you have can be traced back to a fear of failure (fear of injury is a different topic). If you understand failure, you know there are worse things. Not being able to play at all, for example. Properly considered, every time you take the court is an opportunity that many people don’t have access to. You have a chance to fail, enjoy every second.
What about the inverse? If you know an opponent is several levels beneath you, do you coast? Or worse, are you afraid of being favored? Most of the pressure is on the team that is expected to win, after all. If you are afraid of good teams, you should be more afraid of teams a few tiers below you, just to be consistent. Or, you can choose to prepare for every opponent with no fear. The best competitors have the least variation in their approach from game to game and opponent to opponent, and therefore they have less variation in their performance. Don’t misunderstand — every player has off nights, that’s part of being human. But even if you’re not performing at your best, you can always fall back on the first two stages. Ultimately, excellence is measured by how well you perform compared your potential, and excellence doesn’t care who or what your opponent is.
Stage five: Respect all; fear none.
This takes immense discipline in addition to a healthy, mature, understanding of the nature of competition. Close, competitive games are the exception, the minority. You don’t get many of those. I have students in P.E. complain about fairness if I split teams and they lose 3-0 in kickball while employing deplorable strategy and pathetic effort, yet there was an NBA game last night with a 56-point margin of victory. Duke Men’s basketball is winning games by an average of 27 points at the time of writing. UCONN Women’s basketball team was up 94-31 in a TOURNAMENT game, i.e. against one of the best teams in the nation, this spring (at halftime!).
No one enjoys being on the losing end of those sorts of games, but they aren’t uncommon. And you definitely can’t tell me those match-ups are “unfair” and expect me to take you seriously as a competitor. If Duke was allowed to have 17 players on the court and you only had 5, I would listen. If UCONN had flying giant squid in their starting lineup, sure, let’s discuss fairness.
Every team who has ever won an upset of miraculous proportions has had one thing in common: they weren’t afraid. You can know the odds aren’t in your favor. You can know you have to play the best game of your life to have a chance at winning. But you have to believe with the right strategy, in the right setting, with fortune dealing you some good cards (like the opposing team’s best player getting in foul trouble, perhaps?), you have a chance to prevail. And even if you can’t win the game, you understand it doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a competitor, or as a person. Use it as a measuring stick. How far are we from the top? 30 points? 40? More? Well, next time we’ll be closer.