Why The Hardest Game We Play is in Our Head

Sometimes the game on the field isn’t the hardest one we play. Sure, it’s challenging to make a three pointer, jump over a hurdle, stop a hard-hit puck, and stay on pointe. But, maintaining the right frame of mind, especially when the pressure is on, makes it difficult to be a mentally tough competitor. Athletes who learn to manage their “side games”—the term I use for the psychological games athletes play—are bound to see immediate benefits. Let me explain.

Side Games

Side games aren’t athletic games like lacrosse, show jumping, or swimming. Rather, they are “games” of the mental variety. These internal games show up when you are, let’s say, trying to catch a pass, start your race, or make a penalty kick. In other words, these side games always show up at the worst possible time. How do they work? Side games distract athletes by introducing additional agendas that go beyond what the real game agenda is—playing hard and having fun. Take Dana, for example, who just made her district’s all-star soccer team, but was struggling to perform in the most basic shooting drills. Dana realized that her poor play was the result of the three key “side games.” From a list of 30 possible side game agendas I presented to her, Dana identified the following as most impactful: Trying to impress her coach, trying to not embarrass herself on the field, and trying to prove that she truly belongs on the team. As Dana said, “No wonder I can’t concentrate out there. I’m focusing on everything except playing soccer!

Dana felt immediate relief, once she realized that playing “side games” is normal, especially when a person “steps up” to a higher level competitive team. Next, Dana and I unpacked these “side games” so that she could gain awareness of how much energy she was spending worrying about aspects of the game that were not only distracting, but beyond her direct control. Dana also came to see how seriously she was taking everything, leaving little room for mistakes and self-improvement.

What Game Are You Playing?

What could Dana do to gain an advantage over her side games? She learned to ask herself, when her play starts slipping, “What game am I playing?” This is her signal that she was drifting toward playing side games instead of focusing on a calm state of mind, and looking for small areas of the game where she can work to improve.

As Dana discovered, the “cure” for most side games is to recognize that they exist, and always divert both energy and attention from what ought to be the main focus. Dana now has written this reminder on both of her cleats: “One Game At a Time.”

Game Day

Written by: Dr. Mitchell Greene is a clinical and sport psychologist, located in Haverford, PA. For more information on Dr. Greene, please go to www.greenepsych.com.

Learn how your daughter can build mental toughness for her next game day! 

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