Mental Strength And The Athlete:5 Things Great Athletes DON’T Do

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I’M STANDING IN THE DUGOUT, NEXT TO THE WATER COOLER. I’M TRYING VERY HARD TO BLEND IN.

Don’t make eye contact. Look down. He doesn’t see you.

He (coach) is walking in my direction. I’m terrified. He’s going to put me in the game as a defensive replacement and I’m going to have warm up in front of 13,000 people.

Maybe he forgot you’re here. Hide behind Chris

He’s getting closer. My throat tightens.

I look out onto the field, in forced consternation, like you do when the professor catches you trying to cop exam answers and you go to the heavy ponder.

It doesn’t work.

He sees me.

“Didier”

Shit.

“Didier”

He definitely sees me.

“Oh, hey coach. What’s up?”

“We’re going to pinch hit here and then you’re going to in to play second for the last two innings.”

I pee my pants a little bit.

“Go get loose and toss in the bullpen before you go in.”

My stomach turns in a knot. I grab my glove, and a ball, and start to move towards the bullpen to warm-up.

I’m terrified, and there are a lot of people in the stands.

Maybe he forgot.

“Didier! Hurry up, go get loose!”

Shit.

I start jogging to the bullpen.

I pee my pants a little more.

GREAT ATHLETES DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY.

THEY TRAIN A LITTLE MORE PARTICULARLY, HARDER THAN MOST, AND THEY THINK A LITTLE MORE SPECIFICALLY, DELIBERATE IN THE PROCESS. I KNOW THIS. I’VE BEEN AROUND THE GREAT ATHLETES AND I’VE SEEN WHAT THEY DO. I’VE NOTED IT AS I’VE STUDIED IT. YET AS I’VE REALIZED CERTAIN THINGS THE SPECIAL ATHLETES TEND TO DO—MAKING THEM GREAT—IN A MUCH MORE RESOUNDING WAY I’VE NOTICED TOO ALL THINGS THE GREAT ATHLETES DON’T DO.

The opening interaction above, true and accurate, is part of that division. Great athletes don’t do that—they don’t think like that. In ways that debilitated the piss out of myself (see what I did there), I thought and functioned in ways counter-productive to everything I know to be conducive to performance. I had it all wrong, and I crippled my physical ability by my mental strength—or lack thereof.

And that’s ok.

Really.

IN LINE WITH EVERYTHING I’M ABOUT TO SAY AND SHARE, I’VE RECOGNIZED MY FAILINGS. WITHOUT THEM, WITHOUT SUCCUMBING TO THE THINGS I DID AS AN ATHLETE, I NEVER WOULD HAVE CHOSEN TO LEARN EVERYTHING I HAVE—TO STUDY THE THINGS I DO AND THE PEOPLE I ADMIRE. OBVIOUSLY I WISH THAT DIDN’T HAVE TO HAPPEN, AND I ACTUALLY STAYED GOOD AT BASEBALL AND MY DAD WOULD INTRODUCE ME AS HIS SON, BUT I’M GLAD THINGS TRANSPIRED THE WAY THEY DID. I JUST, REALLY, WISH I KNEW THEN WHAT I KNOW NOW.

5 THINGS GREAT ATHLETES DON’T DO

1. GREAT ATHLETES DON’T OVERLOOK FAILURE

Failure is opportunity.

Always.

Mentally strong people know that. Mentally strong athletes use it.

Failure is not final. It is an opportunity. Become analytical with your shortcomings and mishaps. Take a look at the bad games and the bad performances and strategically recognize where, and why, you failed. Do not dwell or sulk in these thoughts, which any athlete can tell you is an extremely easy thing to do, but rather, use your past as a catalyst.

This may seem counter-productive, initially—laboring on all the ways you suck—and a positive mask might seem like the easier, less incendiary approach, but you will never reach greatness doing so. I promise.

Optimal practice, which is up next, is based upon relentless growth. Without recognizing your limitations, what you think you suck at, how much can you really improve? And I’m not just talking about your weaknesses either. Working upon things you are good at, ask yourself why you are good but not great? Failure doesn’t have be something miserable or glaring—like the fact I had nightmares about throwing a baseball accurately and effectively to first base—but it can be found in subtlety; my legs leave me late in games, I think I would have finished stronger if I trained harder.

Any instance where you did not meet your optimal performance, where you see you can improve, should, and can, be analyzed as a failure. That is how you start to see failure as a good thing—how you start to embrace it and better yourself for it.

Analyze it and use.

Failure is opportunity.

***I use words like “suck” and “pee-pee”. I know. I’m working on it. They are verbal failures I’m trying to fix. Practice what you preach. Respect (insert hand-praise emoji here).

2. GREAT ATHLETES DON’T PRACTICE JUST TO PRACTICE

Deliberate practice. I put those two words in bold so you get it. It’s the important term.

Deliberate practice*.

Basically, your youth coach was right when he dropped that guber line on you about perfect practice making perfect. He may have been a turd (see above asterisk), and a horrible youth soccer coach just trying to earn favor with his wife for coaching his son—who obviously was terrible—but he was right.

Deliberate practice is something done in pursuit of optimum performance while cognizant of what exactly is most difficult for you—what is most difficult to improve. You are focused entirely upon what you are trying to improve. “Flow,” something that can be talked about for pages upon pages and something every athlete knows, is achieved when in pursuit of tangible goal(s). Goals are based in improvement—unless you set shitty goals. When you practice trying to avoid error or afraid of failure, you are missing “it” completely.

Studies have shown the brain waves of monitored artists and athletes functioning—and how they function—while focused on a difficult, performance based task. The musician (violinist) has heard a song she just played for the first time played back to her and she has pinpointed the verse she played worst. She breaks down the song and focuses entirely on that verse, the one she flubbed, fixing it through failure. Parts of her brain (cerebral front cortex, most notable, because I’m smart af) is actively creating and strengthening synapses/circuits. When the same musician played an easy song, one she already knew and considered herself good at playing, the brain activity would probably best be described as “mehhh”. Same with the athlete. When doing something in which he received direct feedback—failure—and then focusing upon that, trying to improve it, the brain of that athlete got to rocking. Both instances monitored deliberate, focus performance in pursuit of tangible goals. The brain and body responded best that way. Great athletes don’t just practice. They practice deliberately.

Also, I mentioned “studies” above. I’m not going to cite them. Trust me that they’re legit, but citing is difficult and time consuming and I don’t want to do it. That attitude is why I’m not great.

3. GREAT ATHLETES DON’T THINK IN FIXED TERMS*

In calculated theme, improvement requires growth. Great athletes are always growing. They are thinking in growth, in terms of what they can achieve, and they are practicing in growth, recognizing where they are weak and where they can get better.

Nothing is fixed.

Fixed thinking is dangerous. And I hate it.

I also did it.

I defined myself as a certain type of athlete. Anything outside of who I told myself I was, was relegated to “that’s not the type of player I am.” Also read as “I’m afraid to try because it’s new and I don’t possess mental strength and I will fail and my ex-girlfriend left me for a hockey player.”

But really, think how many times you haven’t tried something because you knew at first you would fail. I never stole bases because I wasn’t a fast runner or a fast player. So, I never practiced or trained to improve my speed. I didn’t really focus on reading pitchers and work on getting better jumps. I was fixed in who I was because it was easier and safer. But great players don’t do that. They think in growth, not fear. Where can I improve? What I am not great at? What goals will help me improve?

Those are not fixed questions. Attitude and thinking from great athletes, is not stale. They are routed in growth. A great athlete does not accept, but will always try to grow.

4. GREAT ATHLETES DON’T FORGET WHAT WORKS

(To dad, if you’re reading this)

Dad, I mean no disrespect, but you’re not the most cerebral cat in the world. Not when it comes to reading and writing and all that stuff you said I spent too much time on growing up. But, and this is a big hairy but, you are locked in to the sports psyche that works.

(Back to the reader)

“Remember what you’re doing when you’re doing it right.”

That’s what he always said to me.

“Great athletes always know and always remember how they felt when things were going right.”

STUDYING FAILURE IS IMPORTANT, AS I’VE SLUGGED ON FOR THE LAST 1,000 WORDS, BUT ONCE YOU HAVE USED YOUR FAILURES TO IMPROVE, TO SUCCEED IN YOUR AIMS, YOU MUST REMEMBER THAT. REMEMBER THE THINGS YOU HAVE DONE THAT HAVE WORKED AND REALLY KNOW WHAT LED YOU TO YOUR GOALS. THEN, REPLICATE.

Replicate and improve.

In ruts, or slumps, or whatever you’re grinding through as an athlete, when ish ain’t right, remember what helped you succeed and improve in the past. That’s so important. Great athletes don’t forget what works because they worked through failure to meet certain success.

5. GREAT ATHLETES DON’T WISH FOR OTHERS TO FAIL

Everyone knows Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were straight dick-heads on the court. Whether it was in practice or in-game, they got after it. Aggressively. But I guarantee they never wished for other players to fail. They would never need that failure for their validation. When players around them improved, it meant they had to improve.

I obviously don’t know MJ or The Mamba, but I imagine they would actually want players—teammates and opponents—to improve, because they in turn would have to improve. A challenge from a better player, or player who did something better, would be welcome. As others around them got better, they would have to do the same.

To stay on top, one must keep growing. Great athletes do not want others to fail because they want the challenge. They need it. Great athletes seek competition because it precipitates improvement. Improvement, and the pursuit of it, is flow*.

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