Developing Winning Attitudes Toward Competition

Developing Winning Attitudes Toward Competition

Earlier, we noted that we use the term stress in two different ways. One use of the term relates to situations that place high de­mands on us. The other refers to our response to such situations. The importance of this distinction becomes particularly clear when we deal with the role of mental processes in stress. There is a big dif­ference between pressure situations and feeling pressure. Mentally tough athletes perform well in pressure situations precisely be­cause they have eliminated the pressure. They report that although intellectually they are aware that they are in a very tough situation, they really don't feel the pressure on the inside. There is no way to eliminate pressure situations; they will always be there because they are a natural part of competition. This does not mean, however, that athletes have to respond to such situations by experiencing high levels of stress and getting "psyched out."

 Mentally tough competitors manage pressure well largely be­cause they have become disciplined thinkers. Either consciously or unconsciously, they have made the connection in their own heads between what they think and how much pressure they feel during competition. They have learned (often the hard way) that thoughts like these produce pressure:

  • What if I don’t do well?
  • I can’t blow it now.
  • I can’t stand this pressure.
  • I’ll never live it down if I lose.

On the other hand, mentally tough athletes think like this in pressure situations:

  • I’m going to do the best I can the let the cards fall where they may.
  • All I can do is give 100 percent. No one can do more than that.
  • This is supposed to be fun, and I’m going to make sure it is.
  • I don’t have to put pressure on myself. All I have to do is focus on doing my job the best I know how.
  • I’m concentrating on performing rather than on winning or losing.

The first set of statements causes an athlete to react to adver­sity with stress and anxiety. The second set of statements focuses attention where it should be: on giving maximum effort and con­centrating totally on what has to be done. Pressure situations be­come welcome opportunities, rather than dire threats, for mentally tough athletes. Former Marquette University basketball coach Al McGuire has said, "When an athlete can start loving adversity, I know I've got a competitor!" The bottom line is that the fundamen­tal difference between mentally tough athletes and" chokers" is the way they choose to construct the situation in their heads. Situations are not nervous, tense, or anxious--people are! The sooner you can help athletes to realize that pressure comes from within and not from outside, the sooner they can start shutting it down.

 One of the great benefits of sport as a training ground for men­tal toughness is that the consequences of failure are temporary and unlikely to have a long-term impact on the future of a child (as fail­ing in school might). This places you in a great position to help your young athlete develop a healthy philosophy about achievement and an ability to tolerate failure and setbacks when they occur. The starting point for such training is the philosophy that great coaches like John Wooden and Vince Lombardi instilled in their athletes. These coaches de­veloped mentally tough athletes and teams by realizing that an ob­session with winning is self-defeating, because it places the cart before the horse. They realized that effort should be directed not toward winning, but toward performing to the very best of the ath­lete's ability at the time. Doing the very best one can at any moment should always be the focus and the goal. Winning will take care of itself; the only thing that can be directly controlled is effort. Mental toughness arises in the realization that "I am performing against myself, not someone else. I will always be my own toughest op­ponent, and winning the battle with myself paves the way for win­ning the contest with my opponent."

 Here are some specific attitudes that you can communicate to your child.

  1. Sports should be fun. Emphasize to your young athlete that sports and other activities in life are enjoyable for the playing, whether you win or lose. Athletes should be participating, first and foremost, to have fun. Try to raise your child to enjoy many activ­ities in and of themselves so that winning is not a condition for enjoyment.
  2. Anything worth achieving is rarely easy. There is nothing disgraceful about it being a long and difficult process to master something. Becoming the best athlete one can be is not an achieve­ment to be had merely for the asking. Practice, practice, and still more practice is needed to master any sport.
  3. Mistakes aren’t a necessary part of learning anything well. Very simply, if we don't make mistakes, we probably won't learn. Em­phasize to your child that mistakes, rather than being things to avoid at all cost stepping stones to success. They give us the information we need to adjust and improve. The only true mistake is a failure to learn from our mistakes.
  4. Effort is what counts. Emphasize and praise effort as well as outcome. Communicate repeatedly to your young athlete that all you ask is that he or she give total effort. Through your actions and your words, show your child that he or she is just as important to you when trying and failing as when succeeding. If maximum ef­fort is acceptable to you, it can also become acceptable to your young athlete. Above all, do not punish or withdraw love and ap­proval when he or she doesn't perform up to expectations. It is such punishment that builds fear of failure.
  5. Do not confuse worth with performance. Help youngsters to distinguish what they do from what they are. A valuable lesson for children to learn is that they should never identify their worth as people with any particular part of themselves, such as their competence in sports, their school performance, or their physical ap­pearance. You can further this process by demonstrating your own ability, to accept your child unconditionally as a person, even when you are communicating that you don't approve of some behavior. Also, show your child that you can gracefully accept your awn mis­takes and failures. Show and tell your child that as a fallible human being, you can accept the fact that despite your best efforts, you are going to occasionally bungle things. If children can learn to accept and like themselves, they will not unduly require the approval of others in order to feel worthwhile.
  6. Pressure is something you put on yourself. Help your young athlete to see competitive situations as exciting self-challenges rather than as threats. Emphasize that he or she can choose how to think about pressure situations. The above attitudes will help to develop an outlook on pressure that transforms it into a challenge and an opportunity to test them and to achieve something worthwhile.
  7. Try to like and respect sport opponents. Some coaches and athletes think that proper motivation comes from anger or hatred for the opponent. We disagree. Sports should promote sportsman­ship and an appreciation that opponents, far from being the "enemy," are fellow athletes who make it possible to compete. Hatred can only breed stress and fear. In terms of emotional arousal, fear and anger are indistinguishable patterns of physiological responses. Thus, the arousal of anger can become the arousal of fear if things begin to go badly during a contest. College football coach Tom Osborne preaches respect far the opponent because, in his experience, "Athletes who play in a generally relaxed environ­ment where there's goodwill toward their opponents are less fear­ful and play better."

When children learn to enjoy sports for their own sake, when their goal becomes to do their best rather than to be the best, and when they avoid the trap of defining their self-worth in terms of their per­formance or the approval of others, then their way of viewing themselves and their world is one that helps prevent stress. Such children are success-oriented rather than failure-avoidant. Parents who impart these lessons to their young athletes give them a price­less gift that will benefit them in many of their endeavors in life.