Playing those mindgames…

When we think of sport, we think mainly of the physical contest, one performer’s physical attributes pitched against another, but often the physically stronger, faster and more powerful do not prevail. We may also think about the skills and techniques – but again we may not be able to predict the outcome. The reason for this is that we have not factored in the mind games – in all their guises.

Once the contest begins, all talking ends, actions speak louder than words. The problem is that between these short periods of action there are long periods of inaction, which the skillful use to their advantage and those with less skill can be completely undermined by.

In the past few weeks we have seen Jose Mourinho give a masterclass in this; he has branded another team as playing 19th century football, he has described another team’s opponents as being the weakest the club has fielded in 16 years and has described one of the most widely respected managers in world football as a specialist in failure. What is he doing….?

The answer has been around for about 2000 years! Sun Tzu wrote a military text book which is still being referred to today. Clearly Jose Mourinho and others who successful engage in mindgames have an intuitive feel for its contents. Sun Tzu considered warfare as a necessary evil. Despite what George Orwell believed sport is not war minus the bullets. It is more subtle, but many of the principles cross over. Distilling the principles down, Sun Tzu argues that all warfare is deception, when we are able to attack we must seem unable, we must make the enemy believe we are far away when we are close, when we are close we must make them believe we are far away. Deception is the key. Sound familiar?

Mind games are designed to plant distracting, frustrating, and angering thoughts into opponents who then chose to divert time, energy and resources into dealing with them. Sport has some excellent examples of these. The interchange between Alex Fergusson and Kevin Keegan in 1996, which resulted in Newcastle United’s title aspirations collapsing is perhaps the most notable.

Jose Mourihno has perhaps replaced Sir Alex as the most regular and skilful contributor to the archive of sporting mindgames. But we are seeing it more and more often and in a huge variety of sports. Who would have imagined that the Men’s Curling final at the Winter Olympics would have a sub-text of bullying and intimidation. Boxing trash talk is getting trashier and more clearly instrumental – the more we appear to hate each other, the more tickets we sell.

As a psychologist working with athletes preparing for elite level performance, what can I do to help?

Routinely I speak with athletes about how to prepare for competition – the competition is actually very easy to prepare for, train hard and recreate game like situations. Usually it is the periods in between that are the challenge. The excitement, the fear, the worry, the inner critical voice all thrive in the silence before the contest. That is 100% normal, it becomes an issue when the mind games played by others are amplifying the voice. Resilience means being wise enough to spot the deceptions and the mind games – to filter out the BS and to focus 100% on yourself and what you are doing. Building resilience can take time but it does depend on actively recognising the games that others are playing and having strategies for coping. Always remember: all warfare is deception.

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