“The difference between a good fighter and a great fighter is mindset.”
I find the mental side of sport to be such a fascinating thing. It is so interesting to see how players and teams respond to different situations and pressures, and how body language or communication evolves throughout a match or tournament. Sports psychology even extends to the strength of teams, perceived or otherwise. Theoretically, strong teams should beat weaker teams, right? As is often the case, though, we see very good teams struggle with weak teams and dominate those that are closer to their caliber. Why is that? In my opinion, it all comes down to mindset.
Physical skill and preparation are obviously very important to succeed in sports, but something that I find equally important is mental preparation and mindset. I have noticed that a big difference between teams who consistently win versus those who are very talented, but can’t take the step to win, is the lack of a winner’s mindset in the less successful teams.
What do I mean by a winner’s mindset? To me, it means seeing every single opponent as simply an obstacle standing in the way of victory. It means that nothing matters other than achieving victory. That is easy to say, but putting it into practice is something else entirely. I find that many athletes and teams place value on other teams instead of viewing every opponent equally. They start to use the word SHOULD, as in, “We SHOULD win this game,” or, “We SHOULD beat this team.”
How many times have you seen the draw at a tournament and been excited to see that you match up with a low-ranked team, and feel worried to be matched up with a strong one? That is an example of placing value on teams, and it is dangerous. The strong team is given a higher value than the weak team, and whether it feels like it or not, that fleeting thought affects performance.
When we place value on teams, we are giving them priority over our preparation. We are preparing to succeed or fail simply based on what is on the other side of the net, instead of on what we can control. When teams make judgments that they SHOULD or SHOULDN’T win, they affect their expectations of the outcome. They start to focus on things that detract from what they can control, and from the process they have taken to get there. As an athlete, the expectation should always be to win; otherwise, why bother playing the game?
So many athletes and coaches want to take the path of least resistance to win. They want to avoid the “best” teams as long as possible, and feel relieved to play teams they SHOULD beat. Personally, a lot of the joy and satisfaction that I feel in winning is knowing that I beat the best to get there. It’s great to go head-to-head with the best! It is a wonderful diagnostic tool to see where we stand, and I love a hard-fought battle. Also, at the end of any tournament, if my team hasn’t won, there is always disappointment, whether I finish second or fifth, etc. To be a champion, you will have to beat everyone, good or bad. Why not embrace it and take on anyone with open arms?
I think an important way to start developing a winner’s mindset is to stop caring who you are playing against. It shouldn’t matter. Just win. Every single team is just one more obstacle standing in your way, and that’s it. Playing against strong teams should be a welcome challenge, but so should playing against teams perceived to be weaker. Either way, if a team performs to their ability, the opponent shouldn’t matter.
Another way to work on developing a winner’s mindset is in being mindful of how we prepare for a game. If we aren’t making judgments about how strong or weak our opponent is, then our preparation in practice and pre-game will always be the same. I have written about this a few times in the past. You can read those articles here and here. Respecting every opponent, and taking them seriously, allows us to focus on our team, and on the things we have to do to win, instead of on external distractions. By doing everything the same in preparatory practice and warmup, etc. we train our minds to approach every game the same way. It may take some time to banish those judgment thoughts completely, but there are steps we can take to minimize them.
There are people who have tunnel-vision and do whatever it takes to win, and there are others that look for excuses or ways to placate their minds. Who do you think wins more? When a team just focuses on their side of the court, takes care of the things within their control, and won’t take no for an answer, amazing things can happen. Just win.
This post first appeared on Sarahs blog here.
About the Author: Olympian Sarah Pavan, is a Canadian indoor & beach volleyball player, who most recently represented her country on the golden beaches of Rio. Sarah has been playing indoor volleyball for over twenty years, and has been representing Canada a the elite level since 2001. Follow Sarah on her Instagram, on Twitter and online.