There have been many coaches and managers in sport who have been experts in the field of mind games and manipulating the opposition. If there was a World Cup for mind games, Sir Alex Ferguson, former Manchester United manager, one of the most decorated managers in soccer would be the undisputed champion. In 1996, Sir Alex had seen his team claw back what appeared to be an insurmountable gap between United and Newcastle, but they did claw it back. He then stated that opposing teams may not try as hard against Newcastle as they did against United. Disrespectful to their opponents, but it seemed the only person who didn’t see it for the mind game it was, was the then Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan. Keegan, visibly angered when questioned stated “You can tell him now, we’re still fighting for this title and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something – and I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it.”
The title race was over. Keegan lost the title right there, but it was nothing to do with Ferguson, the media or anything else. Keegan took his eye off the goal. He took his eyes off his team’s performance and objectives. He set up a different goal, to beat Manchester United. He failed. What Keegan experienced is seen across all sports. A hurdler may lose confidence after falling at the final hurdle. A gymnast trying to negotiate a four inch beam may find it to be razer thin after falling. A hockey player may lose confidence in a shoot-out if they missed their last three attempts. A soccer player having missed a penalty may not be as confident the next time they are up to face the goalie. Confidence and self-belief are critical components to success, and fortunately, there are ways to overcome set-backs.
Here are the three take aways for today:
1 – Take things moment by moment. Whether things are going well and you have scored a goal to make Messi jealous, or whether you just missed an open goal with the ball on the line, it is one moment. Just one moment. Focus on the next thing that has to happen in the next moment, the thing you have done countless times before in practice and have succeeded at.
2 – Know your goals, make them real, and stay focused on them. “I want to hold the world record” is not a real goal. What is the world record? What do you need to beat? What do you need to achieve? What is the level of performance you need to be at to meet it? What if the world record is 10, and you train for 11 but someone else gets there first? Always focus on being the best you can be. If you get to 11, aim for 12. Set your goal, make it something you can measure, and focus on the things you need to do to get there.
3 – Forget your opposition. Genuinely. Be the very best at what you do and get better at it. I was once at a youth soccer tournament and going into the last game the team needed a 3-0 win to be champions. They didn’t know this, they weren’t focused on 3-0, they were focused on being the best they could be. They won 5-0 and went home champions. If the goal was 3, would they have kept going to 5 and send it home in style? No – Who cares about the opponents? Work at being so good your opponents can’t live with you. If you set your goal on the performance of your opponents you will see your goals moving and lose your way. If you set your goals independent of external factors and focus on performing to achieve those goals, you will achieve what you set out to do and you can change your goals based on your decisions in your time, not the opponents or a moving target.
The big lesson here is to stay focused on your own goals. Don’t let the goals of others change your direction. Keep yourself motivated, find people who want the same things, and find people who will keep you on track. And most importantly, when things are going against you, don’t lose your focus. The biggest mind game you have to win is the one against yourself.
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