How to combat competitive mind games

From well-meaning but misguided comments to deliberate mind games, there are a number of things that can put you off your shot. Danielle Brown shares her guide to coping with it

Competing requires concentration, but it’s a fragile thing and comments from other people can easily throw you off

Getting into the minds of the opposition to try and affect their performance is often accepted as being part of the game. Cutting comments and clever manipulations can affect your performance levels if it throws you off track or alters your mental state. Mind games can be a real problem. Some games are played in fun, some in malice, but whatever the motivation if it breaks your focus, magnifies pressure or heightens expectations then you need effective strategies to deal with them.

When it comes to playing mind games my personal view is, why get caught up in it all? Firstly, I’d rather win and know that I did it because on that day I was better than everybody else. Winning just because you put your opponents off seems a bit of a halfhearted measure. Secondly, and more importantly, if you’re busy concentrating on trying to put somebody off then you are not focusing on what you should be doing. In competition we should be focusing on what we are doing, staying in that moment. If our head is anywhere else it is likely to lead to a decrease in performance.

I want to point out that not everybody plays head games. Most competitors are incredibly nice, friendly and fun people. I’ve seen competitors rally around one another when disaster strikes. In fact, I’ve experienced it myself. My equipment broke at a selection event for the able-bodied World Championships and everybody I was fighting against for a spot on the team jumped to the rescue. We fixed my bow, I got back on the line and managed to crawl up the leader board to win the event. This is what sport is all about. Sadly, there are a few individuals in every sport who take things too far and can be malicious with it. They want to win at all costs and don’t care how many people they manage to upset in the process.

Top shooters will have developed methods of getting their mind back on task after distractions

Here are three strategies to help you cope if people start playing games in a competition setting.

1. Accept it happens. A lot of people say that they would have performed much better had somebody not deliberately put them off. Sport isn’t always fair and you have to deal with it. The thing to remember is mind games will only ever work if you let them. The first stage to successfully dealing with them is accepting that it is part and parcel of competitive sport. It’s not personal. It’s a means to an end. They want to win and they don’t know any other way. Acceptance is very empowering as it reduces the frustration and bitterness that can surface and allows you to concentrate on your shot.

2. Social support. Letting off steam is a great coping mechanism. If you let problems eat away at you, like a bottle of fizzy pop that has just been shaken, you will explode. Choose somebody you trust to be a sympathetic ear, who doesn’t mind you venting that pent up emotion when it starts to surface. A good friend will agree with you at times, as well as telling you when they think you have blown things out of proportion. Sometimes a different perception of things gives you greater handle on reality. The best supporters aren’t the ones who identify with your situation all the time, but plays devil’s advocate when needs be.

3. Take it as a compliment. Nobody is going to be playing mind games on you if they aren’t worried that you might beat them. They don’t think they are capable of winning on their own merits and they need you to underperform. This final stage is the most important, because you are taking a negative situation and turning it into a positive. Once people start to play games with you they believe that you are a worthy opponent, which, when you turn it around, is a huge confidence booster.

While you cannot control what is said or done by other people, you are in charge of your response to it. You can choose to let it get to you and put you off your play or you can get on with your shooting. Remember, their comments are a reflection of them rather than a reflection of who you are.

Occasional bad performances are part and parcel of any sport, but constant focus on results can lead to a negative spiral

Unintentional Games

In some ways it’s easier to deal with intentional spite than thoughtless comments made by well-meaning people. These are the people who are trying their best to help you, but open their mouths before thinking and say the wrong thing.

Competition is focused on results, for obvious reasons, so naturally talk will often gravitate back to performance. “How’s it going?” people will ask throughout the day. A perfectly innocent question, but it nonetheless brings your mind back to the results. A pre-prepared answer to give them along the lines of “I’m really enjoying it today” usually stops them from digging any further and keeps your attention away from the score. This can be followed by a clever change of subject, commenting on anything from the weather to the layout of the field. Other common comments such as “You’re doing well today” or “Your performance isn’t up to your usual standard” all relate to scores and get you thinking. If somebody or something throws you off track you need to be able to recover quickly.

There is a third type of competitor that can affect your mental state. I like to call them vampires. These are the people that you never dare ask how they are because you know you’re going to be stuck there for hours as they tell you about every ailment that has afflicted them (usually in great detail) since you last saw them. They are in their element when they have something to grumble about and their constant negativity sucks your energy dry. It can be draining and, sadly, the best way to deal with this is to remove yourself from the situation completely.

An interesting observation from my sister’s research is that most academics think that dealing with situations is preferable to avoiding them. Her conclusion is that avoidance is useful in certain situations and I sincerely believe this is one of them. If you attend a competition and want to perform well then you need to surround yourself with the people that are conducive to success. Equally, you need to cut off the people that will hinder your performance. As a rule, people who constantly moan and gripe aren’t the people you want around you. Depending on your personality type, you may also find people with a lot of energy and a mouth that doesn’t seem to stop moving exhausting too.

There are ways and means of doing this without coming across as rude. An emergency run to the toilet, and a last minute check of equipment both work well. Failing that, wearing headphones (whether you’re actually listening to music or not) is a really polite way of indicating you’re not in the mood for conversation.

That said, for the record, if anybody does see me on a competition field with my earphones in it’s not necessarily because I think you’re a miserable energy-sucking vampire. There is a very real possibility that I’m listening to a carefully selected playlist that I use to get myself in the right frame of mind! 

This article originally appeared in the issue 117 of Bow International magazine. For more great content like this, subscribe today at our secure online

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