The Grey Area Around the Mental Aspect of Sport

As an athlete, I understand the different mental strategies and tactics used by other athletes. Firstly, strategies people use in attempt keep themselves mentally tough, and second strategies to mentally deplete opponents. The mental aspect of sport is a perspective that can only truly be understood through experience. The perspective we receive as viewers does not give us the same tension and intensity experienced by athletes in sport. Often sports played at lower levels rely on the players themselves to regulate a fair joust. This dependancy on trust in the morality of your opponent results in a large grey area. This grey area opens up a new aspect to the way sport is played. Keeping ones mental composure and attempting to hinder the stability of your opponents mentality is often the difference maker in tight match ups.

Growing up playing competitive tennis and participating as an active member on Western’s varsity tennis team, I have been sufficiently exposed to the mental aspects of sport; engaging in my own mental preservation during matches, as well as attempting to creep in to my opponents head. The prime aspect of keeping your own composure is relaxation. When an athlete is relaxed and everything is going as planned, it is easy to make good split second decisions. However, if the opposition is able to hinder your train of thought, a whole new game aspect occurs. It is almost like you are playing two games at once; the physical game and the mental game. Cheap shots, heckling, stalling, bad calls, and obnoxious behaviour towards opponents are some of the most common methods of strategic mental depletion in sports.

Abundant examples of individuals and teams implementing mental strategies exist. The ultimate aim of these mental games is to alter the overall thought process of opponents in attempts to ploy them in to making poor uncharacteristic strategic decisions. By effectively utilizing these mental strategies, athletes are able to gain an unseen upper hand over their opponents.

Regulation of tennis at the varsity level is primarily dependant on respect for your opponent, and sport etiquette. Unfortunately not all athletes hone the same beliefs and attitudes towards fair play. This is where mental toughness and mental strategy become pivotal in overall athletic performance. Years of practice and experience have allowed me to develop my own defensive coping strategies when a mental battle ensues, along with strategies I personally implement to hinder my opponents mental stability.

Cheating by making poor line calls or changing the score has been a long running irritant for my mental game. As a junior, a simple bad line call was all it took for an opponent to get in my head. I was known for very rapidly losing all rational thought on the tennis court when I felt I had been cheated. Knowing this, my opponents would deliberately plant the seed (make a poor call) in my head early in a match knowing that I would be distraught for prolonged period of time, giving them the upper hand as I attempted to mentally regroup. The time frame it would take for me to accept the circumstances was often enough to sway the match in my opponents favour. However, after more than a decade of mental stubbornness, I finally developed as an athlete and developed my own relaxation strategies, as well as strategies to combat those used against me.

From the defensive side of the mental game played (in my case in tennis) I no longer react in the way opponents want me to when cheated. I decided that out of spite for unfair play and cheeky tactics I wouldn’t allow for my opponents to get what they wanted out of me. I now implement a stern sarcastic ego centered strategy where I convince myself that I am in fact a better athlete. Rather than over reacting and engaging in argument with my opponents over a poor call, I simply question the call in a sarcastic tone, in order to inform my opponent of my disapproval of their decision, followed by a smirk and a newly sparked unrelenting desire to win. This has proven most effective for me mainly as a defensive strategy to the mental tactics of my opponents, but also as the first step in my offensive mental game. One of the worst feelings in sport is the feeling of helplessness, the feeling that what you’re doing is not fazing your opponent. This strategy in itself is sometimes enough break through the mental walls put up by opponents. Of course cheating results in a clear unfair advantage to one side and therefore cannot be viewed as a real offensive strategy, but many other strategies are available to athletes that can also give athletes an advantage within the rules of the sport.

I can honestly say that I have never deliberately cheated someone in a tennis match but I do however have two cheeky mental strategies of my own to alter the thought process of my opponents. First, my playing style. I have spent years of my life developing a playing style that most effectively deprives my opponents of what they want. Many tennis players depend on rhythm and consistency in order to effectively and comfortably hit the ball. My goal was to give them none of that right from the start. How did I go about this? Simple: having the mentality that I will not hit the exact same shot twice. The mix up of different spins, speeds and heights of the ball cause opponents to over think their own strategy as they now lack the rhythm and consistency they have depended on for their tactics. Whether they realize it or not, I am changing the way they intend to beat me by giving them unconventional shots. What that entails is a total change in their style of play to something they are not comfortable with, and as a result, I begin the match with the upper hand of playing on my terms.

The second offensive strategy I use to get in my opponents head is more cheeky and definitely frowned upon by some. I effectively pump myself up and create an intense competitive environment by reacting in positive ways to my quality shots. You may be asking what it is about boosting my own ego and creating tension in a match that actually hinders my opponents thoughts; the answer lies within the method by which I go about doing this. From starring down my opponent as I sit on the change over, to almost obnoxiously yelling and pumping my fist when I win a big point the goal of my mental strategy is intimidation. People change the way they think and act when they are intimidated. It is innate in humans to tense up when intimidated  and as I said earlier optimal performance is achieved when relaxed; so if my intimidation strategies work then I have successfully put my opponent in an uncomfortable situation where his performance will suffer.

The mental game in sports is a difficult one to understand without real life experience. Unseen and unheard strategies athletes use to hinder opponents minds will forever be a key aspect of any sport. An understanding of the games played within games has given me new perspective along with a new found respect for all athletes.