How To Win The Biggest Mind Game

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, and 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. Ferguson lit a fuse in Newcastle manager, Kevin Keegan by saying that opposing teams may not try as hard against Newcastle as they did against United. Disrespectful to their opponents, but it seemed Keegan was the only person who didn’t see it for the mind game it was, and was visibly angered when asked about it. He ranted about how disrespectful it was and 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.

Don’t focus on your opponent, focus on 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 at your highest possible standard, you will achieve what you set out to do, and you can change your goals based on your decisions in your own time, not your opponent or a moving target.

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 sent it home in style? Would they have stopped pushing and conceded? Who knows. Maybe. We’ll never know because this wasn’t their objective. they just wanted to be the best they could be.

Here are the three takeaways 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.

2 – Know your goals, make them real, and stay focused on them. “I want to hold the world record” is not a real goal. By the time you get there, the goal may have shifted. What is the level of performance you need to be at to meet it? 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.

The key to success 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 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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