James is an offensive lineman on his high school JV team. He is on the field as his offense drives for a go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute to go. The defensive tackle he has battled with all day is running out of gas as James has dominated him. In desperation on that last drive, the DT starts up with some really nasty trash talking. James ignores it as the play begins and gets down to business of protecting his quarterback.
Just as the quarterback throws deep to his receiver, the DT throws a punch into James gut that the refs can’t see. The receiver catches the ball and makes the touchdown, and it looks like James team is going to win – except there’s a flag on the field and the whole play gets called back for unsportsmanlike conduct on the offense.
James lost his temper and retaliated against the player who sucker punched him. The refs saw it and flagged him. Unfortunately, it’s often the retaliation that is most visible and gets the flag even though the problem was initiated by someone else.
Football is an emotional game, and players must go into a game prepared for cheap shots and trash talking. Also, it’s not just opponents who trigger a loss of self-control. Coaches, teammates, and even your own thinking can be just as destructive, if not more.
Having mental toughness in this situation includes having a plan for when it happens and mentally practicing how to get through it before ever stepping on the field.
Football players need to start with self-awareness about times in the past when they lost control and examine how and why it happened. This could have happened in practice or scrimmaging if not in a game.
As you recall those times, ask yourself: What really caused you to lose control? When you get that answer, question yourself about your reaction.
Was it worth it? What did I gain from that? Did I really have to lose it like that? Could I have done something different? Could I have ignored it? What would self-control look like in my behavior the next time something like this happens?
Your plan will start to formulate. Write down your findings and commitment to achieving this self-control. You’ve got to make this a high priority in your training—just like footwork and conditioning. Remind yourself of the performance benefits in developing this mental toughness secret.
The biggest part of self-control is in not letting your emotions guide competition. Don’t fight those emotions, just go with them and keep your wits about you in following the plan you developed and practiced in your mind.
Remember, there’s always time after the game to sort out what happened and resolve the emotions that came with it.
There are athletes who fall on the victimhood side of their thoughts and emotions, and there are elite athletes who master them. Which side will you decide to be on?
After the big loss, James did some soul searching and apologizing to his teammates and coaches. Eventually, he forgave himself for the error and became a standout lineman in college. He never made that mistake again and became more mentally tough because of it. Take the lesson from James here so you don’t ever have to make that mistake.