#56 – The Mental Game

The crucial difference between an elite performer and one who is good is often not visible to the casual observer. Having a good Mind Game can make all the difference!

"It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."

Mark Twain


It Doesn't Matter the Setting

It really doesn't matter what sport your child wants to play. It doesn't even matter if they want to play sports at all. Athletic competition is just one way kids work on their mind game. Athletics to academics... even hobby and job performance are all influenced by our attitude.  The approach we take to practice, to games, to winning, to losing, and to making mistakes isn't entirely extrinsic - influenced by what happens to us. It is influenced more so by how we see the world. 

Two people can see exactly the same situation. One will see adversity and impossibility. Another will see opportunity and excitement. Nothing about the environment may be different - other than the way these two people either naturally perceive the world - or choose to perceive the world. Perception makes all the difference. 

As a Swimmer

When I was a kid, my primary sport was swimming. I had a coach who pushed pretty hard. Day one tryouts included swimming for one mile. Anyone who failed to swim the mile, who touched the bottom or who touched the side in any way other than for a flip turn was cut. As the season unfolded, he threw all manner of physical and mental challenges at us. 

I remember practices where he would stand himself in front of us in a pool area that was well over 80 degrees, tell us that it was cold in there and raise goose bumps on his skin. He played mental games with us: "You're not a man," he used to yell, "until you've puked in the scuppers and kept swimming!"  He would challenge us to races, then change the rules as the race kicked off. He would fill the air with the smell of warm fat pretzels - hot from the bakery, set us against one another and tell us whomever out lasted everyone else in suicides (a never ending string of overlapping sprints across the pool) who earn a hot reward. 

The point of his games were not lost on us. We knew he was breeding us to not only be competitive, but to win - and to like the feeling of winning. 

I remember having to sit next to my team mates on the benches with my eyes closed. He would hold a stop watch, run us through a starter sequence, and tell us to raise our hand when we were done with our mental race. It was remarkable to all of us how close our mental "imaginary" race was to our actual race times. He sent us home with homework to run our races over and over again in our minds while trimming time off our best time. 

"If you can see it in your mind," he used to say "you will do it in the pool." Our coach was big on improving the mental game. 

Later in life, I discovered that swimming - the act of putting one arm in front of the other over and over again for 4,400-8,000 k yards twice per day, six days per week, would be perfect mental training for things later in life. We literally learned how to tuck our heads, settle in behind another swimmer, and push our bodies with our minds. There were no distractions in the pool. Just bubbles and surges of power coursing through our muscles - for hours. 

In the Military

The military has had more than 200 years to perfect the mental game. Sure, basic training will strengthen the body physically, but being a sailor, a soldier, and airman, or a Marine is a way of thinking. It's being able to to the right thing when your body is too tired to do much of anything. It's about being "all-in" to the point of death when the situation calls for it. It's about being able to overcome basic human instinct, to not sleep, to be capable of things most people have been taught to avoid. 

The mental aspect of basic training plays s huge role in turning boys and girls into men and women. In turning civilians into fighters. In making sure that details are not overlooked when the pressure is high.  

On the Soccer Pitch

I've come to the world of coaching and the world of soccer with an eye on the mental state of the players in my care. I know what good work ethic looks like, what commitment looks like, and how to recognize a player who is all in. I've talked with world class coaches looking to recruit players into the EPL. I've gotten a sense of what they are looking for. 

What they want is not limited to physically fit players. Physically fit players are everywhere. They want the players who bring strong mental game. They want composure players, committed players, players who are willing to work for their own sake - because they hold themselves to a higher standards. They want players who can both stand on their own and look out for one another. 

How to Work on Mental Game

The question I'd be asking right about now is: how? How do I help my son or daughter to develop a strong mental game? Even if they don't go on to play soccer at the college or professional level, how do I support my son or daughter in such a way that they can develop the strongest mental game they are capable of. I want my son or daughter to be mentally strong in life - in sport, in school, as a family member, and as an employee or leader later on. What can I do?

Not every young person will develop a world class mental game. Some just are not wired for it. Many, however, can develop and improve their mental game. Here are some things that contribute to developing a strong mental game:

  • Encourage kids to make and keep commitments to themselves and to their teams. It will be hard sometimes. They will be tired. They will want to do other things. They will eventually develop self discipline to keep their commitments on their own, but when they are young, they may need some reenforcement. 
  • Help your kids find and express measurable, achievable, and realistic goals. It's better to commit to touching the ball 1,000 times in X period (something they can control) than to commit to being the best soccer player in the world. By setting realistic and achievable goals, kids will learn what it feels like to accomplish goals and raise their own bar. 
  • Pre-brief. Before a practice or a match, ask "what do you want to accomplish today?" with 22 players on the field, not every player is going to score a goal. An objective of making good first touches into space today is a great example of a development-based goal that is both achievable and realistic. It also gives you something interesting to talk about after a game - beyond the scoreboard - and shows your son or daughter that you love and support them no matter what the scoreboard says. 
  • Post-Brief. My favorite saying immediately following a soccer practice or game is "I love watching you play." I talk about this a lot in this show. However, there comes a time when more talk is both welcome and fun. If you pre-briefed objectives before a match, that might be a good place to start. "Hey... how'd it go making those first touches into space today?" you might ask. No matter what the score was at the end of the match, this kind of discussion can be both useful and rewarding for both of you. 
  • Read or listen to books. There are a huge assortment of books out there, from Sun Tsu's the Art of War - written more than 2,000 years ago, to youth books like "The Tortoise and the Hare," to contemporary books like "Mind Gym - an Athletes Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack with David Casstevens."  Each of these books provide great opportunities to open a dialog about mental game, to show that it's important to you, and how important it has been to the world. 
  • Provide safety - no matter what! Win or lose, players need to know that they are loved and supported. I'm a HUGE fan of turning lemons into lemonade. It was my favorite management technique and it has morphed into my favorite coaching and parenting technique. Bad things happen. Mistakes will be made for as long as we are striving. What you chose to do with those bad things and/or mistakes sets a powerful example for your son or daughter to follow for the rest of their lives. 

Going Forward

I really like this topic of the mental game. You can expect to see more discussion about this in the future. For now, I encourage you to find one thing you can do to introduce the topic of mental game to your young athlete or mathlete. Having the discussion is a great way to be proactive and get kids thinking more about the stuff that really matters. 


  • Sun-tzu, and John Minford. The Art of War. Penguin Books, 2003.
  • Miles, Betty, et al. The Tortoise and the Hare. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1998.
  • Mack, Gary, and David Cassevens. Mind Gym an Athletes Guide to Inner Excellence. Contemporary, 2002.
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The Soccer Sidelines

Soccer Dad, Coach, and Club President who is devoted to developing kids and their families. With a diverse background in leadership in other settings, David is focused on empowering parents, players, and coaches to focus on the stuff that really matters in youth sports.