The head game


The head game. It's one of life's great mysteries and a constant frustration to amateur and professional athletes. It's a hard thing to define, but it goes something like this. No matter what sport a person is engaged in, the critical factor, the most influential determinant of outcome, is the mental state of the player. Not exactly a revelation, but worthy of some rumination.

There are sports psychologists who make big bucks trying to help high-level athletes cope with this aspect of any game, but for the rest of us it becomes a lonely personal battle. I would be convenient to have some sort of meter to determine a person's state of mind in relation to a particular sport before they begin playing.

My fantasy device would be tailored to specific sports. If a person was about to play a game of tennis they could sit down and answer a few questions to determine if their state of mind was going to produce a positive or negative outcome. Most of us have a sense of when we are having a bad day or a great day, but we often don't have a sense of more subtle levels of good and bad mindsets before the game begins.

It is usually after we end up losing badly or getting a very bad score that we realize just how much our mental state affected the play. I often start playing a game of golf and quickly realize that I need an attitude adjustment. I try to talk to myself and perform some sort of self-hypnotic therapy but it often turns out to be too little too late.

It's not that we should take amateur sports too seriously, but I think most of us would like to do well and win more often than we lose or make some degree of progress in our scores. Once we have a way of identifying our state of mind then some of us might want to complete the almost impossible task of doing something about it.

There are times that we must recognize that our state of mind cannot be changed and that we have to make the best of it. That happened to me a few years ago when my wife was near death and I tried to play a round of golf. I thought it would be a way to escape the pain and sadness, but playing golf only made things worse, and I ended up walking off the course early into the round.

There are times when we must recognize the fact that our state of mind is so bad that engaging in any sport would make matters worse. But those are rare moments and, the rest of the time playing a sport can have a therapeutic effect.

Yet for the therapeutic effect of the sport to create a positive outcome a person has to figure out how to make adjustments according to their state of mind. This is where I believe the Zen of sport comes into play.

According to my Zen sports philosophy the final outcome of a game does not matter. There are critical questions that must be asked and they will determine whether or not the player was able to overcome the perils of the mind game.

During play did the player spend a majority of the time forgetting about the rest of the world, the day at work, the tension of relationships and simply enjoy being in the moment of the game? Was the player able to devote nearly 100% of his or her powers of concentration to the game at hand?

Did the player reach the point where the final outcome did not matter, where a refreshed and renewed state of mind prevailed on the ride home? Professional athletes will never be able to achieve my personal state of Zen sports tranquility, but the rest of us can overcome the mind game of sports by learning to accept a great deal less than perfection and never taking the game too seriously.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse and long-time health care advocate. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at


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