6400: Sports Psych 102

July 5, 2019
By Grant Lindsley

Sports Psych 102 – Uncontrollables

Harper Garvey held the disc on the sideline when a spiderweb of lightning illuminated the sky behind the Montreal Royal's stadium. Even those who hadn’t seen the bolts directly could see the blink of light they cast over the field. This would be the second lightning delay. 

Players moved to walk off the field, except the referees didn’t blow the whistle. In the moment of silence between the sight of lightning and the sound of thunder, the referee yelled, “five!”, meaning “stall five.” He was continuing to stall Garvey, meaning it would be a turnover if we didn’t throw a pass in the next two seconds. I cut towards Harper and caught an under pass as the thunder clapped and, finally, the whistles blew. 

Would the ref have called a stall if Garvey hadn’t gotten a pass off, and then called the lightning delay? The question didn’t matter, and that’s the topic of this week’s article: focusing on what one can control.

At Paideia High School in Atlanta, GA, I had a coach, Michael Baccarini, who taught me most of what I know about ultimate. One of his many lessons came in handy during the game against Montreal on Saturday. “Don’t focus on the uncontrollables,” he’d say. 

On Saturday, we couldn’t control the downpour that shortened the warmup. We couldn’t control the first lightning delay. Or the second. There was another uncontrollable later that game: a vibrant rainbow with serious potential to turn into a double-rainbow, all the way across the sky. The sunset warmed the undersides of dark clouds with orange hues. I found myself marveling at the sky while the O-line waited to receive the pull. In other words, distraction comes in many forms – from hardship to beauty.

The New York Empire’s double-header in Canada continued on Sunday with a game against the Ottawa Outlaws. We came out flat and went down a couple breaks in the first quarter. Again, to the mind of a player in the middle of a game, it was irrelevant to try to diagnose the cause of our lackluster start.

There are plenty of possibilities for what an athlete can focus on that won’t help – and may hinder – performance: weather, refs, injuries, scoreboard, etc. The key for any player wanting to develop their mental game is to focus less on external factors and more on the internal process of concentration itself. 

Just as unpredictable external events arise in the course of a game, internal events also arise: anxiety before an important point, anger after a contentious call, despair after a break, joy after a goal. It’s impossible to prevent these things, so mental strength is mostly a process of continuously moderating them. 

Thoughts and feelings have benefits at certain dosages and drawbacks at others. Mild anxiety is a productive for building energy. Unbridled joy can be detrimental, because it’s unsustainable, and the crash afterwards can help shift momentum in favor of the opponent. 

The goal for every athlete is clean and continuous focus on what’s in one’s control over the next few seconds. That might mean cheering and hydrating on the sideline, foam rolling between points, or completing one extra throw after lightning strikes to avoid a stall.

The night before tournaments, Coach Baccarini would have his players list things that were and were not in their control. That way, by the time the game started, the team didn’t need to spend mental resources deciding what did and didn’t deserve focus. The thinking had already been done. 

This skill in discernment isn’t unique to sports. The Serenity Prayer applies. It wasn’t originally written as a pregame speech, but it could’ve been a good one:

            Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

            The courage to change the things I can,

            And the wisdom to know the difference.