THE MENTAL GAME: DON’T LET “WHAT IFS” PARALYZE YOUR PERFORMANCE – Part 2

By John Haime

In the second installment of our three-part series on the fear factor in polo, renowned mental coach John Haime explains how the unsettling voice in your head can ruin your game—if you let it.

Working with leading athletes every day, the primary cause of fear that I address is a future projection of what an athlete believes may happen – what we call the “what ifs.” The tendency is projecting out that something negative may happen (protect mode) and that makes the athlete anxious in the moment, telling himself things like:

“I can’t do it” or “Why do I do this again?”

An example for you might be: You get ready to play, arrive at the field for the match, everyone is watching and the voice inside you starts considering threats and acting up …

“What if I look like a rookie in front of everyone?”

“What if my game performance doesn’t reflect my training this week?”

“What if I let my teammates and supporters down?”

“What if I miss my opportunities?”

This creates your anxious feeling, and depending on the intensity of the feeling, it can be a real distraction … and sometimes even overwhelming.

There are many “what if” scenarios that could distract you from your likely central purpose for playing polo – enjoying the experience with your ponies and teammates and achieving the level you choose. Keep in mind that although you project out that these things might happen, they almost always never do – and that’s important for you to remember.

Isolated experiences from the past can also create feelings of fear – negative emotional memories can be brought forward to cause the anxious feelings and also distract you from today’s performance. Experiences in the past are real and a part of you – but your central focus must be on all of the great, positive experiences (there will be many) leaving the few, negative ones behind.

Sometimes fear comes before the game. One international high-goal player found that every time he was about to get on his best pony, he was literally shaking in his boots—and he had no idea why. He was not afraid of his other ponies. This mare was a pistol, but he had never been injured playing her (in fact, they won major tournaments together and she earned Best-Playing Pony awards). Inexplicably, his fear always dissipates the moment he gets on her back, and he feels more confident than on any other horse. To this day, he is still afraid beforehand but controls it by envisioning the great performance that inevitably awaits.

So … there is nothing wrong with you for feeling fear. It is normal. Recognize that your emotional brain always has the antenna up to perceive threats. Remember the advice from Yoda as a first step – you must recognize your fear. Then, you must ask yourself the question of how much of a threat it really is.

NEXT: In the final installment of our series on conquering the fear factor, John provides eight practical strategies to overcome your anxieties.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Haime is President of New Edge Performance. A world-class Human Performance Coach for athletes, executives and artists, former professional athlete and current bestselling Author of You are a Contender! Build Emotional Muscles to Perform Better and Achieve More, John understands how athletes think and feel. He’s been there—under the most intense pressures of amateur and professional sports. He is trusted by a wide range of clients including some of world’s leading professional and amateur athletes. John coaches professional equestrians and up-and-comers with a proven system generating measurable results for clients. He has certifications in psychology, neuroscience, emotional intelligence and coaching. www.johnhaime.com

Photography by Jaime Cabrera & Casares Gallery

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