Why Putting on Your “Game Face” is a Bad Idea

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If you saw the cellist Yo-Yo Ma a half-hour or so before one of his performances, you would see him do curious thing: he mellows out. He makes jokes; he smiles; he chats. You could easily mistake him for an audience member.

If you walked into a professional sports locker room an hour before the start of a big game, you’d be surprised by the number of athletes who are in a similarly easygoing state — playing videogames, lost in their music headphones, or, quite often, unconscious in a chair, grabbing a quick snooze.

We’re often led to believe that we should approach Big Moments — i.e. pressure-packed games, recitals, meetings — with a mindset of gritted, focused intensity that we know as “the game face.”

In fact, our instincts are wrong. In fact, practice is the right time for intensity and scowls; performance is the time for lightness and ease.

Here’s why: practice is an act of construction. It’s the place to stretch, to make mistakes and fix them. It’s the time to reach and repeat, over and over, until you’ve built the reliable skill. It’s the place to experience and embrace the effortful frustration that’s part of the building process.

Performance, on the other hand, is a very different situation. You are not trying to construct the skill; you’re are trying to employ it; to be alert, and to react to an unfolding set of possiblities. In these kinds of situations, unless you happen to be Ray Lewis, the most productive mindset tends to be a light, broad, attentive focus; one that stays in the moment, and controls the emotional ups and downs.

A beautiful example of this mindset is provided by Joe Montana, the 49ers quarterback who led 31 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career. Once, in the fourth quarter of the 1989 Super Bowl with three minutes left and his team down by three points, he unexpectedly lifted his head from the huddle and stared into the stands — he’d spotted a familiar face from television.

“Hey,” Montana said, “Isn’t that John Candy?”

His teammates were in disbelief. But it makes perfect sense, because Montana had the right game face on: relaxed, attentive, open. As the great acting coach Constantin Stanislavki put it, “The rehearsals are the work; the performance is the relaxation.”

What’s ironic (and a little insane, in my view) is that many parents and youth coaches do precisely the opposite. They treat every performance or game like it’s the Super Bowl, and treat practice as mere routine, an afterthought.

Which makes me wonder: how might that mindset be reversed? How do you de-pressurize performances and funnel intensity toward practice?  I’d love to hear any suggestions or ideas you might want to share.

PS – For more on this topic from a musician’s POV, check out this great post by educator and author Gerald Klickstein.


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12 Responses to “Why Putting on Your “Game Face” is a Bad Idea”

  1. TS says:

    By focusing on your moment by moment process rather than only the outcome.

  2. BJ Mumford says:

    I came up with an analogy for my basketball students not long ago, after I finished reading The Talent Code. Practice is like building a ramp, it is a lot of work, but the better job you do and the higher you build it, the higher you will fly when it comes to game time. Games are about experiencing that thrilling feeling of freedom like flying throught the air!

  3. Simon Muckle says:

    Great point. In youth soccer, its the norm to put tremendous focus on the results and winning the game, from 6 – 18 years of age.

    One of the toughest challenges is for any coach is to replicate the demands experienced during games in practices. One idea is to create a ‘competitive cauldron’ by creating competition in all games, either against each other, against the clock, or against another team. With their innate competitive instinct, this forces the group to focus, concentrate on the goal together and creates an atmosphere of intensity similar to that experienced during a game.

  4. I think it depends on the importance of the competition and a lot of responsibility lies with the coach to influence this. It is ultimately related to pre-performance arousal levels. The coach/manager is vital as their behaviour will rub off on the athletes. A relaxed and calm coach will lead to a confident, relaxed and calm athlete and conversely an anxious, agitated and stressed coach will pass on the same vibes. The coach can of course manipulate this with a bit of amateur dramatics i.e. remaining calm and unflustered (swan-like) when really underneath they are nervous as hell before the big game. On the other hand a bit of anxiety can be induced in the same way if the coach senses that his players are a little too relaxed, overconfident, complacent perhaps before playing a team that it is felt should be beaten easily – always a dangerous assumption. Of course everyone is different, so ones person may need to feel relaxed most times to perform optimally where as another may need higher levels of arousal (see Hanin, 1997, 2000 IZOF). A good athlete that uses psychological interventions will be better suited to manipulating their own arousal levels accordingly with experience, as will a good coach/manager.

  5. Ian Mcclurg says:

    As coaches and parents, we must begin to view the games also as opportunities for learning. This fall and winter, 1v1 Soccer FC is playing in a futsal league in Toronto. This is our first year entering teams in formal futsal leagues and the experience has been very challenging but also very beneficial.

    Many parents have asked me why I have not provided much coaching direction to the players during games, and why I am not overly concerned with the game scores and competitive results. The reason is simple: The players are learning every minute they are on the field. The speed of the game dictates that the players process information quicker and the feedback is instant: You make an incorrect decision, play a bad pass or cannot control the ball and the opposition now have the ball close to your goal or worse….the ball is in the back of your own net already!

    Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code speaks of skateboarders being super-quick learners. That’s because if they make a mistake, they typically fall (instantly), and immediately gain feedback on what went wrong. So too the life of a futsal player.

    It is on occasions like this that we as coaches can do more by doing less. By challenging our players and trusting them to discover the right solutions, we are putting the burden on the player to think for him- or herself. If a player cannot get around a defender, or an opponent is constantly getting around them all the time in a game, we as coaches and parents have to ask ourselves: Are our young players thinking of solutions? Or are they always looking to you as a coach or their parents in the stands?

    In my opinion our young players know the game better than we give them credit for — or in fact, better than they give themselves credit for. Of course as adults we need to be there for discussion and to help guide young players towards solutions, but we must be helping our young players think for themselves.

    We all want to develop “thinking players.” That can only be achieved if we provide an environment where they can practice the ability to try things, perhaps fail at them, and then come up with a solution that works – on their own. Players don’t, for example, learn passing by adults drawing diagrams on a white board. They learn the skill by actually doing it. And, as I hope is clear by now, keeping score – and simply “playing to win” in games like the ones we contest in the Toronto league – is completely irrelevant to the kind of learning we’re trying to foster.

    Sorry coaches, but despite all our efforts, the game remains the greatest teacher.

    If you are in any doubt, consider this: After a tough futsal league game last Saturday, where I sat in the stands and other staff coached the players during the U11 and U14 games, I asked the players to complete a simple task at training the following morning. I asked them to write down three things that they had learned from the game they played less than 24 hours previously

    The responses were as follows:

    •Move the ball quicker
    •Communicate earlier
    •Make your decision before you get the ball
    •Be faster
    •Get open (move a lot)
    •Take shots when close to net
    •Decide early (pass, shoot, dribble)
    •Talk more, give directions to teammates
    •Look for open space
    •You have to make quick decisions
    •You have to know where and what you are going to do with the ball
    •You can’t be standing still, you have to keep moving
    •Communication
    •Fast pace
    •Lots of touches on ball

  6. Dee Scott says:

    The pre comp state where an athlete is at ease within themselves is the magical result of coach and athlete preparation, as skill increases, communication decreases and independant learning occurs. Be it weeks or days out from that big event, a natural quietness begins to occur …. One which lets an athlete embed their own mission statement.

  7. john coyle says:

    Great piece Daniel. About an hour before my final event at the Olympics I was stressed beyond belief. We were in the finals, 3 other teams fairly evenly matched in the short track gold medal round. One slip and no medal, skate perfect = gold. We stretched, warmed up really really hard, practiced our exchanges and headed back to the locker room to sharpen our skates. Randy (teammate) looked at me, both of us overwhelmed and he said,”well that’s it.. there’s absolutely nothing else we can do now – we are either ready – or we’re not.” The fear, the pressure all melted away and as we entered the arena I was able to pick out my parents, friends in the stands, recent acquaintances and was not evenly vaguely nervous. You build the myelin, and then you rely on it – freeing the pre-frontal cortex to “look around.”

  8. Walter says:

    IMO coaches that pressurize games have NOT prepared their teams for the game. I remember Bobby Knight being asked in a shoot around before a big game if his players were ready and had their “game face on”! Knight replied by saying he didn’t know what a “game face” was as he made funny faces and crazy smurks with his mouth and eyes!
    As a youth soccer coach for many years i always tell parents and kids. Practices are like doing homework…….. Games are like your test. I can help with homework but you are on your own during a test. I help kids out during games mostly if i find they are out of positions with a reminder, but 95% of my “coaching” is done in practice and only 5% in games.
    The only thing i find at the youth level is at times they are NOT prepared to play, intencity wise. Early tournament games when parents have not gotten the kids to bed in decent time. At time also you find that they look like they are running in quick sand, so i do get on them about giving 100% effort. Being prepared for game day instills tons of confidence in both players and coaches. No need to scream, yell, throw clipboards, ect. If you find yourself doing that then maybe YOU have failed to prepare your team……….. for their test!

  9. Tom Hartman says:

    The Joe Montana story made me think of one that is told about Ethel Merman on the opening night of Annie Get Your Gun. A little bit before the overture started, she was standing backstage, chewing and popping her gum. One of the chorus girls asked, “Ms. Merman, aren’t you nervous about going on tonight?” Ethel replied, “Why? I know my lines.”

  10. Dennis says:

    Ian Mcclurg: You’re 100% correct.

    Keep on with that, discuss with the parents to make them understand why you’re doing what you do.
    They’ll understand.
    The best way to deal with parents though (cause they tend to “know it all”), is to simply show then academic studies on the subject.
    There are tons of them out there.

    Best regards
    Dennis

  11. Robnonstop says:

    DECIDE ON MATTERS OF GREAT IMPORTANCE LIGHTLY

    From HAGAKURE, known as the book of the Samurai (1700s Japan)

    A precept left b Lord Naoshige contained in the “Writing on the Wall” reads: “Decide on matters of great importance lightly.” Ittei, in his annotation to the precept, says, “Decide on matters of minor importance seriously.”

    The matters of grave importance must be but few in number, which can be seriously studied for right answers every day. Therefore, it seems to me that this precept tells us to formulate decisions well i advance on serious matters and, when faced with the serious issue, to resolve lightly.

    If, on the contrary, one lacks in everyday resolve, a quick decision is difficult to make on the spot, wherein one is liable, more often than not, to fail. So day-to-day resolve, I believe, is the basis of the lord’s precept, “Decide on matters of grave importance lightly.”

  12. gpo613 says:

    I generally agree with this notion, but what I have seen in swimming tells somewhat a different story to some extent. Big swim meets usually have prelims in the morning and then for those who qualify they come back at night and swim finals.

    My daughter recently had the opportunity to swim in that type of meet. She had just turned 12 a week before. Now many swimmers will not go 100% during prelims as they will save something for finals, especially if they have sized up the competition correctly. I don’t think my daughter was experienced enough to do this. So in the morning she swam the 100 back and went 1:13.80. A good time and she dropped from her previous best time by 1.5 secs. Then at finals later that night she got into a battle with another girl for the win. They had both went 1:13.xx in prelims, but in finals my daughter went 1:11.84 and the other girl 1:11.49. She dropped another two secs.

    What I am trying to figure out what made my daughter push herself to that extreme? Lots of times in swimming swimmers will go off with crazy good swims when the competition is tight and swimmers push each other. I don’t think they get all crazy and bang their head into lockers before the race, but somehow they just turn it up a notch when the girl next to them is really moving fast as well.

    I guess it comes down to not wanting to lose.

    I do agree being relaxed before a competition is a good idea. You definitely can’t make up for a lack of training with intensity.

    In sports people talk about being in the zone. That is where you perform actions without almost thinking about them and you perform well. It is better to be in the zone than going ape-sh*t crazy.

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