The Mental Aspect of Competing

I was with JK at a league match one night, and he was offering advice and coaching to one of the players on his mechanics and stance, as well we his mental approach to the game. During their discussion about his mindset when playing a match, I was astounded to hear that the player had a different approach to the match in his thought process depending on whether it was a league match, a tournament match, or a finals event. This fact was amazing to me and I realized that there may be a lot more players out there thinking these same thoughts than I realized. I decided that these thoughts about the mental aspects of competing might be a good subject for a blog. I wanted to take a brief look into the thought processes and I have to tell you, there are a lot of websites out there with a lot of information if you really want to take a deeper dive into the subject.

We all know that champions in any form are few and far between and we often wonder why that is. What is it about the champion, or what is in the heart of the champion that makes them so different than all the other players? I firmly believe that this one defining factor is all in the player's mind. Going back to my league teammate, what would cause a player to think that they needed different mental approaches to matches? It's not about whom you play, where you are playing, or how you are playing. It is all about you and the board. You have no control over the other player and you have no control over your darts after they are thrown. The only thing you can control is yourself. Your thoughts should be focused on the board only and making each and every dart count to the best of your ability, until either you or your opponent has hit the game winning shot. When throwing for the out, you can't be thinking if I miss this, my opponent will take his out. You should not be putting pressure on yourself that you need to hit a 100 or a 140 on your turn. You want to be thinking about putting the darts on target, just as you have practiced. Never let the circumstance of the game affect your shot.

Only those players with a strong mind are going to compete at the higher levels and only those players with a strong mind are going to consistently win.

But to continue further with the mind, how we think, and practice versus playing, why is it that our performance can differ from practice to a competition? I came across a few websites devoted to the subject of the mental aspect of competing and I have shared some of it here. Some words I have changed to suit the concept of an athlete versus a dart player, but for the most part, the content is as it is written on the websites.

Improving performance is not accomplished by isolating the body from the mind, but by providing cognitive skills and strategies that deal with skilled performance. An athlete/player does not suddenly gain or lose stamina, talent, skill or speed in a day, week, month, or sometimes even years. What does change is the psychological control or mindset. When an athlete/player loses momentum or gains momentum, the change is created by psychological and emotional factors. He or she can gain or lose psychological control or get psyched out in split seconds, or what is often referred to as "choking". Choking can occur in a close competitive situation where the psychological frame of reference interferes with skill execution. We have all seen it. A player has a game winning shot in a very tough match, and while they have shot at this particular double a thousand times in practice and in other games, something in the brain causes them to get that little hitch in their mechanics which prevents them from completing the task of hitting the double to win.

This fluctuation in psychological regulation can be prevented by developing cognitive skills and strategies to manage anxiety, stress, negative thoughts and emotions. An athlete/player must learn to take responsibility for their own arousal mechanism and to perform with it under control. This will establish cognitive behavior which in turn will allow him to perform in a constant manner. Sometimes athletes/players blame other outside sources when things go wrong, or they don't perform up to their potential, even though it is their own psychological mindset that controls the performance. We have all seen or heard it at a dart tournament. The room was too noisy. The room was too quiet. Many different excuses used by players that failed to perform up to their potential when the game was on the line.

No athlete or player performs correctly and perfectly all the time, however, you can be taught to analyze your own thoughts and behavior so that you can recognize the cause of your performance inconsistencies. The athlete or player that is taught to work toward consistent control over behavior learns to analyze and determine factors that influence it. In order to develop a sport psychological skill strategy for control of behavior, situations that are characteristic of the specific sport and the required behavior for that specific sport must be understood. Once the athlete or player understands the behavioral demands being placed on him, he can cope better with these demands.

Ability is what you are capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it. You were born to win, but to be a winner, you must plan to win, prepare to win, and expect to win. In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure.

An athlete or player who competes faces stressful situations and anxious moments hundreds of times over the course of their competitive career. You don't have to be a professional to experience those anxious moments when your heart starts pounding, your hands are sweaty and you feel weak in the knees. Regardless of how many times you have been in the situation, you still react the same way. Experience is not always the best teacher. Moments of panic, anxiety, and emotional ups and downs can interfere with the physical performance at every level. Athletes/players who continue to perform with some degree of consistency despite their feelings of anxiety have learned to cope in one way or another. Not many of us have been taught the skills and strategies that would enable us to cope and maintain consistent performance. Many have been helped with advice from other players on the physical aspects of competing, but not too many have given free advice with the development of the mental side of the game and their performance. When everyone's brain works in different ways, how does one player teach another player how to cope with anxiety during a match? I could probably write a book on this subject alone, as it is one of the most talked about subjects in darts. New players want to know how the most successful players deal with the anxiety, the adrenaline rush that happens when in a pressure situation to hit a winning double. But is it really brain training? Or is it more practice? Or is it an outside influence that the player is placing in the body to contradict the effects of the anxiety? Does alcohol or drug use enhance the abilities of those successful players? This is one of the reasons why I chose not to ask any players in particular about this very subject. I cannot see any player realistically owning up to admitting there are any outside influences being used to enhance their performance. Now, I am not saying that just because someone is a top player, that they are using drugs or alcohol to be a player at that level. However, we have all played under the effects of alcohol and know that it can have a calming effect on the body and can lower the adrenaline level when in those pressure moments of a match.

But the brain network lets us not just remember the mechanics, but it allows a player to take more of an external focus and not overthink things. A player maintains a steady practice schedule, so that when they are in a match and get a little bit nervous, they do not blank. The player counts on their muscle memory to take over because they have practiced the same mechanics of their throw over and over again. It is like putting yourself on 'autopilot' and let your practice routines take over because if you try to think too much, you overwhelm yourself and end up making mistakes.
This, they have said, is very common because the brain's motor systems process information faster than our verbal ones. For instance, think of how fast you swing a golf club or a bat compared to how fast you talk. If you try to think while performing one of these tasks, the thoughts interfere with your body movement; your brain tries to make adjustments on the fly and your performance will degenerate.

When referring to "muscle memory," in your practice routine, it is really referring to a certain state of optimal neural coordination. With practice, you are really training your brain to send out motor impulses with greater efficiency and optimization. While there are physical changes that accompany practice, in the end, it's the brain that's getting better and better.

In researching this subject, I came across a website that listed the nine mental skills for a successful athlete. While dart players are not considered athletes in the true sense of the word, they do compete at all different levels like any other athlete would and the skills listed can be applied regardless of what sport a player is competing in. Below the list is a more in depth look into each of the skills as it is written on the website.

The nine mental skills for successful athletes:
  1. Choose and maintain a positive attitude.
  2. Maintain a high level of self-motivation.
  3. Set high and realistic goals.
  4. Deal effectively with people.
  5. Use positive self-talk.
  6. Use positive mental imagery.
  7. Manage anxiety effectively.
  8. Manage their emotions effectively.
  9. Maintain concentration.

To 1. Attitude: Successful athletes realize that attitude is a choice. They choose an attitude that is predominantly positive. They view their sport as an opportunity to compete against themselves and learn from their successes and failures. They pursue excellence, not perfection, and realize that they are not perfect. They maintain balance and perspective between their sport and the rest of their lives. They respect their sport, other participants and themselves.
To 2. Motivation: Successful athletes are aware of the rewards and benefits that they expect to experience through their sports participation. They are able to persist through difficult tasks and difficult times, event when those rewards and benefits are not immediately forthcoming. They realize that many of the benefits come from their participation and not the outcome.
To 3. Goals and Commitment: Successful athletes set long term and short term goals that are realistic, measurable and time oriented. They are aware of their current performance levels and are able to develop specific, detailed plans for attaining their goals. They are highly committed to their goals and to carrying out the daily demands of their training program.
To 4. People Skills: Successful athletes realize that they are part of a larger system that includes their families, friends, teammates, coaches and others. When appropriate, they communicate their thoughts, feelings and needs to these people and listen to them as well. They have learned effective skills for dealing with conflict, difficult opponents, and other people when they are negative or oppositional.
To 5. Self-Talk: Successful athletes maintain their self-confidence during difficult times with realistic, positive self-talk. They talk to themselves the way they would talk to their own best friend. They use self-talk to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviors during competition.
To 6. Mental Imagery: Successful athletes prepare themselves for competition by imagining themselves performing well in competition. They create and use mental images that are detailed, specific and realistic. They use imagery during the competition to prepare for action and recover from errors and poor performances.
To 7. Dealing Effectively with Anxiety: Successful athletes accept anxiety as part of a sport. They realize that some degree of anxiety can help them perform well. They know how to reduce anxiety when it becomes too strong, without losing their intensity.
To 8. Dealing Effectively with Emotions: Successful athletes accept strong emotions such as excitement, anger and disappointment as part of the sport experience. They are able to use these emotions to improve, rather than interfere with high level performance.
To 9. Concentration: Successful athletes know what they must pay attention to during each match. They have learned to maintain focus and resist distractions, whether they come from the environment around them or from within themselves. They are able to regain their focus when concentration is lost during competition.

Listed below are the websites I would like to credit for much of this article. If you want to delve further into the subject and read more about it online, I highly recommend these websites and a few others that come up.
When performing your search on the internet, use Google search with the words: "The Mental Aspect of Competing"
Sport Psychology
Mental Skills

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