Playing the mental game
Exploring how student athletes at MVHS alleviate the mental stress that comes with playing sports
Stuti Upadhyay and Justine Ha
Published in El Estoque - Monta Vista High School
God our Father, help us to put forth our best effort, to represent our school with class, to respect our opponents, and to grow as disciples of your Son, Jesus. Keep us safe from injury and harm through the intercession of Our Lady, the mother of your Son and our mother, too. We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
For junior and MVHS varsity quarterback Simon Loeffler, this prayer comes before every game he plays.
“Football is a very aggressive and dangerous game,” Loeffler said. “I read the prayer because it gives me that sense of comfort that I’ll be protected out there with my teammates.”
For Loeffler, prayer is just one of the ways he mentally prepares himself before games. As soon as he finishes his lunch on game days, he heads to the locker room during his free sixth and seventh period. During this time, the locker room is typically empty, so Loeffler turns off all the lights and listens to his own music — he spends that time focusing on his own goals and assignments for the game.
Although senior Emily Tang’s process for mentally preparing herself is vastly different, she too prioritizes mental preparation. On game days, she is constantly thinking about the game and motivating herself. Right before the game, the team collectively helps mentally prepare each other by having fun and getting the energy level up.
“I give myself a pep talk,” Tang said. “I feel like outcomes don’t really matter … because I think sports in general are just really a mental game. So I kind of have to tell myself that I have to give it my all and work hard. I’m trying to keep telling myself don’t give up no matter the outcome.”
Although Tang has been playing high school water polo for all four years, this is the first year she began really prioritizing her mental health. As the varsity captain, she knows that she needs to perform skillfully every game and mentally preparation translates into better games.
“Of course [sports are] physically difficult and they’re draining physically, but anything mental can affect it,” Tang said. “I feel like once something happens and once your mental state is out of it, you kind of look down on yourself and you feel like you’re giving up — that when you know the game’s over.”
Psychologist Danielle Kamis explains that athletes who are not mentally prepared end up losing control of their emotions and having a hard time concentrating when playing. She explains that because of the high pressure on athletes, mental stability is incredibly important — students without adequate mental preparation can’t carry out their game plans.
“If we’re so stressed all the time, then we’re not going to have as good of a performance [on the field],” Kamis said. “Having some time to do what we just like to do can actually can be more productive because sometimes if we’re pushing [yourself] so much, we actually can become so [stressed] — we become less productive [and] the stress is going to take over.”
Sophomore Rhea Rai agrees with Kamis on the idea of sports coming with stress — stress can be mitigated with adequate mental preparation.
With homework piling up for Rai by the time she comes back from tennis matches, she has learned many ways to mentally manage the amount of work she has. With a culmination of listening to music and meditation to alleviate stress, Rai has learned to channel the stress, although she says it’s still challenging.
“I’ve been playing tennis since I was five,” Rai said. “[My parents] barely [put] any academic pressure [on me], but the pressure they put [for tennis is] a lot — [It’s] stressful because I have to manage school with tennis all the time.”
With the support of the high school varsity tennis team, Rai leans on her teammates to help to take the edge off of the competitive environment she feels when she’s playing club tennis tournaments on her own outside of school.
“When [playing] in [tennis] tournament’s [outside of school], [I see] tennis [as] a solo sport,” Rai said. “You don’t really have the support of people around you except for your family but that can be stressful. But, in a high school team, everyone is so supportive and caring. They don’t put pressure on you if you lose, and it’s a really carefree environment.”
In regards to team sports, Loeffler explains that mental preparation is even more important because you need to perform for your team. He explains that if each person does not understand the strategies and goals, then the team won’t be on the same page and won’t perform well overall. Because of this, according to Loeffler, the football team as a whole always stresses the importance of letting go of distractions before the game.
“Football is a game where there’s 11 players for each team and all 11 guys have to know what they’re doing and have to do their job,” Loeffler said. “I feel that I go into the game, knowing what I need to do and what’s my job, then I’ll perform better.”
No matter what the benefits may be, all three athletes agree that preparation is important. Especially as athletes grow older, sports are more competitive and college prospects become more prevalent, athletes should learn how to mentally prepare themselves.
Kamis says the first step is to take the time to analyze your performance and decide how much you are willing to put in to the mental preparation process. She notes that while athletes might have the best coaches and facilities to practice their sport, when it comes to mental readiness, it can make or break their performance.
“I think a lot of athletes don’t really feel like it’s worth the time to mentally prepare,” Kamis said. “So I think the first part saying ‘How good do you want to be in being an outstanding athlete?’ If yes, then what are [athletes] willing to do [to reach this goal of improvement]?”
Loeffler stresses that because there are so many different types of ways to mentally prepare, each athlete should focus on discovering what works with them and then stick to that routine.
Kamis agrees, and explains that once you find a mental routine that works for you, it can be a major sense of comfort.
“If you’ve never done deep breathing [to help mentally prepare] before you go out [and play], it’s going to be something foreign and you’re going to be in the learning stages,” Kamis said. “Even though you have a lot of pressure [from] the coaches and audience in the new place where you’re competing, [being mentally prepared] is something that you can prove within yourself, no matter where you go, and [it’s] something that you have control over, despite all the things that you don’t have control over.”