Clichés abound in the world of sport. Whether it is about practice making perfect, learning from your mistakes or fighting through pain, we hear them countless times from commentators, players and coaches.
These groups of people have provided some memorable and very pertinent quotes over the years though and over the last week watching the various sporting events on tv, two quotes in particular came to mind concerning the importance of confidence and a positive mindset.
The first is courtesy of Babe Ruth who aptly said “never let the fear of striking out get in your way” whilst the second comes from athletics legend Carl Lewis who stated how “if you don’t have confidence, you’ll always find a way not to win.” These quotes seemed especially relevant in light of the Green Bay Packers blowing numerous chances to get over the winning line against the Seattle Seahawks and numerous upsets in Australia this week at the tennis.
Ivanovic loses that important mental edge
One of the biggest upsets during the opening week of this year’s Australian Open was Ana Ivanovic’s first round loss to Lucie Hradecka. Ivanovic cruised through the first set, winning it 6-1, yet from there on in the errors flowed as her game, and serve in particular, disintegrated in the Melbourne heat.
Ivanovic is well known for her inconsistent play since capturing her only Grand Slam title back in 2008, yet a strong 2014 and a rise to number five in the world had given hope that she may finally be on the way to fulfilling her talent.
This should have been a routine match for Ivanovic, yet after she acknowledged suffering with nerves as she struggled for rhythm the longer the match went on. Or to relate back to Babe Ruth’s comment, Ivanovic, rather than playing with the confidence her recent form should have given her, was instead more concerned about striking out, or losing in the first round, and as the match got tighter, the increasingly poor play she produced was an indication that her nerves will continue to get in the way of the consistency that has been lacking since her greatest success.
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To win at the top level requires immense belief in your own abilities, a crucial element that becomes magnified the greater the stakes.
Whether it’s a tennis player having the conviction to continue to go for the lines when serving for the championship, or a golfer trusting in their technique come Sunday at Augusta, the tiniest amount of self-doubt can lead to over thinking, a breakdown of technique and a player forgetting what put them in the position to claim glory.
Packers coach got it all wrong
This belief in yourself can also be relevant when it comes to a coach backing his players, in this case Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy. Rather than playing to win and crushing an opponent when it is down by staying aggressive, McCarthy never went for the kill, instead deploying a conservative game plan that ultimately doomed the Packers.
The Packers had got to where they were by riding arguably the greatest quarterback to have played the game yet come the biggest moments of their season, McCarthy twice kicked field goals on fourth and goal before proceeding to take the ball out of Rodgers’ hand time and again during the second half.
Furthermore Seattle’s all-pro corner Richard Sherman played the majority of the second half with virtually one arm (a fact the Packers were well aware of Rodgers told us after the game), yet rather than attack their opponents weakness and seek to put the game to bed, they pounded Eddie Lacy repeatedly as McCarthy continued with his conservative gameplan, handing the ball to Lacy five times out of six to ensure the Packers went three and out back-to-back when they could least afford it.
Defensive tactics leave huge room for error
McCarthy served as a stark reminder, if we ever needed one, that setting out with a conservative gameplan that you would not diverge from, and blowing chances to wrap the game up as a result of this, will come back to bite later more often than not. Rather than trust in his star studded offense, McCarthy did not show confidence in them at the most crucial points, and the Packers somehow managed to find a way to lose this game, committing horrendous errors in the final few minutes that will linger long in the memory.
Of course, whilst spectacular collapses often garner significant media attention after the game, the week also provided examples of how the right mindset is an integral part of victory.
Murphy finds the midas touch once again
The perfect example of this came in the Masters Snooker final between Shaun Murphy and Neil Robertson. Murphy was seeking to become one of a select few to have won snooker’s triple crown and had considered giving the sport up this time last year as a result of his poor play.
However after taking time to consider his options Murphy went back to the style of play from his early years of being more aggressive when a chance presented itself. Murphy mentioned this was the way he loved to play in an interview to the BBC after his semi-final victory and was what had brought him his success, and this aggressive mindset was a feature of his superb performance in the final as he took on numerous tough pots with supreme confidence, seemingly oblivious to the consequences of missing and leaving Robertson in amongst the balls; never in fear of striking out.
Perhaps the moment when champions have to be at their strongest is when they are staring defeat in the face. When Maria Sharapova was facing two match points for Alexandra Panova in their second round match, many would take the approach of making sure they did not miss and therefore give the match to their opponent. However, Sharapova, whose game is based on aggressive baseline play and looking to hit winners regularly, instead made certain that the match points would be on her racquet, hitting winners on both of them.
Sharapova a shining example
Even though multiple unforced errors from trying to hit winners had put her in that position, Sharapova’s immense self-belief ensured that she retained the confidence in her technique to be able to produce winners when there was no alternative, regardless of what had come before.
Ivanovic and McCarthy would do well to learn from the approaches of Shaun Murphy and Maria Sharapova. Both these two showed the importance that confidence in your own ability (or that of your team) has when playing in the biggest events, and this confidence in themselves meant that the fear of striking out was never something that crossed their mind, even when defeat looked a certainty in Sharapova’s case.
Another common cliché of the sporting world is how it is played in the mind as much as it is on the pitch, and the contrasting fortunes of the aforementioned individuals bear this out. There was no reason for Ivanovic (playing a lesser player) or McCarthy (had the league’s best quarterback) to approach their games the way they did, but whether through a lack of confidence, or a fear of striking out, they lost the battle before it had even begun, and this was what ultimately doomed them.