Time to read (approximately): 5 minutes

The mental game

I was talking with a friend today about why I started watching the Patriots Football team. For me, it’s been all about the mental game.

We moved to the US and New England in 2000, the same time as Tom Brady arrived as a 6th round draft pick (number 199).

I had no clue who Tom Brady was at the time, obviously (being foreign and all).

Nor did I know much about the Patriots or American Football.

I’d watched a few Denver Broncos games on TV while going to school in Colorado.

Then some of the 1997 and 1998 Super Bowl appearances where the Broncos won. We watched those two games in Norway.

They were rough games to watch, starting after midnight.

We arrived in New England a few months after Tom Brady was drafted.

Tom Brady’s Mental Game

I believe I had my eyes opened to the phenom that is Mr. Brady during the Patriot’s 5th game in the 2001 season where they played the San Diego Chargers.

The team trailed the Chargers by 10 points in the 4th quarter and Brady led the 10 point pick-up which led to the field goal win in overtime.

If the team had lost at that point, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

To watch a relatively fresh quarterback complete drive after drive at that point in his career tipped me off that something was different about this guy.

I’ve always been interested in the mental strength some athletes show when everything appears to go sideways.

The ability to bring focus and determination when it matters.

To lock out all distractions…

And simply deliver.

It may not sound like much, but if you look, you’ll find a few interesting examples of superstars who can’t do this.

For me, Payton Manning was an example of someone who didn’t quite have the same mental strength.

Not that he didn’t perform. His record speaks for itself.

But, when it really, really mattered, Manning seemed to crumble. Time after time. Just look at the Colt’s losses in the 2006 and 2009 Super Bowls.

Brady on the other hand seems to shift into some secret mental 6th gear and take off.

Of course, there are cases where that doesn’t happen.

The 2019 Super Bowl overtime drive was a great example of this behavior.

Before that final drive, you couldn’t be faulted for thinking Brady had lost a step or two.

At overtime, they win the ball. Brady is handed the ball and ends the game.

It was first time all game where he’d been able to execute a “traditional” Brady drive.

And it happened the one time it really mattered for his team.

Now, I’m not going to pretend the successes and failures are due to the Quarterback alone.

That’d be dumb.

But there is something about having a leader who doesn’t quit.

Someone who doesn’t seem to quit, and actually seems to play ever better when things are going badly, will inspire the whole team to reach that bit further.

There are plenty of examples where you see the mental strength of the athlete being the difference between winning and losing.

It’s more difficult to discover in team sports because the whole team contributes.

An easier place to find examples are in individual sports like running, golf or tennis.

Just look for athletes or players who seem to be having a rough period, yet somehow manage to pull themselves back up again and win when it really matters.

The ones to look for win consistently, in spite of the difficulties they’re facing.

Therese Jordhaug

Another off-the-top of my head athlete would be the Norwegian cross-country skier Therese Jordhaug.

In 2016 she tested positive for steroid use. She had received a cream to treat acute sunburn on her lips from her doctor.

The doctor bought the cream at a local pharmacy during training in Italy. Jordhaug had trusted her doctor, so she didn’t check the ingredient list.

It contained a banned substance.

Her doctor stated he’d failed to notice this fact and submitted his resignation.

The amount she had taken indicated she had indeed been exposed by applying something to her lips. Also, the detected levels were too small to have had a performance enhancing effect.

The normal suspension for a first-time doping offense is four years.

However, due to the “non-significant fault by the athlete”, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) set her penalty to 18 months.

This was long enough to cause her to miss the 2018 Olympics.

Jordhaug was prevented from training with her national team during her ban.

Being a 28 year old at the time, there are quite a few athletes who’d have retired.

In spite of this, Therese Jordhaug continued to train, mostly on her own, and returned to the Cross-Country Skiing arena after her ban in 2018.

Her season so far, after 2.5 years off?

She’s been crushing her competition.

Taking eight individual gold medals in eight World Cup starts between November and January making her the current World Cup leader.

Plus she captured 3 gold medals and a silver during the 2019 World Championships.

Some of her victories are nothing short of impressive exhibits of physical (and mental) strength, considering the distances and the quality of the competition.

Working on your own mental strength

Before you hit the gym today, what could you come up with to improve your own mental game?

How can you become more resilient and able to elevate your performance when it really matters?

Can you learn something about reaching your peak performance, in spite of everything stacking up against you?

Something to think about while you train today?

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