Winning the Mental Game First

(This is the third in a series on wisdom from baseball. In this article, Mark Stanifer continues to mine his playing experience for insights into how to better play the game of life.)

As a boy growing up, baseball was my game of choice. I enjoyed the game and was naturally gifted with some physical talent. But I was not very good at playing the mental side of the game. It wasn’t until long after I hung up my cleats that I realized just how important the mental game is to success, and how weak I really was.

During my last year with the local American Legion team we hosted the State Championship tournament. We had played our way into the championship game, in front of the home crowd, and against our in-state rival. The winner would move on to the National Regionals. And the entire game came down to the bottom of the last inning. We were trailing by one, with two outs, and the tying run on third base. And I was on-deck and thinking, “I don’t want to bat!”

Doesn’t sound like a recipe for success does it? As it turns out, I never got the chance to be the hero of that game, but given my mental state — doubt, fear, lack of confidence — odds are that I would have made the third out myself.

With time and lots of life experience, I’ve come to realize just how much of the game of life is really mental. I have read numerous books this year on the power of our thoughts to shape our actions. What we tell ourselves, or absorb from others, is a significant contributor to our state of mind. Dr. Caroline Leaf, in Switch On Your Brain, says this, ‘What you are thinking … becomes a physical reality in your brain and body, which affects your optimal mental and physical health.”

I don’t often hear baseball used as a metaphor for life. But there is some rich insight to draw from this sport, especially in how we play the mental game.

Don’t focus on the negative

Baseball is not a game of perfection, especially when it comes to batting. Whether it is an errant throw, a missed opportunity, or a strikeout (more on this in an upcoming article), there are many opportunities to focus on what didn’t go right. And while reflecting on mistakes for lessons learned can be very valuable, dwelling there can be debilitating. The better approach is to own it, learn from it, and then move on.

Be in the moment

There is a lot of down time in baseball. An average MLB game lasts around 3hrs, but with less than 20 minutes of actual playing time. The rest is transition and preparation. Sometimes life can feel that way too — a lot of time invested in the “game of life” but in the end only a small amount really counts. It is important to be looking for those few precious moments and be ready when they come. Blocking out distractions, being prepared for when the ball comes to you, and being fully present, are good ways to help you stay in the moment

Be clear on the truth

It is hard for a professional player to ignore the critics. It is equally tough to ignore the critics in our own lives — both self and others. The best way I know how to do this is to continually remind yourself of what is true. The starting point for me is always “I am valuable simply because I am a child of God.” So much of our perceived worth is derived from accomplishments or accumulations, but these are not really our identity. Knowing who you are won’t eliminate the critics, but it will help lessen the potency of what they say.

Maybe you’re a huge fan of baseball or maybe the game isn’t your thing. Regardless, we are all involved in playing the mental game of life. And the winners of that game have figured out the importance of these insights. While I’m not fully there yet — maybe that’s not even possible — I am definitely a lot stronger now than that 18 year old back in the on-deck circle. And I like my chances this time around a whole lot more.

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