Why Putting on Your “Game Face” might be a Bad Idea

We are in the middle of the sprint canoeing World Cup season with the race #2 kicking off this morning in Račice (CZE). So the theme of an older Daniel Coyle’s blog post seems perfectly appropriate for the moment (find the blog here). Here it is – slightly shortened:

“If you saw the cellist Yo-Yo Ma a half-hour or so before one of his performances, you would see him do curious thing: he mellows out. He makes jokes; he smiles; he chats. You could easily mistake him for an audience member.

If you walked into a professional sports locker room an hour before the start of a big game, you’d be surprised by the number of athletes who are in a similarly easygoing state — playing video games, lost in their music headphones, or, quite often, unconscious in a chair, grabbing a quick snooze.

We’re often led to believe that we should approach Big Moments — i.e. pressure-packed games, recitals, meetings — with a mindset of gritted, focused intensity that we know as “the game face.”

In fact, our instincts are wrong. In fact, practice is the right time for intensity and scowls; performance is the time for lightness and ease.

Here’s why: practice is an act of construction. It’s the place to stretch, to make mistakes and fix them. It’s the time to reach and repeat, over and over, until you’ve built the reliable skill. It’s the place to experience and embrace the effortful frustration that’s part of the building process.

Performance, on the other hand, is a very different situation. You are not trying to construct the skill; you’re are trying to employ it; to be alert, and to react to an unfolding set of possibilities. In these kinds of situations, unless you happen to be Ray Lewis, the most productive mindset tends to be a light, broad, attentive focus; one that stays in the moment, and controls the emotional ups and downs.

A beautiful example of this mindset is provided by Joe Montana, the 49ers quarterback who led 31 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career. Once, in the fourth quarter of the 1989 Super Bowl with three minutes left and his team down by three points, he unexpectedly lifted his head from the huddle and stared into the stands — he’d spotted a familiar face from television.

“Hey,” Montana said, “Isn’t that John Candy?”

His teammates were in disbelief. But it makes perfect sense, because Montana had the right game face on: relaxed, attentive, open. As the great acting coach Constantin Stanislavki put it, “The rehearsals are the work; the performance is the relaxation.”

What’s ironic (and a little insane, in my view) is that many parents and youth coaches do precisely the opposite. They treat every performance or game like it’s the Super Bowl, and treat practice as mere routine, an afterthought.

Which makes me wonder: how might that mindset be reversed? How do you de-pressurize performances and funnel intensity toward practice?  I’d love to hear any suggestions or ideas you might want to share.”

*Daniel Coyle is the New York Times bestselling author of The Talent Code, Lance Armstrong’s War, The Secret Race and Hardball: A Season in the Projects. His new book, The Little Book of Talent, releases in August 2012.

The Australian team behaved like this even before Kenny Wallace took it to extremes, watch the rising and hard charging Serbian team and you will notice this relaxed approach too. And of course there are top guys who win with a poker face on (Belarus, E.V. Larsen etc)… There is no rule. Perhaps the only sure thing is one should remain relaxed but composed while racing and as much focused as possible during training. Neither comes easy of course!

Kenny Wallace with Adam van Koeverden

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Privacy Preferences
When you visit our website, it may store information through your browser from specific services, usually in form of cookies. Here you can change your privacy preferences. Please note that blocking some types of cookies may impact your experience on our website and the services we offer.