Mental toughness is key to athletes’ success

February 8, 2018 — by Kevin Sze and Leo Cao

For the next nine months, Liu was not allowed to take to the field with her teammates, and in that period, she went through a period of mental growth and an increased sense of self-belief.

In a Nov. 4 football game vs. Los Gatos, freshman JV defensive lineman Tyler Ouchida lined up against the Cats’ offensive line.

The Falcons were down 37-34 with little time left in the fourth quarter, and they seemed exhausted and ready to give up.

But to Ouchida, exhaustion did not matter. His attention and focus was on stopping the man with the quarterback.

As the ball was snapped, the LG quarterback made an awkward handful attempt to his halfback, and the ball fell on the ground. Ouchida snatched it up and ran the ball into the endzone, leading the Falcons to a 41-37 victory.

When asked if he had been tired at this point in the game, Ouchida responded, “For sure. But when you’re in those moments, you’re so focused on the ball and the play that none of that really matters.”

The play displayed his drive, grit and determination.

The same focus is often on display in professional sports.

Before a pivotal Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan experienced flu-like symptoms, and reporters were told he might miss the game.

But Jordan’s determination led him onto the court, and he supplied the Chicago Bulls with 38 points and a two-point victory, eventually leading them to an NBA championship over the Utah Jazz.

In the 1996 Olympics, U.S. Gymnast Kerri Strug had two attempts in the vault portion of the games, and a chance to clinch gold for her country. On her first vault, Strug fell awkwardly and painfully, but got back up knowing she had a second opportunity.

Strug landed her next vault and won a gold medal for the U.S.

Later reports revealed that she had landed on two torn ligaments in her ankle, and it seems that the only thing that led her to such a feat was her aspiration for gold.

As these improbable victories all of a sudden seemed a regularity, star athletes supplied a reason: their mental coaches.

Athletes had begun to see mental coaches in an effort to learn how to peak their performance in crunch time, and it worked.

Kobe Bryant, a five-time NBA champion and a retired member of the Los Angeles Lakers, credits George Mumford, a sports psychologist, with his ability to step up in the clutch.

Mumford taught Bryant mindfulness, a state in which Bryant was “neither distracted or focused, rigid or flexible, passive or aggressive,” and that he “just learned how to be.”

The ability to stay in the present and make crucial plays down the stretch takes time to acquire and master, but many Falcon athletes are well on their way.

Senior Charles Qi, a runner for the cross country team, points out the importance of mental toughness in his sport.

“Cross country is a sport that people think solely depends on how long your legs are and how fast you can move them,” Qi said. “In reality, your body wants to give up a lot of the time, but your mental strength has to push you through. The more you push yourself and the tougher your mentality is, the better of a runner you become.”

When asked about the training he puts in to his mental game, Qi said that it’s “all about getting used to the exhaustion and learning how to cope with it mentally.”

Senior James Parden, who has played on the golf team since freshman year, said a lot of the players try to toughen him up through trash talk and he does the same for teammates.

“It’s a win-win situation in which we all get better,” he said. “When we play matches, it seems easier literally because of our trash talk.”

Last year, the Falcon golfers faced a formidable Palo Alto team that had not lost a match in five years, a streak of around 60 wins.

The mental toughness that Parden described would be tested as the round neared an end. Players on both sides began talking trash to each other, both teams vying for a victory.

Parden and the rest of the team’s mental toughness and grit, which was so often tested in practice, proved instrumental in providing the biggest upset of the year as the Falcons pulled out a 201-200 victory against the Vikings.

But perhaps the most daunting mental challenge is to come back from injury.

Senior Daphne Liu played soccer her whole life, but during freshman year Liu suffered a concussion that had repercussions involving nearly every aspect of her life.

The incident occurred on the field when an opposing player made an illegal slide tackle from behind her, and she fell hard. Stunned but unwilling to let her team down, Liu played through the pain and finished the game.

But after the game, Liu began to feel nauseated and after going to a doctor she was informed that she had a concussion.

“It was hard for me because I didn’t have a lot of confidence as a freshman and I had to take easier classes which made me feel not as smart,” Liu said. “Worst of all, I couldn’t play soccer for nine months. Soccer gave me an identity, and when I got injured, I felt like that was taken away from me.”

For the next nine months, Liu was not allowed to take to the field with her teammates, and in that period, she went through a period of mental growth and an increased sense of self-belief.

“When I got injured I felt pretty disappointed,” said Liu. “To gain back the confidence that I once had, I had to keep reminding myself that I was better than I thought I was and that belief eventually translated onto the field.”

Three years later, Liu is one of the star players on the girls varsity soccer team and feels that anyone can get through adversity if they believe in themselves enough.

Athletes’ experiences prove that anyone possesses the ability to win tight matches or overcome injury, as long as they put in the work and have undaunted determination — there is no secret formula to greatness, no “clutch-gene” and no superpowers involved.

As Qi says, “Dreaming about something takes little to no effort, but dragging that dream out of the dream world and into reality takes time, determination and hard work.”