The Spirit of the Game



by Dr. Mitch Smith,

Director of Mental Coaching, Rick Mahorn Big Man Camp


Recently I was watching the famous Chinese pianist Lang Lang on TV and I noticed that during the entire performance, a smile never left his face.

A few years ago an American professor named Dr. Randy Pausch wrote a book called “The Last Lecture.” In the book he told the story of how he was dealing with a serious illness from which he knew he would not recover.  The book was based in part on a college lecture he gave in which he talked with his students about some of the important things he had learned in his life.  One of the things he shared with them was, “Never EVER underestimate the importance of having fun!”

A while back, the Spalding Sporting Goods Company conducted research on why kids dropped out of youth sports programs.  The number one reason they found: It stopped being fun.

Two other things that kids liked about taking part in youth sports programs were: being with your friends, and feeling good about getting better at the sport.

You probably know that when something is fun you are more likely to give it your best effort.  When it’s fun, and when you also see that you are starting to get better, it can also really make a difference about how good you feel about yourself.

But it can often be hard to feel good about ourselves when we are making mistakes.

When we are trying to get better at something we sometimes make mistakes, especially at the beginning or when we aren’t yet very good.  Sometimes we make mistakes because we are feeling pressure in that moment. But remember: EVERYONE makes mistakes – THAT’S not the problem.

The problem is WHEN WE WORRY about making mistakes.  Maybe we worry that some kids are better than we are.  Maybe we worry that some kids will laugh at our mistakes.  Maybe we worry – especially if we make a mistake in a game – that we will disappoint our parents, our teammates or our coaches.

This is certainly understandable.

But when we worry about these things we usually stop having fun.

And keep this in mind: you can’t worry AND have fun at the same time!!!  (Well, maybe there is one exception – if you are riding a roller coaster!!!)

6th Boro Christmas Camp at Fordham Prep

When you make a mistake, it can present an opportunity to learn and get better.  In fact, some kids who NEVER make mistakes don’t become as good as they could because they are focused on NOT MAKING MISTAKES.  And this can definitely get in the way of getting better!

If your parents use their phone to help them get directions when driving somewhere, you probably have noticed that if they make a wrong turn, the phone app doesn’t criticize your parents or say “Can’t you follow directions??” It just tells them what to do to correct the mistake and get back on track toward the goal.

Same thing in sport.  When you are open to the possibility of making mistakes, this gives your coaches the opportunity to give you useful instruction – and that is one of the most important things that helps you to get better.

When we can develop a greater capacity to not feel bad when we make mistakes, (but to use them as learning opportunities) we are so much more prepared to step up our game in leaps and bounds, and to have more fun!

Once a boys’ gymnastics team I was working with had an important meet, and as they were warming up I noticed that one boy seemed to be quite nervous.  I took him aside and said to him, “I don’t know if you will stick your routines today the way you have practiced them but I know one thing for sure.  When today is over you can’t get it back, and there are TWO things you CAN control.  One is to give 100% effort.  The other is to have fun.  If you don’t do these two things you will have to give an accounting at the end of the day why you didn’t do that.”

Taking his mind off of his worry that he might make a mistake did the trick!! At the end of the meet he had won medals in three of the six events!

Another time I was working with a college basketball player. After a game I told him “You didn’t look like you were having fun out there.” Although he was a very gifted player, he realized that he wasn’t playing to the full extent of his talents.  After he set his mind to also having more fun it made a real difference in his game.  He finished his college career as a NCAA D2 second-team All-American.

So in your own games and practices, ask yourself if you are having fun. IT JUST MIGHT MAKE A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE.