Athlete Mental Toughness Articles

How to Play Against an Intimidating Opponent

Eli Straw
How to Play Against an Intimidating Opponent

As an athlete, you must learn how to play against an aggressive and intimidating opponent.

Saying that, I know how difficult this is to do, and how frustrating it is to find yourself continuously feeling intimidated by your competition.

Every athlete wants to feel like the top dog, afraid of nothing, ready to attack and take what’s theirs. Only, that mindset vanishes, and darkness clouds the mind as fear and panic set in. That is the fate of all who cannot cope with an intimidating competitor.

The good news is…you’ve had enough.

You have reached a point where you’re fed up with feeling intimidated. You’re tired of feeling fearful as you begin a game. You’re sick of watching as your hard work fails to pay off due to insecurities.

It’s now time to make a change! And that’s precisely what you’re going to learn how to do in this article.

What is an Intimidating Opponent?

What comes to mind when you think of an intimidating competitor?

I was working with a professional squash player who was having difficulty managing aggressive competitors who made her feel intimidated. For her, this type of competitor looked like someone who was very physical.

They went out of their way to make contact with her (not something necessary in squash). They argued with the ref loudly. They celebrated in an overemphasized way.

For her, this is the epitome of an intimidating opponent; they are aggressive.

For you, this may be similar to what intimidates you. Or maybe, it’s the complete opposite.

Perhaps you are intimidated the most by quiet players who seem unbothered no matter what happens during the game or match. Their silence terrifies you. It causes you to think they are overly confident and there’s no way you can beat them.

No matter what the archetype is that you see as an intimidating player, one consistent truth will be present: an intimidating opponent causes you to feel insecure, doubt yourself, lose focus, and keeps you from playing your game.

Does this mean that an intimidating or aggressive opponent has control over you? No…but for the present, you have given them control. It is your reaction that’s handed over the remote that determines your focus and emotional state.

Your aim is to retake control.

First, we need to examine what it is that causes you to feel intimidated and play poorly when facing an aggressive and intimidating opponent.

No matter what the archetype is that you see as an intimidating player, one consistent truth will be present: an intimidating opponent causes you to feel insecure, doubt yourself, lose focus, and keeps you from playing your game.

How an Intimidating Opponent Causes You to Play Poorly

What is it about these dreaded players that leads you to play in such an irritating fashion? After all, it’s not just that you get intimidated that’s the problem. If you felt that way, but went on to play well, I doubt there would be too many concerns.

The challenging and frustrating part is that when you feel intimidated, your level of play drops drastically.

Why is this?

It has to do with the way your mind responds to such an opponent.

I have a strong belief that each of us is responsible for how we feel, the way we think, and how we act. It’s something I harp on with the athletes I work with. And what I tell them is that this is a beautiful truth.

If we weren’t responsible for how we feel, how we think, and how we behave, then what hope do we have to change any one of the three? Very little hope…if any at all! By accepting responsibility, you claim power of control.

So, if you hold the responsibility, then why is it that an opponent can cause you to feel intimidated and ultimately play poorly?

Because you are allowing them to!

I know it’s not a fun or attractive thing to accept, but once you accept this, you set yourself up for growth. Without such acceptance, there will never be any hope of you managing intimidating opponents in a healthy way.

As we dig deeper, there are certain characteristics and mental states we adopt whenever facing intimidating opponents. It’s these which are truly to blame. In essence, your reaction to an intimidating opponent is what causes you to feel intimidated, not the opponent themselves.

From talking with the athletes I’ve worked with, there seem to be six main states or mental characteristics that lead to you feeling intimidated and playing poorly as a result of facing such an opponent:

  • Fear: this may be the fear of getting injured or the fear of embarrassing yourself by losing. But no matter its cause, fear while your playing can easily cause your performance level to drop significantly.
  • Poor Focus: when you face an intimidating opponent, chances are you focus on them more than you do normal opponents. This focus takes you out of the present moment, keeps you from focusing on yourself and your responsibilities, and leads to more fear, anxiety, and low confidence.
  • Low Confidence: one of the key attributes of an intimidating opponent is that they appear to be much more confident than you are. This perception can lead to you doubting yourself and questioning your skills.
  • Anxiety: once again, this can surround worries about getting injured, worries about what’s going to happen in the game or match, and even worries about once again feeling intimidated by this opponent and playing badly as you have done in the past.
  • Anger: anger is typically a secondary emotion. Though, when facing an intimidating opponent, I think it’s a good emotion to include. You may get angry at the opponent, which once again, distracts you. But you may also get angry at yourself for how you’re reacting to the player and for your inability to perform as you typically do.
  • Memory: when you have played poorly and gotten intimidated by this opponent in the past, or someone similar (who acts the same way), this memory will work against you. You associate playing poorly with facing this type of player, which likely turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to you once again performing poorly and strengthening that connection.
If we weren’t responsible for how we feel, how we think, and how we behave, then what hope do we have to change any one of the three? Very little hope…if any at all! By accepting responsibility, you claim power of control.

Your Strategy to Manage an Intimidating Opponent

Knowing the reason an intimidating opponent distracts you and causes you to play poorly is great…only if it’s followed by action taken on your part to decrease the impact they have on you and your game.

But remember, it’s not the intimidating opponent that’s to blame, rather, it’s your reaction that’s to blame. Therefore, our aim is to alter your reaction to these types of players and help you control your mindset and emotions in the moment.

To do so, there are three strategies, or techniques, you can use.

These have been shown through practical use to help athletes cope with intimidating players, and actually work to change how they react and play in such situations.

Control Your Body Language

Right away you are going to learn a strategy you can use to significantly alter how you feel in the moment.

I want you to think about a situation where you feel intimidated. The opponent may be aggressive, and you know this game or match is not about to go how you want it to at all. What is your body language like in that situation?

Is your head hanging low? Do you tend to look down a lot? Are your shoulders slouching? Are you making yourself small-mimicking the feelings of inferiority you’re experiencing on the inside?

What about if you’re angry? Do you move your body out of control and make motions that clearly indicate to yourself, and everyone else, that you’re upset?

What you want to do is take control of this body language.

When you face an intimidating opponent, all of the above body langauge is natural and easy to adopt. Especially if you feel insecure. But it's not helpful. Instead, I want you to imagine how you would hold your body if you felt completely and utterly confident in that situation?

You know you’re the best. You know you’re going to play well no matter who you face. How would you hold your body?

Got that picture in your mind? Good. Now, all you have to do is practice that kind of body language whenever you’re playing (especially when you’re facing an intimidating opponent).

Through changing your physical stature you will influence your emotions. It’s one of the quickest and easiest ways you can do so.

Well, easy in how effective it is. Not so easy in execution. Don’t expect too much from yourself right away. Be patient! It’s going to feel uncomfortable when you begin, but just by having that intent in your mind, you are reminding yourself to feel more confident.

Through changing your physical stature you will influence your emotions. It’s one of the quickest and easiest ways you can do so.

Demand it With Your Words

Naturally, when I have players who are struggling with playing against intimidating and aggressive opponents, they continually tell me how they can’t play well against them and how much there confidence drops, how distracted they are, and how frustrated they become.

This is understandable, mainly since we are seeking to uncover and work through the problem. However, I am quick to point out how what they’re saying is engraining in their minds that that’s the type of player they are.

In the past, yes, they got intimidated. But by continually saying how they can never play well against that type of opponent and always lose their focus, they are demanding that that must be true again in the future.

So for yourself, how do you think about your ability to play against intimidating opponents?

Do you see yourself as someone who struggles and always feels intimidated?

Do you demand that to be so with the words you use?

That has to change!

Your past and present were determined by past thoughts. Your future is determined by your present thoughts.

I know it can feel like a lie to say that you can play well against aggressive opponents and that they don’t bother you, but by saying so, you are demanding that that must be true in the future.

The change won’t happen overnight, but through shifting the way you speak to yourself in relation to intimidating opponents, you are working to alter your self-image.

This will increase the confidence and belief you have to face them just as you do any other opponent…and show them the type of player you really are!

Use Visualization to Alter Your Self-Image

The previous tool showed you how to begin changing how you speak to yourself, which will work to alter your self-image. What you want to do now is use an additional tool that will make the process even more effective.

Visualization is the act of imagining a scene in your mind.

For you, it’s going to involve mentally rehearsing yourself performing. Specifically, imagining yourself performing against an intimidating and aggressive competitor.

Now, there are two principals of visualization you must keep in mind: detail and emotion.

Your job is to go into as much detail as you can to be sure the scene is made as real as possible to your mind.

But before you do that, you must get yourself into the emotional state you want to be in when you perform against an intimidating player. This will pretty much be the exact oppositie of how you currently feel.

Take a moment and imagine how you want to feel when you compete against someone like this. To help, think about the emotional state you’re in when you play your best. That’s the state kept from you due to the fear and intimidation you feel.

Here’s what this practice will look like when put together:

  1.) Get yourself into a quiet place where you’re free from distractions. 

  2.) Close your eyes and take ten deep breaths to calm down.

  3.) Feel like you want to feel when you play your best. Make it intense and feel it completely.

  4.) Hold onto that feeling, and visualize yourself performing against an intimidating competitor.

Something that you can begin doing once you get used to how you want to feel, is practice switching from intimidated to that feeling.

This is done by taking the same approach as listed above, except before you get into that optimal state, you want to imagine yourself playing against an intimidating opponent and feel how you normally do. Then, practice switching that for how you want to feel.

Doing this works to associate that situation with a new feeling, rather than the old feelings of insecurity, fear, and intimidation.

Final Thoughts

Frustrating is the best way to describe finding yourself feeling intimidated when playing an intimidating or aggressive opponent.

What’s worse, a lot of times you know you are more skilled then the opposition. Yet, due to your emotional and mental reaction, you play timidly, distracted, full of fear, and overrall, simply below your potential.

As an athlete, you’re going to face players and teams who seek to intimidate you. Your job is to learn how to manage them. It begins by realizing it’s not the opponent that’s to blame, but your reaction.

Altering your reaction, controlling how you respond mentally and emotionally, is the key to playing against an indimidating opponent.

There are three strategies you can use to do so: control your body language, pay attention to your self-talk, and use visualization to change your self-image.

These three, used consistently, will help you, as an athlete, manage an aggressive and intimidating opponent. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

Contact Success Starts Within Today

Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

Contact Us
Thank you! Your message has been sent!
Oops! Something went wrong while trying to send your message.
Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

eli's story

Mental Training Courses

Learn more about our two main mental training courses for athletes: Mental Training Advantage and The Mentally Tough Kid.

The Mentally Tough Kid course will teach your young athlete tools & techniques to increase self-confidence, improve focus, manage mistakes, increase motivation, and build mental toughness.

Learn More

In Mental Training Advantage, you will learn tools & techniques to increase self-confidence, improve focus, manage expectations & pressure, increase motivation, and build mental toughness. It's time to take control of your mindset and unlock your full athletic potential!

Learn More

Master Your Mental Game With One-On-One Coaching

Get one-on-one mental performance coaching to help break through mental barriers and become the athlete you're meant to be!