Mental Game Challenges in Sports

It's natural to want to play perfectly as an athlete. But this desire to be perfect may be holding you back. Learn how you can reframe the high expectations you have in sports.

Mental game challenges, also known as mental blocks, are ways of thinking that lower your performance.

They cause you to doubt yourself, play tense and timidly, destroy your focus, and overall keep you from playing up to your potential during games.

Which is why it’s crucial for you to work on overcoming these mental blocks. To do so, you first need to understand what the main mental game challenges are.

And so, in this article, I’m going to cover the main mental game challenges athletes face, along with a tip you can use for each one to help manage and overcome the mental block.

Main Mental Game Challenges Athletes Face

Each one of these mental blocks or challenges can be present on its own, or combined with any of the other blocks.

The goal of this section is to help you gain a better understanding of each mental game challenge, so you are better equipped to recognize it within yourself.

That way, depending on which mental block you’re dealing with, you can choose the right strategy to manage it.

Fear of Failure

The fear of failure in sports involves being afraid of making a mistake. Specifically, you’re afraid of what will happen if you do make a mistake.

This is an important distinction, since it may not make sense why you’re afraid of missing a shot or striking out. You try to tell yourself it’s not that big of a deal and it happens to everyone.

But the actual act of missing the shot or striking out isn’t the real fear. It’s the consequences.

Let’s think about missing a shot. What are the consequences of that missed shot? Maybe your teammates get mad at you for not passing. Maybe you think the fans will think you’re a bad player. Or maybe you think coach may take you out of the game and you’ll lose minutes.

With the strike out example, you may actually be afraid of getting lowered in the lineup, letting your team down if there are runners on base, or having your batting average drop.

It is the consequence of the failure or mistake that truly drives the fear of failure. And when you play with fear, you may hold yourself back since your focus is on not wanting to make a mistake.

Sports Performance Anxiety

Anxiety in sports is characterized by extreme worries. Like the fear of failure, you think about what may happen in the future.

If, for instance, you don’t want to make a mistake, you may spend time before and during the game worrying about how the game will go.

Performance anxiety can even be felt the day or days leading up to the game.

This anxiety is caused by outcome-oriented thinking: thinking too much about the future.

The outcomes you think about may include the score, whether or not you’ll ace the serve, what your stats will look like, what your coaches or teammates will think, and so on.

There are a few different reasons performance anxiety negatively impacts your play.

One will be the actual physical symptoms caused by the worry. This includes shaky hands and legs, a rapid heart beat, and maybe some dizziness. These physical sensations can lower your performance.

Another way anxiety holds you back is because the thoughts you have about the outcome distract you and keep your attention away from the present moment.

And lastly, when you’re worried about what’s going to happen, it’s natural to have tension. And playing tense is never a good recipé for peak performance.

Losing Composure

When you lose composure during a game, this typically happens following a mistake. But it can also be seen after a bad call, or if things are generally not going your way.

Losing your composure means getting too upset, not being able to control your frustration. If you lose your composure, you are losing your cool.

Let’s take a look at the main time losing your composure is seen: following a mistake.

After you make a mistake, it’s easy to feel upset. But feeling upset is one thing; losing your composure is a completely different story.

When you lose your composure, you may show it externally or keep all the anger bottled up. But one thing is for certain…the frustration you feel makes it difficult to move on and play with confidence.


Perfectionism in sports involves the need to be and appear perfect.

While your goal should always be to compete at the highest level you can, demanding perfection from yourself is only setting you up for failure.

When you’re a perfectionist, funny enough, you never allow yourself to feel perfect. You’re always scrutinizing your game and looking for any small mistake you need to improve.

However, with perfectionism, improvement isn’t a positive. It’s a way of signaling you weren’t perfect that day, which can lead to feelings of frustration and low confidence.

The expectation that you need to play perfectly is a major cause of losing your composure. Since you want to be perfect, the first sign of a mistake can mean you weren’t perfect, and be very difficult to move on from.

Also, when you go into a game with perfection as your goal, this can lead to you trying to avoid mistakes more than playing to win. This can hold you back and actually increase your chances of making mistakes.

Poor Focus

When you have poor focus as an athlete, you are easily distracted and it’s difficult for you to refocus.

When you lose focus during a game, you haven’t really lost your focus at all. Your focus is still there…it just so happens to be on the wrong thing.

For example, you may be getting ready to putt when you find yourself thinking about the score and how much you need to sink this putt.

That’s not the kind of focus you need at that moment, nor the type of focus that will give you the best chance of sinking the putt.

Poor focus doesn’t just involve focusing too much on the outcome. It can also involve not being able to block out crowd noise, or thinking too much about your mechanics while playing.

Focusing on the task at hand and giving it your full attention is a key element to athletic success. Something that’s extremely difficult when you have a difficult time controlling your focus.


Self-doubt happens when you don’t believe in yourself and you don’t trust in your skills. It is the opposite of playing with high levels of confidence.

With confidence, I like to break it down into two different categories: confidence in understanding and confidence in execution.

Confidence in understanding means you understand you have high level skills. If you and I were talking, you’d be able to tell me, with confidence, that you know you have a good shot or a good swing, for example.

Confidence in execution involves the trust you have to execute your skills during games. So while you may understand on a logical level that you are skilled, you may not trust in your ability to successfully apply those skills during games.

Self-doubt happens in the same way. You can doubt whether or not you have the skills necessary to succeed, and you can also doubt yourself when it comes to executing those skills during games.

Negative Self-Talk

Negative self-talk is very similar to self-doubt, because when you are doubting yourself, you will be having negative self-talk.

Self-talk involves the way you speak to yourself and the way you think. It can either be direct or indirect.

  • Direct self-talk includes the way you speak to yourself about yourself.
  • Indirect self-talk includes the thoughts you have about the environment and things around you.

Both direct and indirect self-talk will have an impact on your game. When they’re negative, the impact will be one that hurts your performance.

The reason negative self-talk is considered a mental game challenge is because the way you think impacts how you feel. So, if you are thinking negative thoughts, your feelings will mirror that.

For instance, if you are beating yourself up over a mistake, your confidence will drop and you won’t be in a good emotional state to play your best moving forward.

Social Approval

Social approval is characterized by relying too much on the opinions and judgments of others.

The two biggest groups of people I see athletes focus on with social approval are parents and coaches. Both are very natural for you to worry about what they think of you.

Of course you want your parents to think you’re good. And your coach is the one who gives you playing time.

But what happens when you worry too much about what they think?

This is where a lot of fear and anxiety can form.

Social approval holds you back because you may play it safe out of fear of losing their approval. You may also play with confidence that goes up and down, since how confident you feel is based on how much you think other people think you’re a good player.

Managing & Overcoming Mental Blocks

Once you can recognize a mental game challenge is present and negatively impacting your game, you want to take steps to manage the block.

Overcoming mental game challenges involves working to build more positive mental skills that counteract the effects of the block.

With each of the tips I am about to go over, you can begin working to overcome any mental game challenge you’re dealing with.

But remember, just as with any skill, mental skills take time, effort, and repetition to build.

Overcoming Fear of Failure

When you are dealing with fear of failure, we need to think about what kinds of images you’re creating in your mind. Even if you’re thinking about not wanting to mess up, you’re still thinking about messing up.

This means the image you hold in your mind is one of you failing.

Not exactly the best thing to be imagining when you play.

A tool you can use to change the image in your mind is visualization. Your goal is to focus more on succeeding than on failing. Since, with the fear of failure, it’s easy to spend most of the time thinking about not wanting to fail.

It leads to you playing not to fail instead of playing to win. You want to play to win. And to do so, you need to imagine yourself succeeding.

Visualization is where you create a scene in your mind of you performing well. You can do this right before the game starts, or even during the game. With baseball and softball players, for example, I always recommend using visualization before at bats.

Here’s a video that goes into more detail on how to use visualization as an athlete.

Managing Performance Anxiety

Playing with anxiety causes you to play tight. To help, the main goal needs to be calming and relaxing your mind.

Think about when you’re anxious…would you say your mind is clear? Or is it cloudy and full of uncontrollable racing thoughts?

To reduce your anxiety, you need to calm your mind. A great tool to use is breath work. By taking deep breaths you help calm yourself down, clearing your mind, along with reducing the physical symptoms of your anxiety.

A fantastic breath work exercise you can use is count breathing. Breathe in for a certain count and out for a certain count. It can be in for five, out for five. In for four, out for eight, or anything like that.

The point is to take deep breaths, along with focusing on the numbers. This calms you down, while simultaneously taking your attention off whatever it is you’re anxious about.

Keeping Your Composure

If you struggle with keeping your composure after mistakes and you routinely get upset, you need a strategy to let go of your frustration.

It’s not realistic to try and not get mad at all. Truth be told, the frustration you feel is natural. Your goal is to play well, not to mess up. So it’s easy to get mad at yourself if you do mess up.

But you must recognize that getting mad at yourself is only hurting you moving forward. Your job is to realize you’re upset, then work to reduce the anger you feel.

A tool you can use to help is a thought-stopping phrase. This is a statement you create, memorize, and then use in the moment when you’re frustrated.

A thought-stopping phrase has three key components: letting go of the mistake, recentering on the present moment, and refocusing.

An example is: let it go, take a breath, focus on the next play.

Keep your thought-stopping phrase simple and easy to remember.

Here’s a video that goes into more detail on how to manage mistakes better during games.

Letting Go of Perfectionism

The need to play perfectly will only keep you from playing your best.

To play at your highest level, you need to play freely – accepting the possibility of mistakes along the way.

When you are playing with perfectionism, we know that your mind is focused on the outcome. Since it’s the outcome that determines whether or not you were perfect.

To begin working on letting go of perfectionism, you want to shift your attention. Take it off the outcome and place it onto the process.

An exercise you can do to get yourself thinking more about the process is reverse engineering the outcome you want.

Let’s say you’re a basketball player and your idea of perfection is scoring fifteen points in a game.

You begin with the idea of scoring fifteen points, then back track, thinking about everything that goes into you scoring those fifteen points. Think about what you need to do during the game, along with what you need to do during practice to make you a better shooter.

Once you have your process written out, that’s what you must focus on during practices and especially during games.

Improving Focus

To improve focus, you must ask yourself, what do I need to be focused on? Going off what we just talked about with perfectionism, what you need to be focused on is the process.

During a game, when you say that you have poor focus, it’s because you are focusing on something not part of the process. Whether that be a mistake you just made, what someone else is thinking of you, or what will happen at the end of this play.

To help, you must work on keeping your attention centered in the present moment and on the process. To do so, you can set something known as performance objectives for yourself.

Performance objectives are targets or cues that you set that are part of the process and 100% within your control.

Here’s a video that goes into more detail on setting performance objectives for practice and games.

Managing Self-Doubt

To overcome self-doubt, you must work on building confidence.

Confidence relies heavily on the memory of success. When you know you can do something well, because you’ve seen yourself do it well before, you’re much more likely to trust you can do it again.

That’s the idea behind the visualization I described when discussing overcoming fear of failure. The more you visualize yourself playing well, the more trust you’ll have and less you’ll be afraid of failing.

Another tip you can use to build confidence, and as a result overcome your doubt, is spending time after each practice and game reviewing what you did well.

Instead of immediately thinking about what you need to work on, you can give yourself a few minutes to think about some positives of your performance.

This gives you the opportunity each day to see yourself as successful. And this reflection adds to the memory of success that’s crucial to building your confidence.

Reframing Negative Self-Talk

The goal with negative self-talk is to substitute the negative for more positive and productive thoughts. There are two aspects of doing this.

One is in the moment, while the other involves a long-term approach.

In the moment, you want to look out for any negative thoughts. If you notice yourself thinking negatively, substitute that thought with a more positive and productive thought.

This in-the-moment substitution becomes much easier once you combine it with the long-term approach.

The long-term approach is where you work on changing your natural thought patterns.

We all have patterns of thinking that become natural and are habits. If your natural thought patterns are more negative, then it will be easier to have negative thoughts while competing.

To change your natural thought patterns, what you want to do is create a list of positive and productive thoughts you’d like to have and begin repeating them to yourself every day.

Reducing Social Approval

Since social approval is all about needing the approval from others that you’re a good player, what we’re going to focus on to reduce this need is giving yourself that approval.

The general tip for this is to keep your focus on yourself. Not in a selfish way, but in a way that works to increase the confidence you have in yourself as a player.

An actionable way you can do so is by writing out a list of all the reasons you have to feel confident and all the reasons why you’re a good player.

Then, you want to review that list every day.

This, combined with the exercise I went over for managing self-doubt (where you reflect on the positives each day) is a great way to reduce social approval, by making sure you are giving yourself the approval you need.

Final Thoughts

Mental game challenges, also known as mental blocks, are patterns of thinking that hold you back as an athlete.

They distract you, cause you to play tight and timidly, and lead you to doubt your abilities as a player.

The good news is, through work, any mental block you’re dealing with can be worked through. The key to remember is, mental game challenges are overcome by focusing on building more positive mental skills.

If you’re currently struggling with any of the mental blocks I outlined, apply the tip I gave for that challenge and get to work on overcoming it.

Now, if you’re interested in a more personalized approach to managing your mental game challenges, then use the form below to learn more about one-on-one mental performance coaching.

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.

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.

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