How to Play More Physically in Sports

Many sports thrive on physicality.

Pushing your opponent around, backing down your defender, pressuring the ball, contesting a tackle…these are all situations in games where being physical gives you an advantage.

But what happens if you struggle to be physical? 

You avoid contact and play it safe.

It’s something I’ve seen a lot in athletes I’ve worked with in one-on-one mental performance coaching.

Most athletes I help to play more physically are soccer players, basketball players, and hockey players.

Of course there are other sports that require you to be physical and I’ve worked with a variety of different athletes on this topic. But those three sports stand out in my mind as the most common.

No matter what sport you play, however, if you are not playing as physically as you need to be, something needs to be done.

You need to play more physically!

Easier said than done, I know.

To help you be more physical when you play, I’m going to walk you through a similar approach I take when working with athletes and one I’ve seen success with.

And it all begins with us identifying the true reason you aren’t playing physical.

What’s Keeping You From Being Physical When You Play

Have you stopped and asked yourself why you aren’t playing as physically as you’d like?

This question can be maddening.

Why aren’t you contesting those tackles and driving to the hoop with aggression? What’s keeping you from going after that loose ball or loose puck, even if it means you’ll go head to head up against an opponent…maybe even a bigger opponent?

Through talking with many athletes who’ve thought deeply about this very same question, there seem to be two major reasons you hold yourself back and aren’t as physical as you’d like: fear and anxiety.

Fear and Avoiding Contact

Would you say you’re afraid of contact?


Especially if you’re not playing physically because you’re scared of getting hurt.

This is a big reason I’ve seen athletes not playing aggressive or playing through contact.

And this is a very real fear.

But there are other forms of fear, often stronger than the fear of getting injured, that can cause you to avoid contact.

Including the fear of making mistakes and the fear of getting yelled at and or benched.

These fears fuel timidness

They keep you from playing aggressively and going full throttle into contact.

Not because you’re scared of getting hurt (even though that may be a contributing factor). 

But mainly because you don’t want to lose. You don’t want to make a mistake. And you especially don’t want to get yelled at or benched.

You are playing to avoid mistakes instead of playing to win.

You are playing not to get pulled from the game, instead of playing to make the most of the very minute and moment you are in the game right now.

It is this very fear of making mistakes and getting benched that I’ve seen to be the main cause of athletes holding themselves back and not playing as physically as they’d like.

Or as others would like them to.

Anxiety Driven by Fear

When you play afraid, anxiety is quick to follow.

Sports performance anxiety refers to intense worries about the outcome. Thoughts of what may or may not happen during the game.

When you are afraid of contact because you don’t want to get hurt, make a mistake, get yelled at, benched, or anything else, what will be your mind’s natural response to this fear?

To worry.

This is where you find yourself worrying about what might happen because you are trying to control the future since you’re so afraid of the negative outcome you don’t want to have happen.

And when you worry, you become tense.

You can even become paralyzed by your racing mind.

If you’re tense, stiff, and rigid, you aren’t playing freely. This feeds on the hesitation you already feel and as a result, you find yourself avoiding contact all together.

A soccer player I worked with experienced this first hand.

When he and I began working together, he was avoiding contact on both offense and defense. 

He wouldn’t go for tackles and on offense, passing the ball quickly as though he was playing hot potato.

He didn’t want to risk going against someone 1v1. Especially if they were bigger.

On the first call I had with his parents before our work began, they expressed how confusing it was to see him play so timidly. During practice and on his own, there is nothing timid about his game.

They were at a loss…why couldn’t he play as aggressively as they knew he could??

As he and I worked together, he became much more aggressive. To the point where now, he goes for tackles with aggressiveness and has no problem going up against even bigger opponents 1v1.

There were many approaches we took to managing his fear and the anxiety that followed. Part of which you will learn in the next section.

But there was another underlying cause of his timid play and lack of physicality that we first needed to uncover…the fact that he was trying to be too perfect.

Trying Too Hard to Play Perfectly

In addition to the fear of getting hurt, feeling like you need to play perfectly is another reason I see athletes hesitate and not play as physically as they’d like.

It is this feeling of, I have to play perfectly, that leads to fear and fuels anxiety.

Yes, the soccer player had a fear of getting injured. But more than that, he had a fear of getting yelled at, benched, and embarrassing himself.

This all came from and fed into the idea that he had to play perfectly.

Now, if he knew he needed to play perfectly, and he saw a situation where he had a chance of losing the ball or not winning the tackle, what do you think he naturally did?

He avoided!

That’s how this idea of needing to play perfectly leads to a lack of physicality when you play.

When you avoid, it feels safe. Going for the tackle, going head to head against someone when there’s the chance of contact, these are unsafe situations…at least that’s how the mind perceives them in that split second.

In truth, avoiding is much more unsafe in terms of you being disappointed in yourself and underperforming.

If you just go for the contact, yeah you may lose the ball, not win the puck, or anything else, but at least you went for it!

If you feel like you need to be perfect, though, you won’t go for it. You will continue to play it safe and avoid situations during games that open you up to the potential of failing.

And when you play it safe, you play less physically.

So it’s time to let go of the need to play perfectly and allow yourself to become the physical player you want to be.

Strategy to Be a More Physical Player

The strategy I have outlined below is taken from ideas and tools I’ve seen work for athletes in one-on-one coaching and condensed so you can easily apply it to your game.

But just like anything, changing the habit of not playing physically takes time. Be patient with yourself and stick with it.

If you do, you will be amazed at the player you can become.

Tip #1: Alter Your Definition of Success

What determines if you’ve played well?

Is it coach giving you a pat on the back? Your team winning? Scoring a goal, getting a hit, scoring a lot of points??

When you get in the car or bus after a game and head home, how do you know whether or not you can feel good about your performance?

I’ve gotten many different answers to this question before. But an overarching theme is that athletes who struggle with fear, anxiety, and the need to play perfectly (all leading to a lack of physical play) base their performances more on the outcome.

If they didn’t make any mistakes or if they scored a lot of points, got an assist or so on, then it was a good game.

Seems pretty reasonable, don’t you think?

Kind of.

While outcomes and stats are great ways to determine whether an athlete played well or not, and they are needed for coaches and others to do so, it can be dangerous for you to personally judge your performance based on outcomes.

Take the soccer player I mentioned earlier as an example. Before he and I worked together, he judged himself based on how many mistakes he made.

While that may seem like a good thing to do, since no player wants to make mistakes, it actually caused him to become afraid of mistakes and feel like he needed to play perfectly.

Which we know lead to him not playing physically.

So what should you base your good vs bad games on if not the outcome?

The process of your game. And more specifically, effort.

How much effort did you give during the game?

I love this definition of success so much because if you’re avoiding contact and not playing physically, you can’t be giving full effort. The two do not mix.

As soon as you avoid, your effort level goes down. You aren’t going into tackles at 100%. You aren’t playing as aggressive of defense as you need to be. You are hesitating when it comes to driving to the basket.

You aren’t playing with full effort.

On the other hand, if you focus on full effort, you can’t help but play more physically.

Now, what do you think will happen to the outcome of your game if you focus on giving more effort? Funny enough, the outcome will more likely than not be what you want, without having the unnecessary addition of fear.

As soon as the soccer player began focusing on giving full effort instead of not making any mistakes, his game completely changed.

He began getting more playing time, positive feedback from his coach, and he even started scoring more goals.

All because he shifted his focus off trying to play perfectly and instead turned his attention onto giving full effort each and every game.

Tip #2: Use Visualization

Visualization is also known as mental rehearsal. It involves imagining yourself performing specific skills.

The reason it works so well with helping you play more physically is because to play more physically, you need to build trust in yourself in those moments.

Especially if the main driving force behind not playing physically is fear of making a mistake.

When you hold yourself back due to fear, this highlights a lack of trust you have in yourself and your game.

A lack of trust that can be improved through the use of visualization.

I used this technique with a basketball player who was struggling to drive to the basket.

He had the skill, but lacked the belief. As a result, he held himself back and avoided contact out of fear.

What I had him do was spend about five minutes each day visualizing himself driving to the basket. He would see himself taking on bigger defenders and finishing through contact.

After a while of doing this (combined with working on it more and more in practice), he began driving to the basket more in games.

He continued to visualize, and is now having much more success driving to the basket and finishing through contact.

But the biggest thing for me isn’t the fact that he’s getting more baskets, though I am very happy for him about that. The biggest thing for me is that he’s actually driving to the basket in the first place.

He is no longer holding himself back and avoiding contact due to fear.

For yourself, take the situation in which you want to be more physical and visualize yourself succeeding in that situation every day.

Tip #3: See Your Progress

Improvement is tricky. We unfortunately do not usually go from not doing something to doing it just the way we want to overnight.

Or even in a week. Or sometimes a month.

Progress takes time.

What can kill progress quicker than anything else is feeling like you aren’t where you want to be yet and you fail to see the improvement you’re making.

Which is why it’s crucial that, as you begin working on playing more physically, you see the progress you are making. No matter how small or insignificant it may seem to you.

When you don’t see your progress, you continually affirm that you’re not playing as physically as you want. This inhibits confidence from growing. And confidence is what you need to keep playing more and more physically.

You need to have trust in your skills to overcome the fear of mistakes, but you also need to have trust in yourself to play through contact.

Both types of trust are weakened when you fail to see your progress.

An exercise I have the athletes I work with go through is a simple daily/weekly wins tracker.

What they do is write down the wins they had for each day, or at the end of each week.

This simple exercise is a great way to build the habit of seeing the progress you are making along the way.

Tip #4: Play Smart

As we’ve gone through this article together, working to help you play more physically, it may seem like I’m promoting aggressive play and always looking for contact.

The truth is, I only want you to be physical when you need to be. For me as a mental performance coach, I just want to be sure you are not avoiding contact out of fear.

No matter what you’re afraid of. 

Because that only leads to underperforming and continued feelings of frustration. Knowing you are the one holding yourself back from playing your best.

But playing overly physical is not always necessary. And in some cases, it may prove more valuable for you to avoid contact…if it’s done so in a strategic way and not in a fearful way.

What I mean by a strategic way is playing smart instead of always using brute force.

This can be incredibly complimentary to being physical, once you get comfortable using both.

A soccer player I worked with who struggled with playing through contact used this very approach to not only improve his game, but help himself play more physically when the time was right.

What we talked about was using his positioning and skill moves at times to beat his opponent in a 1v1 instead of relying on contact. Same thing for winning a tackle. We talked a lot about focusing on the right angle to give himself an advantage.

Playing smart means using your mind to your advantage, when so often than not our minds can be working against us…especially if we’re playing with fear.

So ask yourself, “Can I play smarter at times instead of trying to be more physical?”

Final Thoughts

Sports are physical. But what happens when you’re afraid to play physically and you avoid contact?

Unfortunately, you will underperform. Not to mention how angry you’ll get with yourself, knowing you keep holding yourself back due to fear.

I’ve worked with many athletes on helping them play more physically and play through contact. And the four tips outlined above are tips that I have seen have success time and time again.

Apply the four tips, stick with it, and you’ll be on your way to becoming an athlete who thrives on the physical aspect of the game, instead of one who runs from it.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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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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