To understand an athlete’s winning mentality, I interviewed footballer Jobi McAnuff. McAnuff retired this month after playing for Wimbledon, Crystal Palace, Watford, Reading, the Jamaican Football Federation, and Leyton Orient — a team he also managed in 2021. I also interviewed Dr. Jake Jones, a sports psychologist here in Colorado. I wanted to better understand how teams, coaches, parents, and significant others can help athletes attain a winning mentality both from an athlete’s perspective and from a psychological perspective.
I met McAnuff when he played for Jamaica at the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2015. Aside from being one of the coolest jobs I had in sport, McAnuff gleaned insight about life as a player, and he was influential in my decision to pursue a career in sport that supported athletes.
McAnuff is one of the most level headed people I have ever met. His measured responses both on and off the pitch are eternally appropriate and relevant to whatever situation arises. For this reason, I felt like his expertise would fare well for this article.
In speaking with McAnuff about an athlete’s mindset, we established that the key components of a winning mentality include:
- Physical Confidence
- Strong Decision Making Skills
- Emotional Regulation
- Outside Support
- Limit Off the Pitch Influence
- Healthy Motivators
Physical confidence is developed by repeatedly accomplishing small goals related to sport that lead to bigger goals (both literally and figuratively). Let’s use eight year-old McAnuff as an example. McAnuff is working to improve a pass using his non-dominant foot. Every day at training, he practices this pass over and over until he consistently gets the ball to where he wants it to go. As he realizes he has the skill set to accomplish this difficult pass, his coach adds new footwork before the pass. Physical confidence in one’s sport is something athletes build over time. Sure, there are plenty of athletes with raw talent, but many lack technical skills and discipline. By showing a player what dedication and discipline can achieve, a player becomes confident in their ability to consistently achieve a skill and continue to develop and build their skills from there. According to Dr. Jones, the best way to instill confidence in sport is to first instill confidence in physical performance. Age-wise, confidence begins to develop around the ages of 8-10. The same goes for confidence in decision making.
Strong decision making skills, like physical performance, develop over time. When a player consistently makes decisions that yield positive outcomes, the player becomes more confident in their decision making abilities. However, consistency is not the only factor. While it is important for an athlete to recognize that his or her own decisions have power and positive influence, it is equally important for players to feel seen, recognized, and acknowledged to build confidence — especially by people players consider to be experts, leaders, or role models. McAnuff noted it was helpful for his development as a player when a coach said “Good job!” to him. He felt that the words and actions of his coaches, managers, and teammates helped to positively reinforce his confidence in his skills. This does not mean coaches should unnecessarily fawn over an athlete, but rather give credit where credit is due.
Decision making skills are also heavily influenced by an athlete’s ability to tap into his or her parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is what instigates a human’s fight, flight, or freeze reaction. The parasympathetic nervous system enacts the rest and digest response. This does not mean players will lay down on the field in legs up the wall pose for a respite, but rather impacts their decision making. If we think about it, there are many situations in which athletes may find themselves wanting to switch to survival mode.
In football, the right wing may have three defenders on him. In basketball, a point guard who stands at 5’10” and weighs in at 175lbs is blocked by a 7’4” 250lb forward. In swimming, a college athlete on scholarship sees herself losing her 15 meter lead, along with it her scholarship. These are all scenarios where the brain may tell the body there is an imminent threat. Oftentimes when the brain is functioning from a sympathetic response, the brain will make decisions to survive rather than win. Having seen McAnuff play against numerous international teams, I can say he does not panic. If he sees an attack coming, he also sees other options and will make a decision that’s in the best interest of winning. Even if his body were to feel threatened and his heart rate elevated, McAnuff’s brain is able to tell his body, “This is a game.”
The ability to make positive decisions is not just created through consistency and a strong mind-body connection, but through an athlete’s ability to regulate his or her emotions. Dr. Jones recommends athletes as young as eight start to learn emotional management through the teachings of their parents, coaches, role models, etc. Dr. Jones recommended the following actions to strengthen emotional management:
- Validate Feelings – Validate an athlete’s feelings; tell them whatever they feel is OK.
- Label the Emotion- Even as adults it can be difficult to understand exactly how we feel. Fear, anger, and sadness are often misinterpreted for one another and many people struggle to understand the difference between a little bit of nervous energy and signs of high anxiety. By helping young athletes understand how they feel, it is easier to sit through the emotion, accept it, and move forward.
- Take Deep Breaths – Inhaling and exhaling through one’s nose connects to the parasympathetic nervous system. This helps an emotion feel manageable rather than overwhelming.
- Understand the Cause for the Emotion – It can be difficult for children and even adults to truly understand why they feel a certain way. However, understanding what makes an athlete feel a certain way leads to the last and very important point.
Learn and Try Again – Emotional regulation allows an athlete to break down an experience comprehensively so he or she can learn, apply new tactics and move forward.
- To learn emotional regulation, athlete’s need support. One of my favorite psychologists is Dr. Esther Perel. She primarily works with couples, but during a talk at the famous South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas she noted it takes a village to raise a child. A child needs parents, friends, aunties, uncles, cousins, coaches, grandparents, and strangers to help a child develop. The same rings true for athletes.
McAnuff noted that his parents’ ability to keep him grounded in life helped him balance the lifestyle of a footballer. By bringing in topics unrelated to football and investing in family, he spent crucial time off the pitch with friends who helped him straddle the lifestyle of both a footballer and a teenager. As he continued to compete at high levels, family continuously supported him on and off the pitch.
We also spoke about the impact racism can have on a young footballer. McAnuff stated if he had not had the support of his family and many Black teammates, he would have had a tough time competing under coaches, teams, and even sponsors who made racist remarks. I would ask any readers to pause here and take a moment to try to empathize. Even if one has not experienced racism, we can still think about a time during which we may have felt unsupported or alienated because of who we are. Take a moment to think about how difficult it could be to perform and want to win for an owner, coach, or for fans who may love you during the game, but disrespect you the moment you step off the pitch.
This led to a large discussion about players needing to feel understood by everyone involved in their lives — from owners and sponsors who often look at players as assets or liabilities rather than people, to fans who when an athlete takes a knee to make a statement that his life matters, support the athlete rather than call him or her awful names. McAnuff argued that if a player feels disposable or disrespected, there is little to motivate him or her to impress people who do not care. For athletes, it is important that the world outside of the game is either supportive or has minimal impact.
For an athlete to have a winning mentality, his or her life off the pitch must have little to no influence on life on the pitch. McAnuff stated he played his absolute best when everything off the pitch went well. Family is one of McAnuff’s core values; he and his wife Jolene have one of the strongest partnerships I’ve ever witnessed and are awesome parents to two young boys.
McAnuff also has a strong understanding of finance. He noted one of the challenges players now face is the mentality of Keeping Up With the Joneses. He explained that you can pull up to his former clubs and see 18 or 19 year-old academy players rolling up in Mercedes McLarens and the latest BMWs all to keep up with what the world believes a professional athlete’s lifestyle should look like. However, many players who try to keep up do not make Premier League kind of money. Young athletes can easily go into debt while attempting to maintain an image. This mindset of keeping up not only detracts focus from training, but also creates an unnecessary stressor. Financial stress is one of the top five motivators in challenging mental wellness.
Social media can also negatively impact athletes (or anyone else). As with financial stress, social media can create or encourage the same negative opportunities for an athlete to develop an image expected by the public — lavish vacations, high fashion, parties, etc. Though social media has its perks, when an athlete is focused on image rather than his or her game, they may struggle to operate with a winner’s mentality.
One of the most interesting rulings to come about this year is that the NCAA will now allow college athletes to become social media influencers. It’s easy to imagine that the better an athlete performs, the greater chance they have of becoming an influencer. It seems this decision was made as a compromise to paying athletes as some schools make millions off amateur football and basketball players, directly profiting off of these student athletes while the players receive none of the dividends. However, I feel concerned this will lead to athletes being less focused on their performance and more focused on likes. While I believe many athletes deserve compensation from schools, it should not be at the risk of a decrease in performance or negative impacts on mental wellness.
Perhaps the NCAA’s decision will act as a motivator, which connects to the next component of creating a winning mentality: motivation.
In sport, athletes are motivated by a plethora of factors. Some athletes are motivated by a willingness to support their families. Some love the game, some feel sports shape their community, some like the lifestyle or the money or the girls or the cars or the fame. There are many motivators to want to win — endorsement deals, promotions, representing one’s country at the World Cup — but it is important for athletes to remember why they play the game.
When coaches, parents, and teammates understand what motivates a player, the player can be reminded why he or she started to play in this first place. When a player feels constantly motivated, he or she is more likely to stay focused on their sport.
Focus also enables an athlete to remove off-the-pitch distractions when on the pitch. Michael Jordan offers a great (if extreme) example of how mental strength can make the difference between a good and a great athlete.
Michael Jordan’s dad was murdered in July 1993. Three years later, the Chicago Bulls made it to the National Championship and the final was scheduled on Father’s Day. During the documentary “The Last Dance,” Jordan reflects about walking into a crowded arena spotting young kids with their dads knowing this was the first time he would win an NBA title without his father by his side. Most of the other players were smiling, but Jordan felt the heaviness of the significance of the day. However, once the buzzer went off, Jordan had the ability to focus on basketball. After the game, he took the trophy to the locker room and wept.
Compartmentalizing emotions can be a dangerous game in some circumstances, especially in relation to trauma. However, for an elite athlete who needs to perform despite distractions, the ability to focus on their sport when the clock is ticking, makes the difference between winning and losing.
We reviewed the importance of consistency to establish physical confidence and consistency in decision making, but there is one final point in creating a winning mentality: a consistent mindset.
Both McAnuff and Dr. Jones noted the importance of an athlete remembering their mindset when they played at their best. If an athlete can remember how he or she felt when scoring a winning goal, making the best pass of their life, the fastest flip turn, the hardest throw etc, an athlete can remember when and how she or her performs at her best. From there, the athlete can work to recreate that experience each time she or he laces up for the next match.
A winning mentality is something that takes years of practice to develop and can be best cultivated with the support of everyone in the athlete’s life. To attain a winning mentality, athletes must build confidence in their physical abilities and decision making skills, regulate their emotions, feel supported on and off the pitch, have limited off the pitch influence, stay motivated, focus and consistently remember the mindset when performing at one’s highest level.
A winning mentality does not guarantee a perfect season, nor does it imply winning is everything, but rather a winner’s mindset creates an athlete’s ability to believe in his or her potential and play at their best consistently. At 87 minutes, with player’s legs cramping, sweat raining, crowds chanting, a player’s mentality will determine who wins and loses in the last three minutes.
Written by Ashley Hughes