Playing Without Fear

Mike Singletary

A guy who played without fear

When the last football season ended, there were several topics that our staff needed to do some research on. One of these was “Playing Without Fear.” In talking one-on-one with players after the season, it became clear to our head coach that many of them experienced performance anxiety – fear – before and during some of our bigger games. In hindsight, it explained a lot – blown coverages, missed tackles, dropped game-clinching interceptions. Our kids simply didn’t execute when there was pressure because of this fear. In researching this topic, we wanted to figure out how we could help them play without fear – how to coach them to play with confidence and “swagger.”

During the offseason, I’ve been to a couple of clinics and heard some good talks, but none that really hit home on this topic. The closest I came was at the “Marine Combat Fitness” session, which talked about training your body to be in peak performance mode. What has really influenced my thinking on this subject, though, are the books I’ve been reading. I have made a conscious effort to read as many books by great coaches as I can, from John Wooden (Wooden on Leadership) to Vince Lombardi (What it Takes to Be #1) to Bill Walsh (The Score Takes Care of Itself) to Pete Carroll (Win Forever). In the course of reading these books, I have noticed that each coach has a similar way of addressing this topic of playing without fear. To me the solutions they describe are simple, easy to implement, and (based on the success these coaches have had) they work.

1. Strive for Mastery. The common message on the topic of playing without fear in all the books I read is very simple. In Win Forever, Pete Carroll says, “That state of mind, when you are truly competing for the sake of performance alone, is when you are performing in the absence of fear.” This seems to be the primary focus of all these great coaches: they focus only on what they can control – attitude, effort, concentration – and strive only to maximize their own performance. By focusing on improving yourself, you focus on something you can directly influence and cannot be influenced by others. Others have called this a “mastery orientation” to performance, meaning they focus on perfecting their skills rather than on the outcome. This is true in other sports, such as golf, where constantly competing with oneself is an obvious key to success.

John Wooden said this a little differently: “Success is found in the running of the race. How you run the race – your planning, preparation, practice, and performance – counts for everything. Winning or losing is a by-product, an aftereffect, of that effort.” It’s never about the winning or losing. Wooden goes on reiterate this point many times – focus on doing everything you can to maximize your own performance. He said he never talked about winning or losing because those were never the goal – being the best you could possibly be was the goal. Even Coach Wooden’s famous definition of success says nothing of winning or losing; it’s all about “knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

Vince Lombardi’s philosophy was no different. Though many point to his “winning is the only thing” quote, Coach Lombardi believed that the goal was to do the best one is capable of. “Not victory for its own sake, but victory as a test – a test of how far you could push yourself to your limits and beyond, a test of your ability to overcome your doubts and weaknesses, and a test of how much your G0d-given talent and ability you were willing to expend in the pursuit of success and victory.” Even for Lombardi, who preached winning to his teams, victory was only a way to measure how well you were performing. Games are simply a measuring stick to see how good you are and where you can continue to improve.

And Bill Walsh, well, he said it simply. “Control what you can control; the score will take care of itself.” Like these other three coaches, he believed that playing without fear means to focus on making oneself better at all times. He talks about his “Standard of Performance” – the way of doing things, the end goal, the ideal. All members of the 49er’s organization strive for the Standard of Performance in their own job. Winning was nothing more than a byproduct of being the best you can possibly be – aiming for that Standard of Performance. By doing this, they are able to play without fear.

2. Opponents are Only Opportunities. For all of these coaches, the opponents were never “the enemy.” They did not try to demonize the opposition or make them seem stronger or weaker. Rather, your opponents are simply a means to an end, a tool that will help you become the best of which you are capable. The better the opponent, the better test of your ability. As Coach Carroll said, “My opponents are the people who offer me the opportunity to succeed…At the end of the day, that opponent is the person who makes you into the best competitor you can be.” By viewing one’s opponents as a means to an end, it takes away the aura (or lack thereof) of whomever you may be playing that week. When that opponent is viewed in this way, there is no reason to fear that opponent; rather, it is a reason to appreciate and thank that opponent, because they will help you see where you are at.

Each of these coaches add that an added component of playing without fear is playing with supreme confidence in what you are doing. How do we accomplish this as coaches? Preparation. We prepare our players for every contingency, every possibility, every look that might arise during a game. And when we do, our players are confident in their ability to react to that situation when it arises. As John Wooden says, “You must be at your best when your best is needed. Enjoy the thrill from a tough battle.” So we must practice critical situations frequently, we must create pressure so players get used to the butterflies in their stomachs, we must help our players gain the confidence they need in the game. And when they do, they can play without fear.

Ronnie Lott3. Press On Toward the Goal. Bill Walsh tells the story of Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame safety that played with the 49er’s. Lott, he said, could be characterized in two words: commitment and sacrifice. “Lott,” Walsh says, “was constant in his drive to excel.” He goes on to tell the story about Ronnie Lott’s finger – rather than risk missing the first game of the season, Lott chose to have part of his pinky amputated. That’s how passionate he was about the game. “‘Ronnie Lott’ character reveals itself most starkly in two completely different circumstances: when victory or success is almost a given, and conversely, when there is little or no likelihood of victory. The former tempts an individual to start bellyaching and quit. Ronnie never gave up or let down. Consistent commitment and sacrifice in all situations was his trademark.” It is this ability to commit completely to a cause – the team, the Standard of Performance, whatever it may be – that made Lott and the 49er’s successful. Because of his ability to continue striving for perfection, Lott had no problem playing without fear, regardless of the situation.

Similarly, Pete Carroll mentions that, “We never dragged the past along with us, because the past is not a place where we can compete…We never allowed the disappointment of losing to diminish the attitude and energy we needed to bring every day.” Whether winning or losing, we must put past results behind us because lingering distracts us from striving to be better. While we must certainly reflect on what we did, we only think about past successes and failures as a measure of where we used to be. They are the markers of our journey towards perfection. When we are able to commit ourselves completely to that end goal – that ideal – and when we are willing to sacrifice to achieve that transcendent cause as Ronnie Lott did day in and day out, then we can play without fear.

When I have told players in the past to be confident, to play without fear, I’m not sure these are the concepts I had in mind. However, they make sense. When a player is focused on being the best he can be, when he sees every practice and every game as an opportunity to improve, and when he is committed and willing to sacrifice to make himself better, regardless of the outcome, he is certainly not going to be afraid of the opponent. In fact, there is nothing to be afraid of for this player – he is only continuing what he has done in the past. He is only finding another way to make himself better.

And if I believe John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, and Pete Carroll – four coaches who had more than a little success in their careers – this mentality is the key to playing without fear.

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