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Head Games

The Mental Focus & Discipline Required To Excel in Tournaments

By Craig Gottwals, Outdoor Heritage Inc.

Two months ago I wrote about my experience in fishing the B.A.S.S. Clear Lake event in March 2007.  In that article, I recounted a brief interlude between Takahiro Omori and Aaron Martens prior to day three’s blast-off.  Martens looked down at the front deck of Omori’s boat and saw a massive tube bait rigged on what appeared to be a 6/0 or 7/0 hook.  Aaron looked at Takahiro and in a serious, concerned tone said, “that’s a bad hook for that bait, Takahiro, you are going to lose fish on that!”  Takahiro looked puzzled and tried to gain clarification as Aaron applied the throttle and eased off without explanation.  Let the head games begin!

The whole incident really spurred me to think, yes, all sport is filled with gamesmanship, posturing and mental warfare, but perhaps tournament bass fishing is the most ripe for such theater of the mind.  Unlike other sports, tournament bass angling thrives on uncertainty and ambiguity.  As a competitor, the object of your pursuit is a creature with a mind of its own that migrates, feeds and changes location based on time of year, bait movements, water temperature, barometric pressure, time of day, sun position, and wind – just to name a few variables.

Furthermore, there is no visible scoreboard.  Hence, you have no idea during your 9-hour day how you are doing in comparison to the other competitors.  In fact, you may be competing on a playing field like the California Delta with its 1,000s of miles of canals in which case you may not even see 95% of the folks against whom you compete.

And the “winning technique?”  The top ten finishers may employ ten different techniques in ten different locations.  In other words, in tournament bass fishing, there is no “right” answer and there are infinite variations of techniques, fish locations, baits and decisions that can be made during the event.

So in those brief periods before blast-off and around weigh-ins and registration, where anglers are forced into a small proximity, the amount of dock talk and chatter intensifies.  Often, angers use this time to cram a 9-hour day worth of “bull” into a 15 minute window.  It is comical at best and painful at worst.

This article visits a few of the most basic and enduring sports psychology principals to remind anglers that the proper mental preparation is not only important for golfers, football players, and basketball stars, but anglers as well.  In fact, because of tournament angling’s long hours of solitude, the proper mental preparation might be more important in bass fishing than in any other sport. 

Remove Yourself from Distraction, Chatter, Dock Talk and Verbal Assault

Each man, if he attempts to join himself to others, is on all sides cramped and diminished of his proportion; and the stricter the union, the smaller and the more pitiful he is. But leave him alone … and, to the astonishment of all, the work will be done with concert, though no man spoke.”  Ralf Waldo Emerson. 

Gary Dobyns, founder of the Dobyns Rod Company, has won 40 fully rigged bass boats in 20 years of tournament bass fishing.  He is the most successful angler competing exclusively in the Western United States.  When asked about the dangers of dock talk, Gary’s intensity and volume increases as he details the steps he takes to extricate himself from it no matter what the cost.

“I just flat out hate it.  I’ll do whatever it takes to avoid all other fishermen and distractions in a tournament environment.  I don’t care if I have to drive an extra half-hour away and stay off-site in order to be alone.  That is a small price to pay to keep my head clear.”

Gary goes on to explain that some distraction is inevitable as many anglers will want to call home and check in with family during a multi-day event.  But even this has its dangers.  Just prior to the recent FLW Series event on the Columbia River, Gary learned that his dog was very ill and had to be put to sleep.  Dobyns still managed to win a check in Washington, but he concedes that he, “fished horribly.”  As he could not remain focused on the task at hand and experienced overwhelming feelings of sadness during the event.

Emerson’s quote illustrates a universal truth that has never changed over the years.  Group-thought impedes creativity and individualism.  And to a very large degree, tournament greatness is about individuality.  You must fish your strengths and for the fish that you know how to catch.  If you succumb to the rumor mill and start chasing fish on another part of the lake with a bait you have not used in practice you’ve become one of the mindless sheep following a bad idea to a low finish.  Resist that urge at all times.  When you hear the B.S. mill churning, get away lest you get covered with the stench of failure. 

Make your own decisions, fish your strengths and trust your instincts. 

If you trust your nerve as well as your skill, you’re capable of a lot more than you can imagine.” Debi Thomas, Olympic figure skater. 

Doctor Alan Goldberg, sport psychology consultant to the 1999 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champion University of Connecticut Huskies, maintains that all athletes are capable of doing better than they think possible.  In order to do so, however, the athlete must learn to both relax and trust himself under pressure.  Only then can an angler begin to catch a glimpse of exactly what he’s capable of accomplishing.

Optimal performance only presents itself in this heightened stage of personal trust.  When you are on the water and the bite is a little tougher than anticipated, you must trust your instincts, ability reflexes, and nerve and allow the performance to effortless flow from you like a breeze through a tree’s leaves.

If you relax and trust yourself you will never wilt under the trials of a tournament day.  Where does this trust come from?  “Time on the water – plain and simple,” says pro and Trinity Lake Guide John Gray.   Gray goes on to advise that, “You have to pay your dues in order to gain that level of confidence in your own ability.  Trust in the tournament world only comes from hard work and experience.  Without paying those dues, it is very difficult to learn to trust yourself in a competitive situation.”

Press On. Fish when it is good.  Fish when it is bad.  And then fish some more. 

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and Determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’, has solved and will always solve the problems of the human race.”  Calvin Coolidge 

People mistakenly believe that the best are separated from the rest by pure talent and natural ability.  And while talent and natural ability do play a role in angling results, ultimately, those who succeed and those who do not are separated by a more elementary concept.  It is the will to prepare to win: the will to work harder than the other guy and to never quit trying.

Without persistence, talent is useless.  In order to succeed you must be willing to pay the dues and put in the time.  This means there will be countless days on the water from dark to dark as you learn what does and does not work in multitudes of different situations.

As Frank Lloyd Wright suggested, “I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen.”  These principals were probably never truer than in bass fishing.  For in this sport we do not need to run 4.5 second forty yard dashes, stand nearly seven feet tall or be comprised of 280 pounds of pure muscle.  We must simply outwork the other guy and figure out the fish.  You and you alone determine your own success in this sport and your mental clarity will be crystallized by how hard you are willing to work in the weeks and months leading up to your events.  How well do you want to do?  How hard are you willing to work?  They are the same question. 

Work Yourself to the BONE in Preparation but NOT on Tournament Day. 

Whenever you compete, trying harder is truly the game of diminishing returns and a losing one at that” Dr. Alan Goldberg. 

“To become a champion, you need to understand that there is absolutely no substitute for consistent, hard work.  However, once you’ve done the work and it’s time to compete, you must temporarily put that ‘trying harder’ mentality to bed. You must never take ‘trying harder’ into the competitive arena with you. Trying harder is a practice approach that involves pushing yourself physically and mentally. When it’s time to compete, this kind of headset will tighten your muscles, throw off your timing and ruin your performance.”  Dr. Alan Goldberg.

On tournament day you need to be alert, relaxed, and loose in order to perform at peak levels.  You must trust yourself and your preparation to let it all flow from you naturally.  Don’t press.  Don’t stress.  And most importantly, have fun.  If you worked as hard as possible in the preparation phase then you have done all that you can do.

You cannot control the results on tournament day.  You cannot control whether the right fish will bite your lure or your competitor’s lure, so don’t waste an ounce of mental energy trying to do so.  You must learn to have a fantastically short memory on tournament day.  For all that matters is that you stay sharp, loose and focused. 

Embrace Failure.  It is Your First Step to Success. 

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life-and that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan, winner of six NBA Championships.

Failure is the first step to success.  There is no possible way to go from beginner to expert without the necessary steps of “failure.”  So what really is “failure” then?  Simply put, your tournament failures are your bass university courses.  Every time you fail you learn something and you’ll be able to apply that new thing next time.  Take the time after any loss to dissect why you failed, document it if necessary, and think about how you will use that data next time.

Failure is nothing more than feedback for delayed success.  If you are too hard on yourself you might blind yourself to the lessons you need to learn from your failures.  Don’t ever be afraid to fail.  Do so with your head high and know that you will not make the same mistakes next time. 

The man who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after.”
Newton Baker, American public official.

One of the most exciting things about tournament bass fishing is that that it’s in constant flux and always changing. What we know as truth today may very well be proved fiction by the time next season rolls around.  Because of this, the “right” or “best” way of doing things is always changing.

Just think of fishing line.  Fifteen to twenty years ago there was not nearly the emphasis on the different kinds of lines that we have today.  Now, virtually all anglers employ braided super lines, fluorocarbons and monofilaments for their different forms of fishing.

If you want to remain competitive you must always keep an open mind to learning about new techniques, baits and approaches.  You have to know that there are always better ways of doing things and be willing to listen, learn and apply.  People who think they “know” what they need to know and have all of the answers seriously inhibit their own ability to grow and succeed in our ever changing world.  Having a closed mind is the best way to get left behind.  Never forget to be a student of the sport and of life in general. 

Don’t Be A Legend in Your Own Mind.

A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.” Benjamin Franklin

Modern day athletes and competitors, for the most part, have fully lost track of this principal.  Modesty and humility are like a plague amongst our most popular sports icons.  Far too many tournament anglers not only are legends in their own minds, but they treat everyone whom they encounter as though they are barely worthy of talking to the “Bass Jesus.”  This behavior perpetuates a degree of selfishness, arrogance and a subtle but subversive hostility in our events if unchecked.

“The truly great athletes, the ones with real class are genuinely modest. Deep down they may believe that as an athlete they’re the greatest. However, in their day to day interactions with others they demonstrate a respect for others and a humility that is refreshing.”  Dr Alan Goldberg.

Thankfully we still have some great, humble, and competitors of true character in our sport.  Remember to foster these characteristics in your tournament career if you want to tap into the positive mental and spiritual waves of karma necessary for peak success.



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