How To Mentally Cope With Situations You Fear

One of my all-time favorite movies is the original Karate Kid. My favorite scene is near the end of the movie when Daniel Larusso is fighting against Johnny Lawrence in the finals of the All-Valley karate championship tournament. Johnny is kicking Daniel’s butt (pretty much literally) and they’re near the end of their fight. It’s at this moment when Daniel’s sensei, Mr. Miyagi, gives him a piece of advice that turns everything around:

“It’s okay to lose to the opponent. Must not lose to fear!”

There’s no shame or weakness in admitting that you fear a particular game, match, tournament, or opponent. As you know, Magic is most definitely not an easy game. It’s extremely complex, both physically and mentally. And on top of that, it’s rife with a variety of challenges and obstacles that have to be overcome. All human beings have fears and insecurities, so there’s no shame in that. But despite how difficult it may be and no matter how many challenges and obstacles you have to face in the game, you still have to attempt to perform your best.

Having said that, utilizing ways to mitigate that fear is essential. As Mr. Miyagi said, it’s fine to lose a game, a match, a tournament, or to a specific opponent. It’s not fine to not compete because you’re afraid, or to allow that fear to keep you from giving it everything you can.

To help you mitigate any fears you have towards a particular situation, here are some things you can do to help you overcome them so that you can put your fears aside and play as well as you possibly can.

Remind yourself of what you’ve been through during your time in the game and the fact that you’re still here, despite all of the painful moments.

I’ve been recently working individually with a pro player who has been struggling with the fear they have of competing in certain events or against a certain caliber of opponents. Every time they find themselves in that situation, a sensation of automatic fear kicks in and they have trouble shaking that off enough to get the best out of their capabilities.

On the flip side of that, they also told me the story of their recent Pro Tour Top 16 finish and how difficult, yet amazingly fulfilling, that experience was. That was all I needed to hear. We talked about how if they were capable of making the Top 16 of a Pro Tour, perhaps the hardest and most difficult Magic tournament on the planet, playing against the game’s best players in the world, then they’re much stronger than they give themselves credit for and they should remind themselves of that as often as possible.

Even if you’ve never played on the Pro Tour, it doesn’t matter. I’m certain that you’ve been through various challenges and struggles during your time in the game, and yet despite all of them, you’ve managed to come through the other side and keep plugging away. That’s no small feat, and you should take great courage from that. Remind yourself of what you’ve gone through in the game and the fact that you’ve still managed to show great strength and courage in deciding to continue pressing onwards despite those struggles.

Make your opponents faceless.

As you know, there are going to be plenty of games where you have to play against opponents who, technically, are “better” players than you. But Magic is never won on paper. Magic is only won by being played, and as I know you also know, Magic’s inherent variance gives every player the opportunity to beat anyone else. This can be comforting to know, and something you can take advantage of.

Here’s my perspective on a game of Magic: There is no opponent. It’s your deck against another deck. It’s you against a particular matchup. The player sitting across from you, what their name is, what their accomplishments are, or what sponsorships they have splashed across their shirt are totally irrelevant, not to mention beyond your control. Recognizing that and focusing on those things doesn’t help you.

Make your opponent faceless when playing. Again, who your opponent is doesn’t matter. Lightning Bolt always deals 3 damage and that never changes, regardless of who is sitting across from you. Focus on the matchup, not the player. Remind yourself that it’s 40 or 75 cards against another 40 or 75 cards. Your game plan against any specific matchup is always the same, regardless of who you’re playing against. By making your opponents faceless and treating them like any other player, you strip away their fear factor and give yourself the ability to maintain your confidence in those matches.

Focus on the things that can go right, not just the things that can go wrong.

Genetically and biologically, we modern-day human beings are no different than the Cro-Magnon cave people from 15,000 years ago. Our brains are the same, and we still suffer from the same primal, instinctive, survival-based tendencies that they did. In other words, we still have a survival-oriented brain. This means that any time you find yourself in a situation where you can’t be certain of what the outcome is going to be, your brain is going to automatically get you to focus on the worst-case scenario as a survival/protection mechanism.

The only problem is that we live in a society where survival is hardly an issue anymore. Food can be delivered to your doorstep. Your shelter is built by others. Your clothes are made by companies and all you have to do is go and buy them. Water is cleaned, filtered, and run through pipes directly to your house. But even though we live in a society where survival is practically a non-issue, we still have a survival-oriented brain that we have to deal with, which means that those survival instincts still show up, even in Magic.

Do you know why you fear a game, match, or tournament? It’s because you’re uncertain of the outcome. If you were certain of the outcome, you wouldn’t be afraid, would you? For example, let’s say that I had a crystal ball, and when you looked into that crystal ball, you were able to see that you were absolutely, 100% guaranteed to win the next game, match, or tournament you played. Would you be scared or nervous going into it? Of course not. Why? Because you know what the outcome is going to be. The result is certain, so you know that you no longer have anything to fear. And because you know there’s nothing to fear, the fear goes away.

But when you go to play, guess what? You can’t be certain of the outcome. You don’t know with 100% certainty what’s going to happen. So, because your brain recognizes that the outcome isn’t certain, what does it do? It causes you to think of the worst-case scenario as a survival/protection mechanism. You start thinking about and focusing on everything that can go wrong—the mistakes you could make, the bad performance you could produce, or the bad results you could get.

You can fight back against this by “turning on” your brain, taking control of your thought processes, and intentionally and consciously directing your thoughts and focus toward the positives—the things that could go right instead of wrong. Technically, could you make mistakes, play badly, and lose? Sure, of course. But focusing on that and dwelling on that doesn’t benefit you. Focus on what can go right. Dwell on the great plays you’re capable of making, the great performances you’re capable of producing, and the results you’re capable of achieving.

In closing, I’d like to provide for you another one of my favorite quotes, this time from Garth Stein, the best-selling author of the book The Art of Racing in the Rain. He once said this:

“There is no dishonor in losing the race. There’s only dishonor in not racing because you’re afraid to lose.”

The feeling of fear is natural, but the acceptance and permission of fear is a choice. Utilizing methods for mitigating and dealing with those fears is the obligation of every athlete, and these methods can certainly help you to do just that.

If you’re interested in the mental side of the game, a pro player buddy of mine and I just started a podcast dedicated to talking about it! You can head here, here, or here to check it out. I’ve also written a book on the mental side of game and how you can improve in that area, which can be found here, if you’re interested.

Do you have a specific method you use for mitigating any fears you have when playing? If so, share them in the comment section and let me know. I’d love to hear about it, and you may be able to help others players in the process as well.

Share this


Scroll to Top