The Mental Side of Sports

What makes an athlete great? Is it their god-given physical prowess? Maybe its countless hours spent at the gym crafting their skills. Often times, when people think of athletes, all they see is the physical aspect of the sport; how fast they can run, how high they can jump; how hard they can throw. But what if the secret to success was not always a physiological element, but rather a mental aspect that often times, especially in our western culture, gets overlooked? This is a common debate that happens throughout all of sports, and one that I feel takes athletes to the next level. Through the comparisons of sports such as a Japanese form of martial art, Taijutsu, and other western sports, I will argue the fundamental need for the mental aspect of athletics.

Taijutsu, or “art of the body,” is a form of Japanese martial art that not only has a very habitual and ritualistic aspect to it, but an incredibly strong mental side as well. As one trains to become masterful at the art of Taijutsu, it is said that one needs to understand “the feeling,” or mental aspect of each move, and that without this understanding, complete mastery will not happen. It is in the Japanese culture that such a ritualistic and mentally heavy art would come about. Masters of Taijutsu, while understanding the importance of technique, understand that often times that technique needs to be thrown away to completely see every move your opponent will come at you with. But staying mentally focused, a master can see all possibilities, and is able to react accordingly (Pettinen,2012).

In Western culture, often times the somatic part of sports are greatly looked at. While how much someone can squat may increase their athletic ability overall, the ability to do a specific athletic act consistently is often only looked at in terms of repetitive practicing. The mantra practice makes perfect is often something every child hears while growing up in the US, and while that may be partially true, the increased rate of variables during a sporting match cannot be prepared for through simple repetition. Look at the very popular sports show Sport Science for example. While they break down how physically an athlete is able to perform something, not once is the mental aspect of the sport mentioned. In the video below, there is an example of Masahiro Tanaka, a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees. While physical ability to throw certain pitches is clearly illustrated, the mental side of pitching isn’t mentioned at all.

While reading Katja Pettinen’s chapter in The Encultured Brain, I couldn’t help but draw many comparisons between Taijutsu and the western sport of baseball. While someone can stand at a batting tee and master the physical part of their swing over and over again, the somatic sense of the swing won’t give you success in a game built around failure. What you really are doing is building confidence and the ability for your brain to take over when everything goes wrong. Much like “the feeling” mentioned above, you have to throw away thinking about your technique, because if you think about it, the next pitch will already be by you. Not only does “the feeling” of what you are doing take over your body, but it also allows you to block out outside variables such as fans or score that may affect your performance. Someone who has been able to truly master the mental aspect of the game is Evan Longoria, third basemen for the Tampa Bay Rays. In the video below, Longoria talks about the approaches he takes to stay calm and in control of every situation, no matter what may be thrown his way. He understands and is confident in his physical technique, much like masters of Taijutsu, but doesn’t need to think about them in the moment of battle to succeed.

The mental aspect of physical sport such as baseball or martial arts, I believe, stems from the culture at large. “Body Culture” (Kelly & Sugimoto, 2007) in Japan did not really come to be a large focus until western influences in the late 19th century (Horne, 2000), and because of this, many deep cultural roots are spread throughout their sports, even ones adopted from western culture. I argue that while spiritual and ritual elements are a central part of many Japanese traditional sports like archery and other forms of martial arts, these tones can still be seen in their western sports today, such as baseball.

I believe it is within these elements that a mental aspect of sport truly developed within Japan, and that western culture, while often the physical is expressed with importance, could adapt this more to become better athletes. “When performance is intertwined with perception, movement becomes a way of interpreting and understanding the kinesthetic context, thus operating as one of many forms of intelligence that characterize the nature of living systems (Pettinen, p. 210).” To perform in an athletic context, one needs both the mind and body, and without one or the other, one cannot be successful.


Horne, J., (2000). Understanding sport and body culture in Japan. Body Society, 6(2), 73-86.

Kelly, W. W. & Sugimoto, A., (2007). This sporting life: Sports and body culture in modern Japan. CEAS Occasional Publication Series, Yale University.

Pettinen, K. From Habits of Doing to Habits of Feeling: Skill Acquisition in Taijutsu Practice. The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology.



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