Put On Your Game Face


“There is who you are as a football player, and then, there is who you are as a human being, and the two for me, were just really different. I almost felt like I had an alter ego. I wanted to be Johnny Football. Johnny Football never had a bad time. So, when people asked me, Do you like the nickname Johnny Football? I fucking loved it.”

We all play different roles and have alter egos. Maybe not as explicitly as former college football star Johnny Manziel, but how we show up to a place of worship is different from how we show up when watching television with our best friends. We change how we dress and talk, careful to not use words or phrases at church or synagogue that, for example, might flow freely when we’re hanging out with our friends. Most of this did this all the time growing up. As a teen, the ‘you’ at school probably wasn’t exactly the same ‘you’ at home.

This sort of shifting can be beneficial for performance. But it also has downsides. We’ll explore both.

Baseball superstar Aaron Judge transforms into someone else on game day, “I’m in here right now, and I’m Aaron — I’m hanging out with you, right? But you know, when I step out there, you have to be somebody else. Because maybe Aaron, in this moment, might be scared. But No. 99? He isn’t afraid at all.”

What Judge is doing is putting space between his everyday self and his performing self to help alleviate the pressure.

Sports psychologist Dan Abrahams calls this having a “game face,” which he outlined in his book Soccer Tough. Here are a few ways in which game faces can help:

1. Create space between roles.  You may have lost the sale at your job, but you are the best mom a child could ask for when you walk through the doors at home.

2. Flip the switch on competition. It allows you to recognize that the you who competes full bore on the playing field doesn’t have to take the same attitude when playing Monopoly with your kids.

3. Get in the right mindset. It signals what your mindset should be in certain situations, helping you to get in the zone.

But alter egos can also backfire when they become too integrated with your usual self. Just look at what happened to Johnny Manziel. Who he was on the field initially was a hard-playing, free-flowing competitor who had a good time doing it. But that transformed into Johnny Football who “never had a bad time.” His alter ego started to backfire as Manziel unravelled towards alcohol, partying, and drugs.

How do you create a game face that works for you? Make it authentic and intentional.

It has to respect an aspect of who you are. You can’t fake it. It can’t be used as a way to avoid dealing with aspects that happen in your work or home life. The person who shows up to church can’t be entirely different from the one who shows up to work. Sure, there are unique differences. But you can’t act like a saint on Sunday and then be a terror on Monday. You may not be perfect during the work week, but the values in church ought to reflect the values you hold in the rest of your life. You integrate the two, knowing that you may have different hats you wear which subtly shift behaviors and approaches, but both represent an authentic part of you.

Take competitiveness: most of us have a competitive streak in a unique way. Tap into that if it’s part of your game face, but do it in a way that reflects a part of you. For example, when I was running at a high level, I was insanely competitive, but in my own way. I didn’t trash talk. I wasn’t a jerk to competitors. I wasn’t cutthroat. I crafted a game face characterized by not caring about what anyone else thought because I was going to run until I was completely exhausted and puking at the end of the race. So I’d race in these ridiculously high 1970s style socks, or show up to high school nationals with a white undershirt (i.e., an “A-shirt”) with permanent marker scribbling on it. What we wear can serve as a signal to change our role. In this case, I used kind of ridiculous uniforms to signal I didn’t care what I looked like, I was going to show up on the track. It was competitiveness, but in a way that reflected a part of who I was.

We can either use our alter egos to our advantage, helping us flip the switch to compete in something meaningful. Or we can have our alter egos get in our way. They can make us feel fragmented and disjointed or we can fall for the worse parts of ourselves, convinced that this is who we really are (or should be). The key is to be intentional about how, why, and when we use our respective game faces.


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