Project Apollo: Finding your ‘Game-Face’ and your ‘Why’

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Why climb Mount Everest?

Because it’s there.

George Mallory

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on

The Psychological Side of Goal-Setting:

Anyone can choose a goal but how do you stick to it? What makes many give up when few persevere?

While I know the term is broad and I do not wish to over-simplify, “motivation” is what I feel is crucial to setting, maintaining and achieving goals. How we tap into our own motivations is something I am eager to explore and something this article tries to illustrate.

But why some say the moon? Why choose this as our goal?



For many years, I spent an inordinate amount of time on the technical and tactical sides of the game: drills and moves ad nauseum. I often responded in a knee-jerk fashion to momentary drops in performance with greater levels of repetition, far removed from the game. I did this with greater zeal. Improvements were rare. My frustrations grew.

Around this time, I started following the work of Dan Abrahams, who was a pro-golfer and now a sports psychologist. In his work, Abrahams was keen to stress an aspect of my craft that I thought I had no business in addressing: “psych-social”. After all, it was easier to see cones and pads and confusing lines on a tactics board; what did this psych-social stuff actually do?

Ever since I came across his work online and then more recently the past year on his Sport Psych Show, I have been waiting for an opportune moment to try out a technique he calls: ‘Game-Face’.

(In my understanding) ‘Game-Face’ is using “self-talk” to maintain focus in games or practice; to try and nudge us into a peak performance (or ‘flow’) state. It was a technique I tried using myself when playing sport and I found it helpful to channel my thoughts during an activity rather than perhaps allowing my mind to wander and my “performance” to slip. It helped to get me back on track if something had occurred in a game that might have knocked confidence or allowed doubt to creep in.

To create a player’s Game-face, we asked the following via an online questionnaire:

This example would mean their game-face was: “Energy – Confidence – Bolt” and the idea would be that we, as coaches, may ask them:

  • What does ‘confidence’ look like here in this drill, this game, this moment?
  • How might you demonstrate ‘energy’?
  • How does Usain Bolt display these traits?

Once players can articulate and try implement such practices, they may find it useful to focus themselves in moments in training or matches whereby they want to maximise their performance. For example, the player above might feel that confidence is being on the ball more often or taking more risks in games. Their body language could also reflect this – if they can feel it makes them confident – with a strong posture and their shoulders back. Players could be ‘prompted’ to use their game-face with the following:

  • Show me what energy looks like here. Show me confidence.

Even just engaging with each person about their moment where they were at their best was illuminating. I did so pitch-side while a small sided game was going on and it took about 2 minutes with each player. It was fascinating to hear how they felt in those moments and just how vivid and real the experience still was for them.

Finding Your Why

Finally, I wanted to touch on an idea I have explored previously as I feel ‘Game-face’ touches on it: exploring your why – your drive or motivating factors.

If we want to get the best out of players, we will ask things of them they may not think possible. And often, before any success, there will be much failure and, in disheartening failure, questions about the point of it all.

Therefore, getting them to think about their why is important for these reasons. Why are you playing rugby? Why do you want to achieve your personal goal? Why is this team important to you?

The great thing about using a theme for a a season (ours is centred around the Apollo program that took man to the moon for the first time ever and is explained here) is that you find ways to work things into your shared story. When looking at the values we want to instill in a team or challenges we want to put to them, the Apollo program offers plenty of parallels.

In exploring this idea around the things we hold onto in moments of self-doubt, our why, we introduced a clip from ‘First Man’ which tells the story of Neil Armstrong in the years preparing for the Apollo 11 mission. While many will know about Armstrong’s feat, his first words on the surface of the moon and his humble nature, few may know that he and his wife suffered a great tragedy when their daughter Karen died at only 3 years old. It was something they never truly recovered from and their grief was not something they ever spoke openly about.

The scene below depicts some of the intense physical training that the astronauts endured acclimatising to the demands of space. After passing out due to the severe g-forces, it is the intimate moments between himself and his daughter that come to Armstrong’s mind. With this, he composes himself and tries again at the simulator: he endures. In essence, the memory of Karen was Armstrong’s why – or at least a part of it:

(I appreciate this is a fictionalised account of Armstrong and therefore not wholly accurate)

How many of our own players are able to motivate themselves because of someone or something else? How many of them are really aware of this and, where possible, articulate it?

I encourage you to explore this concept with your players as a way to motivate each other and to better know themselves. At the same time, I would encourage you to do the same personally as there are many ups and downs for coaches too. Being clear of what your why is and holding onto it dearly is crucial. As Viktor Frankl, the famous psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor states:

A man who know his ‘why’ can bear almost any ‘how’.

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