A test for mental toughness in poker

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The ability to perform under pressure, to remain confident and resilient, to relax and stay focused, are all part of the head game of poker.

Poker is a competition in which stress and your responses to stress can make you successful. Sometimes the desire to perform well turns into full-blown anxiety, sometimes into tilt. Sometimes a long bad steak can turn into depression, self doubt and lowered self-esteem.
But hey, it’s only a game, right?

One of the areas sports psychology has looked at in terms of stress is the area of mental toughness. A 2002 article, “What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performers” from Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, presents a definition of mental toughness: “Having the natural or developed psychological edge, that enables you to generally cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training and lifestyle) that sport places on a performer, and specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure.”

On one hand, mental toughness starts with an unshakable belief you can achieve your goals and you have skills and qualities superior to opponents. However, on the other hand, this turns into arrogance and hubris much too easily.

You need to develop or have the desire and internalized motives to succeed, the capacity to bounce back from setbacks and to love the pressure. Staying focused and accepting some stress is inevitable and essential to success.

Learn to handle stress and remain focused on the competition, as well as dealing with distractions of the game.

To see where you fall in terms of mental toughness, take this informal survey I developed: Circle Always, Sometimes, Never about how you really are now, not how you would like to be or think you should be (read carefully):

• I can control my temper at the table. A S N
• I can stay fully focused during every session. A S N
• I rarely choke at critical times. A S N
• I never give up, no matter how far behind I am. A S N
• I never dwell on past mistakes. A S N
• I never dwell on past losses. A S N
• I’m not intimated by other players. A S N
• I believe I can come back from a short stack. A S N
• Most of the time, I feel I play close to my potential. A S N
• I have coping skills to deal with tilting. A S N

SCORING: Give yourself 10 points for each A, five points for each S and zero points for N.

90-100: little work needed; you have most elements of mental toughness

70-80: doing OK, some minor adjustment will help

50-60: about average; decide if you want to move up

Less than 50: time for mental-strength training

The three C’s of mental toughness are: control, the perceived ability to exert influence rather than experience helplessness; commitment, a refusal to give up; challenge, involving a person’s ability to grow and develop rather than remain static, and to view change as an ongoing process. As always keep your head in the game.

— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. His column will give insight on how to achieve peak performance using poker psychology. Email questions for him at editor@anteupmagazine.com.