Character & Mental Toughness- Fight, Flight,or Freeze

Excerpts from the U.S. Army Survival Guide Chapter 2…with a few minor word changes for those preparing for competition; particularly the “big game.”


2-5. Any event can lead to stress and, as everyone has experienced, events don’t always come one at a time. Often, stressful events occur simultaneously. These events are not stress, but they produce it and are called “stressors.” Stressors are the obvious cause while stress is the response. Once the body recognizes the presence of a stressor, it then begins to act to protect itself.

2-6. In response to a stressor, the body prepares either to “fight or flee.” This preparation involves an internal SOS sent throughout the body. As the body responds to this SOS, the following actions take place:

  • The body releases stored fuels (sugar and fats) to provide quick energy.
  • Breathing rate increases to supply more oxygen to the blood.
  • Muscle tension increases to prepare for action.
  • Blood clotting mechanisms are activated to reduce bleeding from cuts.
  • Senses become more acute (hearing becomes more sensitive, pupils dilate, smell becomes sharper) so that you are more aware of your surroundings.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure rise to provide more blood to the muscles.

This protective posture lets you cope with potential dangers.


2-16. Man has been able to succeed many shifts in his environment throughout the centuries. His ability to adapt physically and mentally to a changing world kept him alive while other species around him gradually died off. The same competition mechanisms that kept our forefathers alive can help keep you alive as well! However, the competitive mechanisms that can help you can also work against you if you do not understand and anticipate their presence.

I will add to this the stressor response of freezing, which often gets overlooked or not articulated.  Imagine encountering a bear in the woods.  Some people run, some will fight, some will “play dead.” I have seen this reponse many a time in my 20 years of coaching.  An unprepared  player will lock up when pitted against stiff competition and will become unresponsive as his brain and body become overwhelmed with fear.

“After the Battle of Gettysburg, 27,574 muskets were recovered from the battlefield; of these, 24,000 were loaded.”-David Grossman

2-17. It is not surprising that the average person will have some psychological reactions in a competitive situation. The following paragraphs explain some of the major internal reactions that you or anyone with you might experience with the previously stated competitive stressors.


2-18. Fear is our emotional response to dangerous circumstances that we believe have the potential to cause death, injury, or illness. This harm is not just limited to physical damage; the threat to your emotional and mental well-being can generate fear as well. If you are trying to succeed, fear can have a positive function if it encourages you to be cautious in situations where recklessness could result in injury. Unfortunately, fear can also immobilize you (Freeze!). It can cause you to become so frightened that you fail to perform activities essential for competition. Most people will have some degree of fear when placed in unfamiliar surroundings under adverse conditions. There is no shame in this! You must train yourself not to be overwhelmed by your fears. Ideally, through football practice and character and mental toughness training, you can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to increase your confidence and thereby manage your fears.


2-19. Associated with fear is anxiety. Because it is natural for you to be afraid, it is also natural for you to experience anxiety. Anxiety can be an uneasy, apprehensive feeling you get when faced with dangerous situations (physical, mental, and emotional). When used in a healthy way, anxiety can urge you to act to end, or at least master, the dangers that threaten your existence. If you were never anxious, there would be little motivation to make changes in your life. In a competitive setting you can reduce your anxiety by performing those tasks that will ensure you successfully come through the ordeal. As you reduce your anxiety, you also bring under control the source of that anxiety—your fears. In this form, anxiety is good; however, anxiety can also have a devastating impact. Anxiety can overwhelm you to the point where you become easily confused and have difficulty thinking. Once this happens, it will become increasingly difficult for you to make good judgments and sound decisions. To succeed, you must learn techniques to calm your anxieties and keep them in the range where they help, not hurt.


2-20. Frustration arises when you are continually thwarted in your attempts to reach a goal. The goal of competition is to win. To achieve this goal, you must complete some tasks with minimal resources. It is inevitable, in trying to do these tasks, that something will go wrong; that something will happen beyond your control; and that with your goals at stake, every mistake is magnified in terms of its importance. Thus, eventually, you will have to cope with frustration when a few of your plans run into trouble. One outgrowth of this frustration is anger. There are many events in a competitive situation that can frustrate or anger you. Missing an assignment, missing a tackle, fumbling the ball, missing a block, being called for a penalty, damaged or forgotten equipment, the weather, a bad field of play, opponent resolve, and physical limitations are just a few sources of frustration and anger. Frustration and anger generate impulsive reactions, irrational behavior, poorly thought-out decisions, and, in some instances, an “I quit” attitude (people sometimes avoid doing something they can’t master). If you can harness and properly channel the emotional intensity associated with anger and frustration, you can productively act as you answer the challenges of competition. If you do not properly focus your angry feelings, you can waste much energy in activities that do little to further either your chances of success or the chances of those around you.


2-24. Your mission in a competitive situation is to play as hard as you can, and as smart as you can throughout the duration of the game. The assortment of thoughts and emotions you will experience in a competitive situation can work for you, or they can work to your downfall. Fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, guilt, depression, and loneliness are all possible reactions to the many stressors common to competition. These reactions, when controlled in a healthy way, help to increase your likelihood of succeeding. They prompt you to pay more attention in training, to fight back when scared, to match or exceed the intensity of your opponent, to keep faith with your fellow team members, and to strive against large odds. When you cannot control these reactions in a healthy way, they can bring you to a standstill. Instead of rallying your internal resources, you listen to your internal fears. These fears will cause you to experience psychological defeat long before you physically succumb. Remember, competitiveness is natural to everyone; being unexpectedly thrust into the intense struggle of competition is not. Do not be afraid of your “natural reactions to this unnatural situation.” Prepare yourself to rule over these reactions so they serve your ultimate interest—staying alive with honor and dignity.

2-25. Being prepared involves knowing that your reactions in a competitive setting are productive, not destructive. The challenge of competition has produced countless examples of heroism, courage, and self-sacrifice. These are the qualities a competitive situation can bring out in you if you have prepared yourself. Below are a few tips to help prepare yourself psychologically for intense competition. Through football practice and character and mental toughness training you develop the will it takes to succeed.


2-27. Don’t pretend that you will have no fears. Begin thinking about what would frighten you the most. Train in those areas of concern to you. The goal is not to eliminate the fear, but to build confidence in your ability to function despite your fears.


2-28. Don’t be afraid to make an honest appraisal of situations. See circumstances as they are, not as you want them to be. Follow the adage, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” It is much easier to adjust to pleasant surprises about your unexpected good fortunes than to be upset by your unexpected harsh circumstances.


2-29. Learn to see the potential good in everything. Looking for the good not only boosts morale, it also is excellent for exercising your imagination and creativity.


2-30. Failure to prepare yourself psychologically to cope with competition leads to reactions such as depression, carelessness, inattention, loss of confidence, poor decision making, and giving up before the body gives in. Remember that your success and the success of your teammates who depend on you are at stake.


2-31. Through football character and mental toughness training and your life experiences, prepare yourself to cope with the rigors of competition. Demonstrating your skills in training will give you the confidence to call upon them should the need arise. Remember, the more realistic the training, the less overwhelming an actual competitive setting will be.


2-32. People under stress have a potential to panic if they are not well-trained and not prepared psychologically to face whatever the circumstances may be. While you often cannot control the competitive circumstances in which you find yourself, it is within your ability to control your response to those circumstances. Thinking through how you will react to stress can significantly enhance your capability to remain calm and focused as you work to keep yourself and others focused on what needs to be done to succeed. Remember, “the will to succeed” can also be considered “the refusal to give up.”

 Most don’t have what it  takes to face their fears of hard work, of pain, of discipline, of getting lit up, of having people count on them, of taking the risk to give all they have in the face of intense competition.  That’s why there are not more people doing extraordinary things. A true challenge creates situations where you have your weaknesses revealed and you have to grow up in order to overcome those weaknesses.  Most would rather take the easy way and remain average.  They give up because they cannot find the courage to even try or they quit as soon as things get difficult.  You have already proven your willingness to face those fears. You have worked hard to overcome them.  You have already shown the courage to grow up and stand up.  Now take the next step… you can be the best of the best.

Handle it and you will succeed.


Read Coach Moore’s new book “On Character and Mental Toughness” available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Kindle.


About coachbillmoore

Educator/Author/Speaker/HS & NCAA Coach Character Coach Read Coach Moore’s book “On Character and Mental Toughness” Paperback available at Barnes & Noble or Amazon. "The measure of your character and mental toughness is the space between what you are doing and what you could be doing." -Coach Bill Moore
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