The Nuts!!  Sports Psychology and Poker

31 Dec The Nuts!!  Sports Psychology and Poker

Why is Sport Psychology gaining so much momentum in the poker world?  Well, there are many reasons.  I have been very attentive to this connection for the past year.  It assisted in helping make a decision to pursue my Masters in Sport Psychology.  I believe it is an area that has gone mostly unnoticed by practicing sports psychology professionals.  Tournament poker players have been very alert to the requirement for sport psychology skills in tournament play.  There are many reasons for this focus.

Mental Toughness

This is a key aspect to playing poker.  The good players understand the edge they have over their competitors because they are more prepared to make good decisions when mentally tough.  For instance, imagine there is a very large pot at stake.  In some cases these players have 100’s of thousands at risk.  Player A has two aces and has issued a large position in the current hand.  Player B has been scrapping most of her hands the last 30 minutes and decided to play this hand because she knew she had to take some risks to win.  She has a feeling the table is relaxed enough to succumb to a bluff.  Player B holds the 2 and 3 of hearts.  When the flop hits the cards reveal the ace of hearts, the 4 of hearts and the Jack of diamonds.  Player A now has trip aces.  Player B has ace, 2, 3, 4 of hearts.  As the hand goes on Player A starts to make very large bets.  Player B continues with her plan to take some risks and feels Player A is due for a loss. The River reveals the King of clubs.  Player A sees the flopped cards as considerably weak.  There is no threat to a hand that can beat 3 aces.  The final card is laid down and reveals the 5 of hearts.  Both players trade bets and the hands are revealed.  Player A played a very good hand with what seemingly looked like a weak flop.  The Player B took a risk and was very lucky with the flop.  Player B collects the winnings as her Straight Flush beats Trip Aces.

This is a stiff blow to Player A.  Player A may have completely decimated his chip stack or even be out of the game.  For this example, let’s assume Player A still holds a lead position at the table.  This “bad beat” could result in the continued demise of Player A.  Player A could be distracted with the random and horrible play of Player B.  Player B obviously was just taking a shot in the dark while Player A was very strategic.  Poker players get very upset when luck beats sound strategy.  Therefore, Player A can dwell on the negativity of the loss.  This could hamper his playing style for the continuation of the game.  Player A may become hesitant in future hands, waiting for only the best hands which may never come.  Their focus could be so destroyed they may miss other players tells and opportunities to win hands.  A mentally tough player would continue on unfettered.  They would continue to use their strategies that have worked in the past.  They would be emotionally unattached to the bad beat.  Their mind would remain clear and focused and they would give themselves the best chance to win the game.  The mentally tough player understands poker is a game of luck and no matter how well one plays they may still lose.


In addition to mental toughness a good poker player needs confidence.  It is very difficult to be confident in poker due to its random nature.  Confidence allows players to believe in their decisions and helps to intimidate other players.  Confidence allows players to bluff with precision.  A confident bluff cannot be delineated from a good hand.  Players at the table are confused as to the hands a confident player holds.  This can also be used later in games to sell weaker hands and win pots.  A confident player knows and understands that they will not win every time, but they think they should.  This is very intimidating for opponents and gives the confident player an advantage.

Emotional Control

Emotional control is very important in competitive poker.  When a player allows their emotions to get tied up in hands and the game, they are wasting valuable energy.  This loss of energy affects every part of the game.   Loss of energy means loss of focus, loss of endurance, bad decision making, etc… Just watch the World Series of Poker.  Many times the young kid becomes very attached to their hand.  When they lose they begin a slow descend right out of the tournament.  They start making bad decisions by becoming too aggressive and in some cases make plain dumb mistakes.  Emotional control is very difficult when there are millions of dollars on the line.  Practicing emotional control with visualization and relaxation techniques can help.  This control of emotions allows a player to conserve energy.  This energy fuels the player long into the tournament and allows them to be focused which leads to good decision making.

Positive Self Talk

Talking to oneself in a positive manner builds confidence and mental toughness.  A poker player is on an island.  They are competing against 100’s of other players that are trying to eliminate them from competition.  In this lonely world the competitors’ best friend is themselve.  Positive self talk builds endurance, keeps one positive and can help with emotional control.  Negative self talk on the other hand helps in the opposite way.  In our previous example Player A could begin internal conversations like, “Maybe I am not meant to win this tournament?”, “I should have seen that coming, did I miss a tell? Maybe I am losing my touch?”, etc.. Or Player A could talk to themselves like this, “Player B is not better than me, how lucky!  I’ll easily get my money back if Player B continues to play like that!”, “It doesn’t matter that I lost that hand.  I am still amongst the leaders.  I’m still going to win the tournament!”, “That’s the breaks, what can I learn from Player B?  What did she do that will allow me to see her “tell” next time?”.    Self talk can also help trigger certain strategies.  This triggering technique is used in many psychological therapies that remind people of their intentions.  Players can thus trigger themselve to stay focused, to relax, to remain emotionally detached, to be confident, etc…   Many times these triggers are paired with a certain gesture.  A rub of the earlobe, cracking knuckles, tugs at the shirt, etc…

The application of sport psychology techniques to poker are too numerous to discuss in this post.  The fact remains that the marriage between the two subjects is deeply woven.  I hope the future sees professional poker players consult more frequently with the practicing sports psychologist.  Below are a couple of recent web articles on the subject:

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