Linda Lee — My personal bridge blog

Bridge and Sports Pyschology

I am working on a talk on sports psychology. It has three parts to represent the three activities I participate in: Bridge, Running and Tennis. My expertise in each of them is in that order. I consider myself a bridge expert, a running advanced and an intermediate tennis player (although some might argue that I am being too generous in the latter two designations.)

What I have noticed is that many of the psychological issues are consistent in all three of these activities.

The first one may be called things like pregame jitters or performance anxiety or stage fright. It is the feelings you get when you are waiting to begin an important match. These are based on the human “flight or flee” response. In short when humans feel “threatened”, the pitituary gland secrets ACTH and the adrenal gland secretes epinephrine. This is to prime you to either face the enemy or run away (Fight or flee). The body releases glucose and also starts the production of addition energy to prepare muscles for action. Blood is diverted to the muscles, and all parts of your body work to supply extra energy.The heart beats faster, you breath faster, you may start to shake, and so on.

In sports  (and here bridge is a sport) performance anxiety is often worse when the game seems important. It may relate to having an audience (you should have seen me play when I was first on Vugraph or on the Internet Рno its best not to!).

If the bridge player lacks confidence than it will be tough for self talk or other similar techniques to help them to do their best.¬† I remember once when I was playing in the World Championships I met Bob Hamman in the elevator. We were in the quarterfinals I think and I was nervous because we were up against a good team. Bob told me that they put their pants on one foot at a time to reassure me. I have never forgotten his attempt at relaxing me but it really didn’t help. I knew they were better than our team.

Instead of fighting the pregame jitters, better advice is probably to accept it as normal and as part of the natural preparation for competition. Once the game starts you feel better. I think we all have pregame routines. What I have learned in all the games/sports I play is that the pregame routine can calm me and get me ready for the start. Other ideas might be using positive self-talk. “I am going to do my best.”, to smile and try to separate the outcome from just bidding and playing each hand.

Self Talk

Most people have running dialogues with themselves. If you have make a bad bid or play do you shoot yourself down? (I do!) The goal is to replace negative messages with positive ones. “I am going to figure out the right line of play.”

One thing that I do when I run and play tennis is use mantras: short positive statements that are encouraging or provide focus.” In tennis I use one word: “Ball” to remind myself to focus on the ball. In bridge I might use the one word on play: “Count” to remind myself to work and count out the hand. In running as I get tired I use: “You can do it!”



Dave Memphis MOJOFebruary 19th, 2015 at 2:55 am

Interesting stuff – thank you for this post.

Alan ShillitoeFebruary 19th, 2015 at 8:56 am

I recently completed a degree in Sport Science. While I was studying the Sport Psychology elements of the course, I was struck at how well some elements matched Bridge – Catastrophe Theory matches very well with player behaviour at the table and has influenced how I handle the England Junior teams when I’m NPCing. Understanding that each player will have different responses to these stimuli is fundamental. The stuff on cohesion, leadership models and many other things have also had a great impact on me.

What I have also found is that many within the game are hugely resistant to the improvements that can be made via Sport Science. Something I’m having to overcome gradually – without them reaslising I’m actually doing it!

(I’m also a runner/cyclist and the approach to these things is vastly different in those sports too!)

LindaFebruary 19th, 2015 at 2:13 pm

Thanks for your comment Alan. I would love to have more information about catastrophe theory and approach to sports science for running

If you can send me something email me at

I am a supporter of using sports science in bridge, the English junior team is lucky to have you

Jeff LehmanFebruary 19th, 2015 at 5:06 pm

I know of bridge players whose bidding choices seem based upon “what bad can happen”. For example, such players avoid preempting with a hand that contains any, even seemingly minor, flaw that would contribute to their missing a potentially better fit in a side suit. I suspect that such players vividly remember the adverse consequence of having made a flawed preempt in the past, while such players undervalue — or simply don’t register — the times a slightly flawed preempt caused the opponents to miss their best contract.

I don’t know enough about psychology to categorize the “sky is falling” attitude. But I suspect that similar attitudes affect play in sports, too. And I suspect that an opposite attitude, one of healthy moderate optimism, is more likely associated with winners.

roger pewickMarch 27th, 2015 at 7:37 pm

You may want to check out Mollo. He wrote Bridge Psychology in 1959.

I seem to recollect pp59-60 being particularly noteworthy.

roger pewickMarch 27th, 2015 at 8:09 pm

I’ll add an anecdote.

When I was a guppy I traveled to Ottawa to play in the big regional. After the first session we were leading with a 210. Going for dinner we ate Italian. In the aftermath I concluded that the pasta took the oxygen carrying blood to the stomach and thereby attributed the sub 100 evening session to that.

There was a bright side; from the ashes roger’s rules rose. They read like this:

1. be properly nourished- good protein, lo carbs with sufficient time for digestion
2. be properly rested- allow resting time of one-half the travel time before the session
3. sit on your hands- focus on doing your best rather than trying to make things happen

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