Managing Pressure

Chapter Five: The myth of mental discipline
by Jay T. McNamara, Ph.D., L.P.
August 4, 2004

“What I really need, Doc, is more personal discipline.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that assertion during my professional career, I could buy a small pond, like Beaver Lake in Arkansas, and retire!

In our competitive fishing, as well as in our personal lives, we all generate more ideas, opportunities and plans than we can reasonably handle. Good intentions fall by the wayside and become part of that famous paving. Deadlines are set and ignored, plans are made and abandoned, and we become disgusted about lacking mental discipline. Some give up, believing self-discipline is impossible to acquire. Others paraphrase the opening quote while seeking professional guidance. Let me suggest a better way.

Myth vs. reality

It is my contention that emphasizing personal discipline is misguided. To be sure, there are some individuals who are extraordinarily self-contained, self-motivated and self-disciplined. You may recognize such characteristics in a professional fisherman you admire; you may also know someone like this personally. However, I’ll wager your experience matches what the performance research tells us – that such individuals are rare indeed. People who are naturally conscientious, thorough and comprehensive when creating and executing detailed plans are few and far between. We should not use such individuals as role models, and here’s why.

Consider this analogy: Do you have a 36-inch vertical leap? I thought so. Neither do I. To have any chance of successfully playing one-on-one basketball against a guy who does, however, you need a strategy other than trying to out-jump your man. Unless you are physically built to go 3 feet in the air, no amount of practice or “self-discipline” will get you there.

In most cases, striving for more personal discipline is not the answer; in fact, trying to force yourself to become the disciplined person you are not is likely to be a repetitious exercise in frustration

Habits and routines

When people talk to me about wanting self-discipline, they typically are not interested in discipline for its own sake. What they really desire is more consistency in some kind of behavior. “If I was more personally disciplined, I would get to the gym four times a week, or keep my reels oiled and my hooks sharp, or …….” You fill in the blank. However, you don’t need spectacular self-discipline to become consistent. Most people who are consistent have developed habits or routines that work just as well or better than mental discipline.

Think back to high school or even grade school when you played in the band or competed on a sports team. There, the path to success included a practice book and a practice schedule. While some individual effort was necessary, many practice sessions were conducted in a group setting. And as you remember, your behavior in that setting was consistent, and your performance improved!

Fast forward to 2004 and your competitive fishing career. You now expect yourself to perform the tedious, joyless tasks necessary to become a successful tournament fisherman without the benefit of a system, a practice schedule or social support. Not surprisingly, we struggle more than we think we should.

Start over. Begin by recognizing that some tasks are intrinsically rewarding while others are not. What would you rather do – fish or clean you reel? Scout the lake or respool line? “Duh,” you say. OK, well let’s use that insight to your advantage.

Recall from previous columns our emphasis on notebooks and calendars. Using your Performance Psychology and Tournament Fishing notebook, list the four or five tasks you think your lack of self-discipline leads you to neglect. A couple of these are likely to be equipment maintenance, though you may also put off fundamental dimensions such as pre-practice planning or map study.

After each item write down how much time you should devote to it and how often. You might go through a “What? When? Where? How? How often?” sequence with each task. Then put these less-than-rewarding tasks in order of importance, with the most necessary ones at the top of your list.

Now open your calendar and commit each task to a specific day and time. As an example, if you believe you should change your line once a week during tournament season, designate a specific day of the week and a particular time for line changing.
If you put this on your calendar every Monday from 8:30-9 p.m., for example, I promise you your line will get changed much more often than if you don’t.

I recommend very few self-help books, though if you have not read Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” I suggest you do so. The key to the entire book, however, is in the title. Covey doesn’t talk about the seven skills, attributes, traits or characteristics of highly effective people; instead, he talks about seven behaviors that people practice until they become habitual that lead to greater professional and personal efficacy. You can use this idea to make undesirable tasks habitual, and pretty soon your colleagues will think you are more disciplined.


In the Covey book, the habit “First Things First” has attracted more attention and interest than any other. It is human nature to do fun things right away and put off tedious tasks. However, because we have planning skills, prioritizing talents, and the capacity to use fishing notebooks and calendars, we can override our natural inclinations and develop healthy habits.

Try this exercise. Go back to those three or four tasks you are likely to put off. Then write why this task is important and why that project is relatively less significant. You might be surprised by what you find.

In a best-case scenario, you may already be doing the most important things, and the tasks you are procrastinating are, on balance, less valuable. Since you can’t do everything, you might be able to cut yourself some slack by realizing you are already following the “First Things First” principle.

On the other hand, you may discover you are putting off key items. Writing down why tasks are important makes it easier to put them and keep them on your calendar.

Team support

Finally, joining forces with colleagues makes it more likely you will set and stick with key priorities, and develop the habits you need to become a more efficient, consistent competitive angler. Some fishermen are extremely introverted and isolative, the types who clearly march to the beat of a different accordion. Most of us, however, have medium to high needs for affiliation and social support. We rely on each other for ideas, feedback and, most importantly, encouragement.

So try sharing this column or discussing these ideas with a friend or two. Or pass the Covey book around your bass club. You might even propose the radical idea that building habits and routines may ultimately be more valuable than invoking the myth of mental discipline.

Jay T. McNamara, Ph.D., L.P., is a psychologist, who is also an avid bass and walleye angler. With more than 25 years of professional experience complemented by participation in competitive fishing at local and national levels, he is uniquely qualified to illustrate how performance psychology principles apply to tournament fishing.


Verse of The Day

“Thus saith the LORD the maker thereof, the LORD that formed it, to establish it; the LORD is his name; Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.” (Jeremiah 33:2-3)

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