Mind Games

by Brodie Cooper

Last week in Louisiana I learned something very important about myself, both as a competitive angler and as a man.

It was a big tournament with a stacked field full of highly accomplished anglers. It was held out of a port that I’d never visited before, in a marsh system unlike any I’d ever fished, and in a week that was plagued with temperature swings and constantly changing conditions that prevented the fish from getting into a consistent pattern. The tides were unseasonably low and we’d been forced to take a boat better suited for deep water due to my partner’s boat build being 6 months behind schedule, and that drastically reduced the amount of water that we could effectively fish. We were primarily utilizing tactics that we are rarely able to utilize in our home waters, so we lacked both practice and the specialized equipment that other teams had. We were catching oversized redfish at will throughout practice, but we never caught more than 3 slot fish during a full day of practice and we needed to somehow manage 5 slot fish two days in a row.

Looking out over the vast expanse of marsh, seeing the huge numbers of professional anglers buzzing around in shallow water tower boats like they knew where they were going and what they were doing, I made a crucial mistake that ensured I would not be able to overcome the unfavorable odds.

I let it get in my head.

I scribbled together a game plan for the Day 1 of the tournament that made sense on paper, but in my head I did not believe that we had found enough slot fish to compete and felt that we’d fall well short of the leaders. With that uncertainty in my head, I made a crucial mistake early in the morning. We arrived at our first spot to find that we had the pond to ourselves… but it had turned horribly off color with the newly risen tide and high winds. I could see that our second stop, a secondary pond a few hundred yards away, had retained good water clarity and I should have made the adjustment, but I lacked the confidence to adapt the game plan based on the conditions that morning. We popped corks while poled down in muddy water trying to roust a slot fish, but all we caught were overs. I should have moved on. My instincts said to move on, but my head said that we couldn’t catch our 5 slot fish if we didn’t have 2 when we left that first pond because I lacked confidence in my own ability to adjust to changing conditions and make the right decisions.

While second guessing myself and trying to figure out whether to stay or go, we moved far too slowly and allowed another tournament team to zoom by and fall into our second stop. And, of course, they proceeded to catch a couple of nice slot fish while we watched and wore our arms out catching overs under corks in muddy water.

We managed to scratch out 3 slot fish late in the day in a last ditch effort close to the ramp, but that early morning decision undercut our ability to compete and, worse, my confidence in my ability to adapt and beat the only real competition that I should have been worried about… the fish. Day 2 was a total wreck. Another scribbled together plan that cratered when we found unexpected tide and weather conditions. Whereas on day 1 I made decisions that I second guessed, day 2 found me completely indecisive and unable to fully engage the competition. We pulled out 2 slot fish and released them before we headed back to weigh in so that we could put the boat back on the trailer and get it cleaned up, anxious to move on from a train wreck of a tournament.

I let it all get in my head. I failed at perhaps the most important aspect of competitive fishing, albeit the most underrated aspect: the mind game.

My friend Josh Gregory, himself a very accomplished competitive angler, summed it up nicely in a text he sent me the morning of Day 2. I’ve reflected back on this text for a few days now as the Lord keeps bringing it to mind, and I’m astounded how true it really is in more ways than one.

Take all those negatives and turn them into positives. Tell yourself, “Those are the things slowing everyone else down BUT NOT ME. I’m going to out hustle everyone else and do all the little things different to win!” It’s all mental. Keep your mind filled with answers and move quickly through your options. Stay positive. Good luck!

In my home waters, I LOVE fishing tournaments that are rainy, windy, and nasty. Why? Because I know without a doubt that I can find solid fish to put in the livewell no matter how bad the weather is, how stagnant the tide is, or how little the fish want to feed. Those fish may not win on an ice cream day when any angler can get lucky, but they’ll keep me in the top third of the field and give me better odds than most at finding that perfect slot fish. I know that if I hustle, I have a real shot at winning. I know all of the little things that I can do different to adapt to adverse conditions. I trust my experience, skillset, equipment, and instincts. I’m confident in my ability to adapt. I understand the fish, the conditions, the fish, the competition. I’m abundantly confident leaving the ramp, I’m even confident when there’s only an hour left to fish and I haven’t found them yet, and the results over the years reflect that confidence.

And then I go on the road. When the weather is nice and the fish get into a pattern, I’m a pretty good fisherman and can usually pick up on it. But… the weather is NEVER nice on tournament day. It’s always horrible and competitive angling is all about the ability to consistently produce in adverse, changing conditions. Two years in a row I’ve fished in a new port for the first time in terrible conditions, and two years in a row I’ve found myself wide eyed, lacking confidence, second guessing decisions, and just generally intimidated by the water and the competition.

The simple truth is that I’m struggling mightily with the mind game on the road, and I’m not going to become very competitive on new water until I conquer it. However, on the drive home from Louisiana, it dawned on me that my struggle with the mind game is not limited to fishing.

From an early age, I have held an irrational fear of the unknown. Some may say that it’s because I’m a first born, but I believe it goes deeper than that. My fear is not that the unknown is dangerous or will somehow harm me, instead my fear is that when confronted by the unknown, I will fail. I fear that I will let myself and others down. I fear that I will embarrass myself, and I often find myself with an overwhelming fear of embarrassment that causes me to disengage from potential opportunities and second guess decisions before I ever make them. Often times, this sense of fear can be crippling and lead to a downward spiral that is incredibly difficult to break free of.

Unfortunately, this is something that I’ve dealt with for as long as I can remember. It’s appearance in my tournament efforts should not be a surprise. It needs to be fixed. There is far more at stake than a simple fishing tournament.

I’ve been drawn to Romans 8 for the last few weeks, but probably not to the passage most think of. Most think of verse 18 through the end, a very powerful passage on suffering that has lifted Christians in the darkest of times. But the few verses preceding that passage are what has been on my mind.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:14-17 ESV

As I typed this passage out, I realized that the word fear is in this passage. I had overlooked it until just now. In the paragraph about my limitations, I used the word ‘fear’ seven times. I promise you that I’m seeing this as I’m writing it. My limitations as a person, as a man, as a father, as a Christian, as a fisherman, are so based on fear that I included the word seven times. This passage of Scripture clearly says that as a son of God I did not receive a spirit of slavery that would cause me to fall back into fear, yet I find myself continually falling back into a crippling cycle of fear.

It’s interesting that Paul’s answer to the persistent problem of fear in a believer’s life is based solely on our newfound identity. Paul writes that we, as Christians that have accepted by faith the death and resurrection of Jesus, are sons of God that have been brought into the family by adoption. Moreover, we are not simply children that are seen in the back of the room but never heard or interacted with. The word “Abba” is best translated “Daddy.” When Paul writes that we are able to approach God himself, the creator of the universe, and call him Daddy, he describes a relationship that is incredibly familiar, intimate, and affectionate. This is not a relationship based on rules and regulation that you may someday fail, this is the kind of relationship where a child runs in unannounced, with arms stretched out, exclaiming “Daddy!” and longing to be picked up by a loving father. I remember when my kids were young toddlers and I got home from a long day at work. How I loved it when I’d hear, “Daddy’s home!” and see the kiddos running to me, just wanting to play and tell me what happened that day. That’s the relationship described here. It’s a Father that is loving and affectionate enjoying the endearing call of his children who are unafraid to run up to Him and ask to be picked up.

There’s more.

Paul writes that if we are children of God, then we are also heirs of God with Jesus. Not only are we like little kids that are dearly loved and accepted by God, we are also like young men with rights and responsibilities as part of God’s family. We are heirs to the Kingdom of God, not simply partakers. An heir to an estate, to the fortune of a family, has a level of responsibility to his family. He’s there to build into it, to build it up, to share in the responsibility that comes with it. It is a part of his identity, and it’s that way with the Kingdom. The fact that we are heirs of the kingdom has a huge impact on our very identity and what we are truly responsible for because it means our relationship and our end is eternally secure. Nothing that happens here, no failure or embarrassment or pain, can ever separate us from our identity as a son and an heir to the Kingdom. It is part of who we are now. No matter what happens here, no matter what we go through, no matter what we must endure, we will end up in the Kingdom. We will always have our final place in the Kingdom and nothing can change that. We are heirs to the Kingdom.

And this is how Paul confronts fear in the Christian’s life: by fully understanding our newfound identity. What place does fear have in the life of a person that can approach God and call him Daddy? None. What reason does an heir of the Kingdom of God have to fear embarrassment before men? Absolutely none. When facing the unknown, we have a Father to hold our hand. When we fall down and get hurt, we have a Daddy ready to pick us up. When we find ourselves unable to conquer the unknown, we have a loving Parent to guide us and teach us how to overcome. When we find ourselves without a comfortable place in the world, we are heirs to the Kingdom. When we find ourselves the laughing stock of the world, our relationship with the Creator of the universe is eternally secure and we can hold our heads high.

John Eldredge wrote that we should “Let people feel the weight of who you are and let them deal with it.” My confidence to do so can only be found when I am confident in who I am… I am a child of the Most High God. I am an heir to the Kingdom of God. I can approach God with confidence. I have experienced the perfect love of the Heavenly Father, and perfect love casts out fear. And if I can approach God without fear, then fear has no place in my life. I can face the unknown because my standing before God is secure. I can endure suffering in this life because my future in the Kingdom is secure. I can be hurt, trampled, embarrassed, and mocked and still stand tall because my identity is found not in this world but in my family. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says because I know what my Father says about me, and He is the very author of truth Himself.

Fear has no place in my head because I am my Father’s son and He will never disown me. My place, my life, my actions, and my identity matter because I’ve been given and inheritance in the Kingdom. I can’t see it yet… but I will.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

We are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord

Romans 8:31-39 ESV

I need to conquer the mind game. Desperately. That it hurts me competitively is the least of my problems. That fear could cause me to miss an opportunity to share the Gospel, make a hard but necessary decision, or do something that impacts eternity is of much greater importance. I need to conquer fear and put it out of my head so that I can get on with life and stop holding back. I can do that by confidently claiming my identity in Christ. I am a son and an heir. I need to own that, no matter where I am in life and what I come up against. Fear has no place in my head. Period.

Father, thank you for sending Jesus when you saw that I was dead in my sin. Thank you for making a way and sparing no expense to adopt me into your Kingdom. Thank you for believing in me enough and loving me enough to choose me and give me a role in your Kingdom. But Daddy, please help me conquer the fear with in me. Help me to hear what you say about me and know it is true. Help me find my identity in you alone. Teach me to walk confidently and uprightly in your ways Lord, and give me the words and opportunity to proclaim the good news of Jesus to everyone you’ve entrusted to me. Thank you for comforting me and uplifting me, Daddy. I love you.