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Why having a Great Poker Face is Important in Sport

Steve Shoup

Merriam-Webster defines a poker face as an “inscrutable face that reveals no hint of a person’s thoughts or feelings”. But what is the first thing you think of when the term “poker face” is mentioned?  Music-lovers may well cite Lady Gaga’s Grammy-nominated 2008 single of the same name, while poker players will be well aware of the steely look that they’re often faced with when trying to deduce their opponent’s bluff. In any case, we’re willing to bet that not many people would associate a “poker face” with sport and so, in this article, we’ll be looking at how and why the steely impression is so important in the sporting arena.

Don’t protest too much

Strictly speaking, players aren’t allowed to attempt to influence the referee’s decision making. However, it would be naive of us to think that the behavior and mannerisms of the players don’t have an effect on whether the referee decides to blow their whistle or not. No matter whether you’re playing basketball or soccer, the referee will always have a quick chat with the player before or after they’ve made their decision. They may ask whether the player is indeed guilty of the offense that they’re being accused of or whether they were a witness to an incident. In any case, a steely poker face is vital when communicating with the referee; the official is much more likely to listen to your case if you appear to be calm, cool and collected.

The face of a good manager

There’s an argument to be made that a convincing poker face is more important for a manager to possess than the players when it comes to the sporting arena. On the one hand, supporters like to see a certain degree of passion from their team’s manager, with some of the most reserved coaches often getting called out by fans for seemingly not caring too much.

On the other, maintaining a calm demeanor under pressure is a reassuring sign for supporters in that the manager is still present in the moment and will make the correct decisions. As passionate and fiery as NFL and NBA coaches, such as Dennis Green and Chuck Daly, respectively, are, a coach’s mood often radiates onto their team. Undeniably, having a bunch of players on edge due to their manager’s unpredictability is going to be bad news no matter what the sport.

For a manager of a team, it’s a delicate balance to get right. But ultimately, having a convincing and controlled poker face, and knowing when to use it, is just another necessary tool in the armory of a coach of any top-class sporting team.

How you lose makes you a winner

No matter what the sport is that you’re competing in, losing a game doesn’t always bring about the best of feelings. However, by keeping your emotions in check and maintaining a controlled, neutral poker face, you can make better decisions, avoid confrontations and prevent your heart from ruling your head.

This is especially true in games such as Texas Hold’em or any form of live poker, where you can get beaten by some of the best poker players in the industry but is still important to remember that how you handle a loss is just as important as how you react after winning a jackpot. Obviously, the card game is where the history of the expression began, inspiring control and complacency in casino-goers and sportsmen and women for hundreds of years.

As the late, great, NFL coach and player Vince Lombardi once remarked, “Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing”.

Players perfect their poker face outside of their sport

For a start, it’s important to remember that a number of top-class athletes are also pretty proficient at the game of poker. Soccer players such as Ronaldo and Gerard Pique and tennis star Rafael Nadal have all been known to turn their hand to the card tables from time-to-time. With this in mind, they may well already be transferring the skills they’ve acquired while playing Omaha Hold’em or Five-Card Draw onto the court or pitch.

Aside from actually playing poker, there are a number of other ways to hone the related skills needed in order to be successful at the table. As many poker enthusiasts will already be aware, a poker face is closely connected to the art of bluffing (strategically misinforming your opponent as to what cards you hold). A recent study has shown that a poker face can also help aid your success in business as well as sport, with a corporate arena being one of the best environments in which to practice and perfect your talents. Concepts and abilities including putting yourself in your opponent’s shoes, being unfazed by uncertainty and the ability to analyze and retain information, all of which merge into the worlds of poker and business.

Keeping your emotions in check

Whether it be in poker, sport or life in general, keeping one’s emotions in check can be difficult and at times, we all let things get to us more than they should. Ultimately, being able to put a good poker face into practice is as much for your benefit as it is for those around you. If you are exuding a calm aura and can feel yourself maintaining composure then, chances are, you’re likely to feel calmer and more reassured in yourself and your professional abilities.

Composed minds make better decisions, which is why a practiced poker face is also extremely important in top-level sport. Professional athletes have tough decisions to make which, on reflection, are probably worth millions of dollars every single match. With this in mind, keeping a clear head is perhaps the most important part of their job.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be able to keep a straight face when trying to protest your innocence to the ref or when facing a barrage abuse from a rival supporter. However, being able to keep calm under pressure, and perform at the optimum level, is one of the main reasons why elite athletes are paid in the amounts they are. As long as they bring the entertainment, whether their poker face cracks from time-time or not, this is set to continue.



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