The game face. This oft-noted phenomenon is as much a part of sports as the equipment used to play the games. Every great athlete has their look. One might choose to hate and think these are the contrived faces of narcissistic showoffs, but they’d be wrong. I like to think of the game face as a visual extension of an athlete’s mental game. When a player is on top of his game, everyone in the building knows it. The way they walk, body gestures, and the look on their face all say “this is how it’s done, take notes.” Just think of any dominate athlete, chances are the image in your head is of them excelling in their sport and you can picture the look of dominance on their face (unless you think of Tom Brady, then I’m sure his hair comes to mind). Maybe the most iconic game face of all time would be Micheal Jordan’s. With his eyes sharply focused, sweat dripping down his face, tongue contorting out of his mouth;
anyone who saw that knew it was about to be brought.
The ability to possess that “in the zone” look is a coveted skill in professional sports. It is a look that says, “give me the puck” or “put me on the field, this is my game to dominate.” It is the look every coach is seeking in his players at the end of the game, when everything is on the line. The game face is a combination of discipline, confidence, desire and determination. It says I have the discipline to make the right play when it matters most. I have the confidence not only in myself and my abilities but in those around me. The game face says my desire to win far exceeds that of my opponents and I have the determination to do whatever necessary to ensure that I am the victor. Maybe most importantly of all, the game face says “I fucking hate to lose and I will do everything and anything to prevent someone from beating me.” This is the look of champions. The look belonging to those special athletes who raised the bar within the sports they played.
I can still remember growing up and having adults say to me “you wanna be an athlete, huh? Well, let’s see that game face.” I would scrounge and wrinkle my face and show my teeth as menacingly as a seven-year-old could. I mimicked the athletes I grew up watching. Even though each athlete is unique in their own right and therefore produce different game faces, there are general similarities amongst them all which are worth noting.
Each game face starts from the top down. An early give away of an athlete in the zone would be the brow area. A brow furrowed as if in deep concentration lets you know that this athlete has their head in the game. The brow shows discipline. It can let the coach know he can trust his player to make the right play. Check out Tiger’s look. Notice the eyebrows slanted down and in, as well as the slight creases between his eyes. This is a look of a man who knows what shot needs to be taken and can handle whatever pressure comes along with it.
Next come the eyes. The eyes are all determination. They let any challenger know this is not going to be easy. It tells them that this individual does not know what quit is nor will they ease up for even a second. The eyes can also be confused for the calm before a storm. Legendary New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens is a prime example and this is what happens when you make the mistake of ignoring the eyes. The eyes let it be known that this game will be won by whatever means necessary.
Next comes the mouth. Remember Michael’s tongue? He isn’t the only one. The best example of the importance the mouth holds in the game face is Kobe Bryant. This is a look of extreme confidence. Careful here haters, this is not cockiness. Cockiness is thinking you are the best but never wanting the ball when it matters most. This is the look that says, “I know I am the best and I will have the ball when it matters most.” Kobe is the best. He makes players around him better because he wears his confidence on his face and it’s contagious. This, alone, pushes his teammates to be better players.
Like in all aspects of life, there is a yang to the game face ying. Not all game faces need to be animated or intense. There is what I like to call the anti-game face. Much like the eyes, this look is easy to misjudge as it is almost a look of boredom. This is potentially dangerous as it is alook of quiet desperation. This is the desperation a great athlete feels to be the best at what they do and to never want to be second. Perhaps the best MMA fighter of all time, Fedor Emelianenko, defines this look. Fedor fights like he has nothing to lose because to lose is far worse than any beating he could ever take in the ring. This was very evident in the post-fight interview of his last fight which he lost to Bigfoot Silva. Fedor seemed far more embarrassed by the loss than interested in caring for the beating he took that eventually stopped the fight. He even suggested that “maybe it was time to retire” because he did not win (he did not retire and is scheduled to fight Dan Henderson on July 30th). This is the desperation a champion feels to never let themselves lose.
There are many faces in the sports world and these are just some of the ones that have been worn by champions in the past. The game face is one of the amazing intricacies in the sports world and they merit the attention of athletes and fans alike. There will be many more great athletes over the years and each one will have that special look. The look that says “I have arrived and you’re not going to want to miss this.”