Why athletes do better in practice than performance

Why athletes do better in practice than performance

IN THIS ISSUE: “The problem is a classic: Janie always does better in practice than she does in competition. She swims faster, consistently hits the ball harder, throws nothing but heat and strikes, runs better times, can sink 9 out of 10 free throws and 6 out of 8 three pointers and has unbelievable touch, confidently using all of her great moves on her defender whenever it doesn’t really count. However, once the competition is about to start and the chips are on the line, there’s a loud POOOOFFFF and Janie does a big disappearing act. Her uncoordinated “body double” walks out on stage, bows to the audience and then proceeds to completely botch up the works. Suddenly she is tight, her movements are tentative, and she’s flooded with self-doubts. She has stone fingers, two left feet and the aggressiveness of a wallflower! Her performance doesn’t even have the slightest resemblance to the one from practice. Whatever happened to that confident, talented performer? Where did the “real” Janie go? There is nothing more frustrating for athletes than to have all this ability and talent and not to be able to access it when they need it the most, in competition. Watching their athletes consistently underachieve in this mysterious way drives coaches to distraction. For parents, watching their kids consistently fall apart when it counts the most is both confusing and painful, especially the feelings of helplessness to ease their child’s obvious suffering. In this issue of The Mental Toughness Newsletter we will examine this frustrating phenomenon of the “practice player” and discuss strategies that athletes, coaches and parents can use to help resolve this problem. 

ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “If only I could compete the way I practice. I’d be soooo good!”
PARENTS’ CORNER – “Are you helping your child get back on track or unknowingly contributing to his staying stuck?”
COACH’S OFFICE – “What you can do to get your athletes back on track.” 
DR G’S TEACHING TALES – “The Golden Girl”

ATHLETE’S LOCKER

If only I could compete the way I practice. I’d be soooo good!

“I have the best outside shot on the team, no questions asked. Don’t believe me? Go ask my teammates. They’ll tell you the same thing and so will my coach! So how come when the game starts I get so darn nervous and treat the ball like a hot potato? Why is it that I no longer have the confidence to shoot and when I do, my mechanics and shot are way off?” 

“Let me tell you what’s really driving me crazy. I work so much harder than three quarters of the kids on this team. I absolutely kick their butts in practice. However, when the meets start and I go up against these very same kids, I swim like garbage and I always lose. I don’t get it. My times in practice are so much faster than my meet times. It seems like the only time I can swim fast in a meet is in my off events when the race doesn’t even count! What gives?” 

“What I don’t understand is how come I can hit the ball so well in batting practice and then stink the place out in a game? I just don’t get it! I see the ball well in the cage. My swing is loose and quick, I’m totally relaxed and I consistently crush the ball. However, up at the plate I’m a bundle of nerves. My muscles are tight as a drum, I’m worried about striking out and I make really dumb mistakes. I go after crappy pitches and end up taking all the good ones! Right now I’ve got myself into a hitting hole so deep, I can’t even see the light of day!”

If these little stories sound a bit too familiar to you, and you see yourself as a “workout wonder” and performance flop don’t despair. There is still hope for you. You too can learn to perform your best when it counts the most. But first, you have to understand exactly why you can’t seem to put it together in competition.

A lot of athletes with this problem complain about the pressure difference that they feel between practices and competition. They report feeling much more nervous in games than practice. A big reason for this is the belief that in practice you have a lot of chances. If you mess up, so what? You can still do it over and over again. However, in competition you have just this one chance. If you blow it, you don’t get to do it over. There’s no second chance and therefore there’s much more at stake. While this line of reasoning may be true, it highlights the main mental mistake responsible for this problem: OUTCOME FOCUS.

As you’ve probably heard me discuss before, your pre and during game concentration is both the key to performance excellence and the primary reason why you may choke or experience repetitive performance problems. So what’s the main difference between practice and competition? YOUR FOCUS OF CONCENTRATION! In practice your concentration is on what you are doing at that moment and little else. Most likely, you do NOT have an outcome focus. You are NOT pressuring yourself to produce. You are not focused on or worried about failing or messing up. Instead, you are only focusing on what YOU are doing and feeling, i.e. all the right things. As a result, you remain calm and relaxed, leaving you and your muscles loose. Since being relaxed is the secret to peak performance, you always do well in practice.

Unfortunately, you unknowingly change all of this once the game, match or race starts. In your mind you make the performance too important. You focus on the outcome. You entertain the “what if’s.” You pressure yourself to produce because you tell yourself, “NOW IT REALLY COUNTS!” You then make a cardinal and costly mental mistake: You start trying too hard. Remember, trying too hard is a losing game. When you pressure yourself into trying too hard, your performance rapidly heads south. All this is made worse by your self-imposed pressure, which raises your nervousness, lowers your confidence and further tightens your muscles. 

So what can you do to get your performance back on track and looking like what you normally do practice? First off, you have to stop pressuring yourself with everything that’s supposedly at stake whenever you compete. You have got to let go of the “it’s now or never, it’s do or die, there’s no tomorrow, this is the time to separate the men, (women) from the boys, (girls)” motivational garbage that you’ve been regularly feeding yourself right before you compete. Simply put, you have got to stop making yourself believe that this performance is so important that it’s larger than life! You have to discipline yourself to leave your goals and expectations at home whenever you compete.   

Easier said than done? No question! However, you have got to understand that having an outcome focus going into a competition will insure that you have a terrible performance! This is a fact of performance counseling! There is no way around it. If you really want to do well, if this performance is truly important to you, if you really, really want to win, then you have to know that focusing on the outcome will insure that you do NOT get what you really want. Instead you will end up with a performance that will totally bum you out! 

Instead you need to discipline yourself to leave your goals at home. Do not take your expectations onto the field, track or court with you. Pressure yourself for results and you will always get poor results. Drop the outcome, results pressure and you will pick up a good performance. To do this I am NOT suggesting that you play head games with yourself by trying to pretend that the outcome doesn’t matter. Of course the outcome matters! However, focusing on outcome is a huge mental mistake, like using the wrong tactics, strategy or technique. 

Let’s look at it this way: You’re a right-handed pitcher and in practice you always throw right-handed. As a result, you throw with heat and control. Now it’s time for you to pitch in the State Championship game, the most important one of the whole season. There’s no question that you want to do well. There’s little doubt that you’d like to throw a no hitter and win. So would you go into this game and think, “this is such an important game, and I want to do so well that to insure this, I’m going to throw left-handed today?” 

Well the answer to this is obvious. No one in this situation who is playing with a full deck of cards would suddenly decide to throw with their off-hand. That would be both dumb and insane. However, if you are struggling with this problem of doing well in practice and then completely falling apart in competition, you are actually making a similar kind of mistake. While you may not be grossly changing your physical technique and mechanics, you are changing your mental mechanics. You’re going from a correct focus in practice on what’s going on in the NOW, (feel, the immediate play/move, having fun and not thinking) to an outcome focus in the FUTURE on what’s at stake and everything that could go wrong! This is a total set up for failure.

So what I am suggesting you need to do to help solve this problem is to learn how to control your focus so that when you go into a competition you are NOT making the outcome larger than life, regardless of how important the competition may actually be. This is exactly what Olympic medallists do going into the finals of their competition. For them to think, “I have been training for the last six years, I’ve sacrificed my life, suffered physically and emotionally to get myself here and now, whether I’ve wasted my time or not is all going to be decided in the next few minutes,” is a recipe for failure and heartache. Peak performance demands that they block out how big the competition is and instead focus on their performance and what they need to do to execute effectively. (see Dr.G’s TEACHING TALES below)

Discipline yourself to recognize the instant your focus of concentration heads towards anything related to the outcome, anything in the future. Once you become aware that you are in the future concentrating on the outcome, then you want to quickly return your focus to the task at hand in the present. Keep in mind that it never really matters how many times your focus jumps ahead to the outcome. It only matters that you keep bringing it back to the NOW and what is going on in the moment. That is you want to return your focus to this play, this move, this shot, this stride, this stroke, etc. The longer you allow your concentration to stay in the future, the more nervous you’ll get and the sloppier your performance will be. You can’t get uptight if you stay in the NOW focused on what’s important. 

So if you really want your performance under pressure to resemble what you do in practice, then you need to start duplicating exactly what you do in practice mentally in the competitive environment. In practice you don’t pressure yourself. In practice you stay focused on what YOU are doing. In practice you are relaxed and having fun. In practice you are NOT worried about messing up or the “what if’s.” In practice, you’re playing “right-handed.” Spend some time closely examining exactly what you tend to do mentally when you train and then make a deliberate effort to repeat these “mental strategies” as you go into the big game.


PARENTS’ CORNER


“Are you helping your child get back on track or unknowingly contributing to his staying stuck?” 

I had just started working with a competitive gymnast who had been having performance problems for the previous 6 months. It seems that she was terrified of going backwards on both beam as well as floor. She would get on floor or up on beam and when asked to do the scary moves, she’d just stand there as if paralyzed. The curious thing was that the skills she was balking on were skills she’d been doing for years. Technically they weren’t that difficult for her. Mentally and emotionally, however, it was a totally different story. The poor girl was completely stressed out and absolutely miserable in the gym. Her own frustration level at her inability to move beyond her fears and blocks left her in tears most practices. It didn’t help that her coaches were beside themselves and at a loss as to how to help her. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong and had tried being patient, gently encouraging her, allowing her to go at her own pace, and, when all of these softer strategies had failed, they resorted to yelling, pushing, threatening and even ignoring the little girl. However, regardless of what they tried, nothing seemed to work.

All of this left mom and dad scratching their heads and overwhelmed by a whirlwind of frequently conflicting emotions. They knew that their daughter was in a tremendous amount of emotional pain. They could plainly see that she was no longer that happy-go-lucky kid that couldn’t wait to get to the gym and was constantly doing cartwheels and flips around the house. However, now she dreaded practices and her unhappiness had spread to every aspect of her life outside the gym. She was clearly distracted and depressed.

The parents seemed to be torn between the girl’s pain and their own needs to see her succeed. After all, she was exceptionally talented and had tremendous potential. Every coach who had ever worked with her had always said the same thing. This kid is going to go far! As a consequence, they would often times get emotionally hooked because they could clearly see that their daughter was perfectly capable of doing the problematic skills. They couldn’t seem to understand what she was afraid of. Her fears just didn’t make any sense to them. (Keep in mind that there is often no logical connection between fear and physical reality. Intellectually an athlete may know that he can do a skill. He may clearly hear the reassurance from his coaches and parents. However, he can’t really take in this conscious reassurance and logic. The fear is “speaking too loudly” for him to “hear” anything else.) In fact, both mom and dad at various times had given in to their own frustrations and impatiently told the girl, “Just do it! I don’t understand what you’re afraid of. You know how to do it. You’ve done it easily before. Just relax and go for it! What’s the problem?” 

Of course, stating the obvious to their little girl in this way didn’t help her get unstuck. In fact, it never will! I’ve never met an athlete who wants to be stuck. It wasn’t like she had conscious control over the problem. Why would she deliberately want to make herself and everyone around her miserable? Many parents and coaches get caught up into thinking this is something the athlete is in control of. “Oh, she’s just being stubborn! If she wanted to do it, she would!” WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!!! Her parents’ impatience and suggestions just made her feel that much worse about herself and even more pressured. In addition, the fact that she was now getting performance pressure from mom and dad as well as the coaches left her feeling totally alone and unsupported. 

It seemed that mom and dad had fallen into a very common trap that lies in wait for the parents of many competitive athletes. They found themselves stuck between two roles: The first, and most important parental role of providing love, support and guidance; and second, the semi-coaching role of being performance-demanding and results oriented. This second role is more commonly associated with coaching, NOT good parenting. It is critical for parents to keep what’s really important under these stressful and trying circumstances in mind. What’s really important here? Not how soon your child gets over her performance fear or block! Not when your little Jimmy will start hitting .500 again! Not when Sally will get her reverse and a half. Not when Bobby will finally be able to drop time in his 100 Breaststroke and make his State cut. Your child’s physical and emotional well-being are what’s really important here and what should always be foremost in your mind in all of your interactions with her. 

If your interest in your child’s performance results eclipses your concerns about your son or daughter, then you will end up doing far more, long-term damage to him/her. You will be failing him/her empathically. Since good parenting is all about being tuned into where your child is coming from and what she is feeling, and then communicating back to her that you truly understand and care about her feelings, then you will be completely missing the boat. In essence, when we as parents take on too much of a demanding, performance-pressuring stance with our kids we are directly and indirectly communicating to them that how they perform is more important to us than them! The message this conveys is simple, yet powerfully damaging: We do NOT really care about you or your feelings. 

All too often a parent will ask me early on in my work with his child, “how long do you think it will take before we can fix this problem? How many sessions will it take?” When this type of question is asked me I immediately begin to experience some performance pressure of my own. I start to feel, “If I don’t produce and produce quickly, then this individual will be disappointed and unhappy with me.” The small amount of pressure that I begin to experience from this interaction with it’s implicit performance demands usually represents just a tiny fraction of the much larger performance pressure that his child is experiencing every day.  

If your child is struggling with a repetitive performance difficulty, if he consistently does much better in practice than he does in big competitions, don’t be part of the problem! Let go of your performance expectations for him. Separate out how he plays his sport from who he is as a person and what he is feeling. Tune into the struggle that he’s experiencing. Be empathic. Understand the pain that he’s experiencing without immediately trying to fix it yourself by increasing the pressure to produce. Keep in mind that under these trying circumstances your child most needs a supportive, loving environment from you and your spouse. He does not need to hear about your frustration or disappointment that he’s still having problems. He does not need to know in any way that he’s letting you down. He definitely does NOT need or deserve your anger. What he does need is your unconditional love and support. He needs your reassurance that the most important thing between the two of you is and always will be your relationship and his feelings, NOT his performance! He needs to feel this from you and you need to be able to communicate this unambiguously in your words and actions.

Pressure to produce is one of the primary culprits in the creation and maintenance of many performance problems. The pressure can come from the athlete himself, it can come from the coach, it can come from the parents, or from a combination of all the above. As a loving, caring parent you want to completely remove yourself from this pressure equation. Instead, you want to be a source of compassion, support and love. This means that you have to let go of your own performance expectations for your child. Trust me on this one. This is NOT an easy thing to do. However, it is critically important that you rise to the task. Remember, there’s a lot more important things at stake here than some rinky-dink batting average, scoring title or overcoming a fear of a round off, back handspring, back tuck. 

COACH’S OFFICE

“What you can do to help your athletes get back on track”

She had been struggling for most of the first half of the season. As a freshman she was easily the second best hurler on the squad. However, she was making some very classic mental mistakes that left her a shell of her former self on the mound. She was worried about messing up. She was worried that she’d walk the runner. She was overly concerned with what her teammates thought of her and was positive that she was letting all of them down. She worried that her coach thought he had made a recruiting mistake in acquiring her. She hung onto her mistakes and bad pitches. Her head was all over the place on the mound. She’d lost her confidence, was trying too hard and couldn’t even last an entire inning without giving up a ton of runs. (There are two key areas in concentration that an athlete must maintain control over: She must mentally stay in the NOW, the right “time zone.” Past or future focus always causes problems and is a key component of slumps and blocks; She must stay focused on herself and what SHE is doing, not anyone else.)     

That’s when the coach benched her. Indeed he had lost his confidence in her. On those occasions when he decided to give her the nod he kept her on a very short leash. The minute he thought she was beginning to unravel, he yanked her. He started much weaker throwers in her place. She was spending most of her time on the pine. That’s when she called me out of desperation. 

We worked on and helped her correct her mental mistakes that were making her too nervous to pitch to her potential. We refocused her concentration on one pitch at a time, taught her to let go of her mistakes, helped her calm herself down on the mound and got her concentration back on what she was doing rather than on what everyone else was thinking about her. We taught her how to recognize the UC’s (uncontrollables) and to immediately refocus on those things that she could control. We got her out of trying too hard and taught her to trust herself out there. Slowly, but surely she began to calm down on the mound. Her self-confidence started to return. She got her curve ball back and her pitches regained their old zip. In several games that had already been decided, the coach put her in for the last inning or two and she more than held her own. She began to look like her old self and the second best pitcher on the team. Her teammates were excitedly behind her. 

Everything was going fine except for one minor detail: Her coach refused to start her and as the schedule wound down towards post-season tournaments, he played her not at all. Games would go by without her seeing anything that resembled a mound. Oh sure, he’d continue to pitch her a token inning here and a token inning there. Even when the two hurlers he started in front of her, who were clearly nowhere near as good, began to struggle, he still didn’t put her in. He’d overwork the team’s best pitcher instead. This young lady, who was also the team captain, begged the coach to throw to her teammate, to no avail. He wasn’t listening. It was as if he wasn’t taking in the fact that he had his freshman thrower back. She was now very different on the mound than she had been when the season started. She was more in control, confident and less flappable. It didn’t make any sense to her or anyone on the team why he was ignoring her. It certainly didn’t make any sense to me. Why wasn’t he paying attention? After all, she had thrown decently those few innings when he did give her a chance.

She decided to talk with him. She mustered up all her courage, pushed aside her feelings of intimidation, tracked him down in his office and told him the following: “I know you don’t have any confidence in me. I know I didn’t show you much early on. But that was then and this is now. I’ve worked out my problems. I’m the second best pitcher you’ve got on this squad and I want you to give me a chance to prove it.” He listened to her, smiled, nodded and said nothing in response! 

Want to be effective with your players? Want to bring out the best in them? Want them to really contribute to your winning efforts? If so, when your players reach out to you and do the scary thing of talking to you directly, listen to them! Make yourself available and really pay attention to what they are saying. Acknowledge what they’ve said, whether you agree with them or not. 

Give them some kind of feedback that you were actually a participant in the interaction. Whether this coach thought this player should have started or not was almost not the issue here. He should have responded to her concerns. If he still had a problem with her he should have said so. Be honest with your athletes. Be direct with them. Let them know what is going on between you and them. Don’t play games. Ultimately it won’t get you what you really want from your athletes, for them to do their best.

The remainder of the regular season went by and this pitcher still didn’t get a chance to throw. Five games and two weeks since the chat with her coach and it was as if the talk had never even happened. Miraculously, this athlete remained confident and upbeat. She knew she was feeling better. She knew she was more focused and calmer on the mound. She also knew that she was not making any of the same mental mistakes that she had been earlier in the season. How did she make sense of the coach’s non-communicative response to her? How did she explain to herself that coach was still pitching weaker hurlers who were getting hit out of the game? She chocked all this up to him being “an unresponsive jerk.” What else was she supposed to think? She had no other information to go on. 

Finally, right before the second round game of their conference tournament the coach came up to her and told her that she’d be starting in that second game. He also added that he was “going to keep you on a short leash” and that if she screwed up at all, he was immediately yanking her. 

Can you tell me why you as a coach would want to “share” this kind of information with an athlete right before a game? Is this supposed to make her more determined NOT to screw up? Is this supposed to calm her down? Will it build her confidence and belief that the coach is behind her? Perhaps the coach hoped that this would improve her focus of concentration. 

In most cases, when you as a coach get an athlete or team to think about or focus on what you DON’T want them to do or what you DON’T want to have happen, that’s exactly where their thoughts and concentration will go! When you coach with this negative slant, you are inadvertently setting your athletes up for further performance problems. When you tell a kid who’s been struggling that he better make sure that “it” doesn’t happen again today, that’s the only thing that he’s going to think about. His worry about what he doesn’t want to happen will cause him to get nervous, undermine his confidence and distract his concentration from the proper focus. As a result, both you and he will get exactly what you DON’T want.

Furthermore, when working with an athlete who has been struggling with repetitive performance problems you need to go out of your way to get his focus AWAY from any outcome variables. Performing well, making mistakes, falling apart, not screwing up are all outcome variables. Part of the reason that your athletes perform better in practice than games is because they DON’T have an outcome focus in practice and they DO in games. It’s the outcome focus that leads to tight, tentative play.

However, this pitcher was surprisingly able to block out the coach’s outcome-pressuring comment. She didn’t worry about messing up or the coach at all. Instead, she said to herself, “whatever,” took the mound and focused on one batter at a time, one pitch at a time. As a result, she stayed relaxed and calm and enjoyed herself. She pitched six solid innings and left the game feeling really good about herself. Did the coach say anything? Yes! Thank God he acknowledged that she had “done a good job.” 

All of your athletes need feedback from you. All of them use your words to target their pregame and during game focus. Because of this it is critical that you have some awareness of what you say to them, How you say it and your timing. Your opinion means everything to many of the athletes on your squad. They need your approval. They want your respect and acceptance. They need positive feedback when it’s warranted. They will NOT get soft and mushy if you give them too much positive as long as it’s deserved. Be aware of the power you wield on a daily basis. Understand also that sometimes what you say or don’t say to an athlete can help precipitate or feed their performance problems.         


DR G’S TEACHING TALES

“The Golden Girl”

(Peak performance because of a NON-outcome focus) 

(The following is an excerpt from “Golden Girl” by Misty Hyman in the December/January 2001 issue of Splash magazine published by US Swimming)

“I knew that I could win the gold medal. But I wasn’t expecting to win. That is, I knew I had the potential to have a breakthrough performance; though I never could have guessed that it would come together for me at that one moment, in the 200 Meter butterfly at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.”

(Remember, going into a big performance carrying expectations will sink you and your performance. The self-induced pressure will tighten your muscles, send your nervousness skyrocketing and sabotage everything. The more important the performance and the more you want to do well, the farther your focus of concentration needs to be from outcome.)

“A lot of the key was mental,” (Take that comment to the bank! Once you step into a big performance it’s almost 95% mental!), “So instead of thinking about the fact that I was at the Olympic Games, that Susie O’Neill – the defending world champion who hadn’t lost in this event in six years was there, I focused on what was inside my two lane lines: ME!”
“Imagine how psyched out you’d get if you focused on how unbeatable and talented your opponent was or on how big the performance was.)

“I said to myself, “Do the best that you can, regardless of the outcome,” and that will be good enough. I had made some good breakthroughs during our U.S. team’s training camp so what it came down to was this: I was ready and I knew it!

That put me in a great frame of mind. I was completely relaxed and at peace with myself evident by the way that I smiled at the crowd. Because I had found that peace, I was able to focus on MY race, and execute MY race strategy. I was able to stay within myself.” 
 (The secret to slump busting and peal performance is very simply relaxation. You must be calm and relaxed before your performance. While some excitement is necessary for you to perform to your potential, the key here is not to get overly excited. It’s this pre-performance relaxation that allows your muscles to remain loose. Remember, if your muscles are too tight you can kiss your performance goodbye!)

“I went out fast because it hurts more to go out slower. The key for me was not to go out too hard – to stay in my rhythm, stay focused and come home strong in the final 50 meters. When I made the last turn, I said to myself, “I can do this.” I kept getting stronger and stronger. BECAUSE OF MY FOCUS I HADN’T GIVEN AWAY ANY OF MY MENTAL ENERGY TO MY COMPETITORS OR THE SITUATION.” (Think about that! When you blow the importance of the performance way up in your mind, when you over-focus on how good your opponent is, you are giving away your mental energy and strength.)

As I touched the wall I knew I had swum a great race – how good though, I was not sure. I saw a ‘1’ by my name. It took me a moment to realize what had just happened. I had to let everything sink in. Slowly all the pieces came together: I had just won the gold medal, broken the American and Olympic records, and I had beaten Susie O’Neill!”

(The interesting thing about Misty’s accomplishments was that she did not go into the race with the express purpose of doing any of these things. Had she consciously thought about beating O’Neill, breaking the American and Olympic records and winning a gold medal, NONE of this would have happened!)

Are you consistently underachieving or struggling with a performance difficulty? Call me today, I can help!