One of the more common and frustrating problems for athletes and their coaches is to consistently perform better in practice than competitions. What causes this and what can be done to turn it around?
The “practice athlete” as they sometimes call themselves are relaxed, confident and aggressive in practice. They have access to all of their skills and show great potential when their performance doesn’t seem to count in their minds. However, the minute you stick them in a pressured situation, it’s like that old movie, THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Someone else takes over their body, completely changes their execution, messes up their mechanics and timing and totally ruins their performance. Some coaches have told me that their athletes are unrecognizable from practice. “That’s not my athlete out there!,” a coach recently complained to me. “I don’t know who that kid is but that’s NOT the kid who shows up every day and trains with me!”
On the surface it’s pretty obvious where these problems come from. In practice, there’s nothing at stake, you don’t have to get it completely right and everyone tends to be far more relaxed. The “practice athlete” is always much more relaxed in practice than in competitions. Not only that, but he/she tends to not be thinking very much during the performance. As a consequence, the practice athlete ‘s focus of concentration is on all of the right things.
However, all of this changes once the game, match or race starts. The athlete suddenly attaches far too much importance to the outcome of the performance and tells him/herself that “now it really counts and I can’t make mistakes!” As a consequence, the athlete begins to experience much too much physical and mental tension, most of it revolving around the outcome of the competition. He/she begins to think way too much and, in the process, loses control of his/her focus of concentration.
So it seems that the “practice athlete” needs to learn how to relax more under pressure. This is certainly true, but not at the heart of the matter. What really needs to change is the athlete’s pre-and during performance focus of concentration. The athlete needs to learn to maintain the very same focus of concentration in games that he/she naturally maintains in practice. More specifically, the athlete needs to keep focused on the process of the performance (exactly what he/she is doing during practice) instead of on the outcome, (whether I’ll win, lose or mess-up).
It’s concentration which is the real culprit here. Focusing on outcome going into a competition is what generates the nervousness and overthinking that always disrupts optimum performance. Most athletes focus on the process in practice rather than the outcome which is why they tend to do better there. So the trick is to teach the “practice athlete” how to maintain the very same concentration in games that they utilize in practice.