“He is so talented but gets in his head during games.” “Her skills look effortless in practice but in competition she allows her nerves to get the better of her.”… I hear it time and time again from parents and athletes. They dominate in practice but when they get in competition something happens and they struggle to perform well. Their confidence, ability to focus, and excitement for their sport disappear and they leave frustrated, feeling like they let themselves (and everyone else) down. What happened? Why do the most talented athletes struggle to perform to the best of their abilities in competition?
In this post, I will provide context and tips for athletes who want to take their practice game to competition consistently. After reading this post, you will feel confident and excited because you will learn how to create a plan for competition which will allow you to enter performance-day mentally ready for success. At the end, I will provide you with a resource that will help you step into every competition energized and ready to mentally win!
5 Tips for Taking Your Practice Game to Competition
1. Have a solid practice plan
You have worked tirelessly to improve your skills and develop the strength and technique you need to master them. You are strong, technically accurate, and have the perfect game plan but how are you mentally preparing for success? Most athletes unfortunately miss arguably the most important skill needed to succeed in competition, the mental game. The reason the mental game is crucial to success in competition is that it controls how well you can access your other areas of training. If you do not have confidence, trust in your skills, and know how to focus in competition it does not matter how talented you are, you will not perform well.
During the week, you must train your mental game. Take time during practice, especially the last few before competition, to 1) practice relying on your “motor memory”, 2) Journal about why you deserve to be confident going into a competition, and 3) Decide what you will think about as you compete so you can stay focused on the things that are helpful for you to perform well. Mental game skills are essential for achieving the success you want and for maximizing your potential.
2. Trust your skills
Do you practice so well but struggle to get those same results in competition? This is because you likely are stepping into games with the same mindset as practice and trying to play perfectly and ‘fix mistakes’. Instead of getting the player out, the baseball player focuses on throwing the ball perfectly so they make an error. The cheerleader is so worried about not getting a deduction or bobbling instead of hitting the stunt like they practiced so they fall. When athletes are too focused on not messing up or making mistakes, they lose their ability to react and get a job done. They will begin to overthink plays, feel tense and nervous, and struggle to recover after a mistake.
For athletes to be successful they must understand there are 2 mindsets they need to master; a practice (or training) mindset and a performance (or trust) mindset. A training mindset is when you are at practice and want to perfect your skills and improve. You are working on technique, strength, and mastering your skills. A performance mindset is when you have trust in yourself and allow your body to ‘do what it knows how to do’. You work hard in practice training your body how to do the skills it needs to do and improving your athleticism along the way so trust that and show up ready to perform with freedom. A mantra I love to remind athletes of this is “My practice is complete, I am ready to compete!”
3. Build up confidence
When it comes to gauging your confidence for competition, which type of athlete are you?
Athlete 1: You think back to the last practice, game, or warm-up and decide if you should feel confident in your skills that day.
Athlete 2: You think through all of the reasons you deserve to be confident and tell yourself “I’ve got this!” no matter what.
Athlete 1 is relying on reactive confidence. This athlete will compete feeling great if they are coming off of a good practice but could lose confidence if their first skill does not go the way they wanted. Reactive confidence will cause this athlete to leave one game jumping for joy at their success and then the next crying and disappointed feeling like a failure. Athletes who base their confidence on how they feel that day are relying on their circumstances and will struggle to play well consistently.
On the other hand, athletes who go into games understanding who they are, what they are capable of, and acknowledging the hard work they have put in will have confidence that is greater than their circumstances. They will be less stressed and more focused in competition and will be able to leave with their confidence intact, no matter how they performed that day. They have developed a belief in themselves and their ability to be successful that is greater than one game or mistake. This type of athlete will see success consistently and experience more joy.
4. Play functionally, not perfectly
As a competitive cheerleader in high school, I vividly remember finishing our routine at competition and walking off of the floor with my mind racing through every moment of what I have just done. The thing I was searching for was mistakes and things I did wrong so I could gauge how satisfied I should be with my performance. The focus was not on things that helped me perform each skill as I competed but rather on judging how perfect I was doing.
Think about the last game you saw where an early mistake was the domino that caused everything else to go wrong the rest of the game. The reason this happens is that athletes are focused on playing perfectly. If they make a mistake their chance of perfection goes out the window so they lose momentum. They focus on not making mistakes which causes them to lose steam and give up when things get tough.
Instead of the goal being perfection, set a goal of getting the job done. That means focusing on things that help you play your best. What can you focus on that you can control, that does not add pressure, and that has to do with what you are doing in the moment? This will help you “keep your head in the game” and play with less pressure and more focus.
5. Remember to love the game
Think back to your first ever performance, competition, or game. You were young and in love with your sport and although you were nervous, you could not wait to get out there and show off all of your skills and hard work. What happened? Maybe it was the grueling hours of practice, expectations increasing, or the disappointment of a big loss, but somewhere along the way, your passion for competition was lost.
Going into games with the pressure to win, perform the best you ever have before, and not let anyone down in the process will cause you to enter performances with nerves and a lack of confidence. With this mindset, you will play tense and overthink every move. Instead, what would happen if you took a step back and looked at the game as an opportunity for fun, growth, and connection with others? What if you decided that today, you were going to have fun playing the game you love, sharing great moments with teammates, and being thankful for the ability to play? Gratitude is a powerful tool that turns anxiety and fear into peace and joy.
There you go! Now that you have the 5 tips for taking your practice game to competition you can be excited knowing you can compete with confidence and perform well consistently. One of the most powerful ways to set yourself up for a mentally tough game is by checking your mindset going into competition. I want to help you trade those pre-competition jitters for energy and excitement so I have created a freebie to help you do just that. Click here to grab my Competition Day energy audit.
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