Good At Practice But …

Sports psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at some of the reasons why many athletes can easily perform in training but struggle on competition day.

Frustrated Golfer
One of the greatest frustrations in sport in not being able to execute your skills when it matter most

There are literally hundreds of reasons why people contact us – as psychologists who specialise in mental aspects of sport and performance. The most common, however, is the athlete/performer who excels in practice (preparation) situations but struggles to reach anywhere near this level during actual competitions (“when it counts”).

It’s worth mentioning that there is always a risk when writing about the psychological aspects of performance of oversimplifying matters. This is certainly the case here. Be aware of this when I suggest that although there are potentially hundreds of causes of the old “good at practice but …” phenomena most can be attributed to either:

  • a practice environment that is mentally too easy
  • a competition mindset that is unnecessarily taxing
  • the perfect storm – a combination of both of the above

Quite simply most of those who are better at executing their skills in practice are better as they are doing so in a false environment. One where more often than not there are little or no consequences involved. Go to any golf driving range in the world and you’ll see dozens of golfers (if we can call them that) smashing balls into the distance without caring about where they end up. Take the same golfers and plonk them onto the first tee with three other golfers watching and see how suddenly smashing this particular ball into the distance makes them tighten up and duck hook it straight out of bounds.

Even those who practice smart and try to replicate the mental demands of competition in their preparation often struggle as they tend to fall short of being able to mimic feelings of extreme pressure. The result is that they then have to try and execute their skills in competition whilst experiencing feeling like extreme nerves or stress that were not there during practice.

There are a number of tried and tested ways around. Although reading this blog should never take the place of working 1-on-1 with a qualified sports psychologist the below might be enough to at least get the ball rolling.

1. Make Your Practice Mentally Harder

By harder we mean mentally harder not physically harder. The easiest way to try and do this is by replicating situations that you don’t like or that you find hard. For example, you might prefer to practice in the morning so you intentionally switch some practice sessions to the afternoon. Or you might enjoy practising with others so you’d do more and more training alone.

2. Make Your Competition As Relaxed As Possible

Is it possible for an athlete to be too relaxed whilst competing? Not really (don’t confuse tiredness with being relaxed) so we suggest you do what the great Usain Bolt used to do. He only “worked” on things in training. This freed up his competitions to just exist, enjoy himself and let his training express itself without a worried mind getting in the way. In particular, he didn’t worry about being worried.

3. Use Performance Routines

Action-only pre-performance routines can be a great way to keep you grounded at certain key moments both in practice and during competitions. The reason they work so well is that they’re built using the only controllable aspect of performance – present actions. This means they should remain both easy to do and consistent regardless of the thoughts and emotions of the current situations. You didn’t really think that Rafa Nadel actually sweated that much did you?

If you’d like a helping hand with some/all of the above then allow me to recommend Condor Performance’s ridiculously affordable online Mental Toughness Training Program – Metuf. For free you’ll be guided through many of the same keymental skills that we use with our sporting clients.