One common issue that athletes seek sport psychology services for is to learn how to perform in a competition as well as they do in practice. Your physical ability has not changed or decreased, so why does your performance? Weinberg and Gould (2007) state that many times “a lack of physical skills is not the real problem – rather, a lack of mental skills is the cause” (p. 250). As enhancing performance through psychological skills training is the backbone of sport psychology, there is much research and many interventions that have been developed. However, in this article, I will examine one strategy to help combat this issue: bridging the gap between practice and competition. We can do this in two ways: making practice more like competition and making competition more like practice. Here are some strategies you can implement to help bride this gap:
MAKING PRACTICE LIKE COMPETITION
- Up the stakes
- The main difference between practice and competition is the level of pressure. You can even out this difference by applying more pressure to yourself in practice. Create game-day scenarios in your head while at practice. Imagine or visualize yourself performing at a competition.
- CAUTION: Don’t put so much pressure on yourself that it begins to stress you out or interfere with the rest of your life. Use this tool only when you’re prepared to handle performing under the extra stress or pressure
Invite an audience
- The eyes of an audience can immediately increase the amount of pressure an athlete feels. Performing “for” someone can be different than just practicing your skills. Ask friends, family, teammates, coaches, etc. to watch you.
- CAUTION: Be clear with your audience what you expect of them. Do you want advice or critiques? Do you want support and encouragement? Do you want them just to be a set of eyes and not say anything? If you’re looking for support and someone tears apart your performance it can be detrimental to your self-esteem.
Ask for critique or feedback
- If you compete in a judged sport, have a coach or teammate “judge” your performance in practice. Ask about the areas where they would have taken off points. Even if your sport is not judged, you can ask for critique about how what you just did in practice would have gone in competition. What would have gone well? What needs to be worked on?
- CAUTION: Try not to get defensive. Asking for critiques will only be beneficial if you are able to apply them to better yourself.
Hold more frequent mock competitions
- There is a simple fact that you learned when you first began sport: we get better at things when we practice them. Increasing the amount of competition-like scenarios can help you learn how to manage them. It can take some of the anxiety out of a competition when you’ve already learned how to work through the emotions, pressure, etc.
- CAUTION: It is important to make sure your coach is on-board first. Modifying a schedule or how a team utilizes practice time should always be done by a coach.
MAKING COMPETITION LIKE PRACTICE
Familiarize yourself with the facility
- Athletes feel most comfortable in their home gym/court/field/etc. This makes sense since it is where you spend the majority of your training time. You know where everything is and the unique characteristics of the facility. Before a competition, visit the facility you will be competing in and familiarize yourself with it. Visualize yourself performing in this facility. See where the locker rooms are, where you will get water, etc. This way it will feel more familiar to you and you won’t be seeing it for the first time on game-day.
- CAUTION: This may not always be possible. Ask ahead of time if you will have an opportunity to do this and prepare yourself accordingly.
Don’t change behaviors or actions in your warm-up
- Some athletes benefit from a pre-performance routine. This is a set routine of actions or behaviors that you do leading up to your performance. This should be established and set up during practice and continued into competition. That way your body and mind prepared, comfortable, and ready to perform.
- CAUTION: Don’t freak out if something goes differently during a warm-up. You can only control your own actions, so stick to what you know and get yourself back into your pre-competition rhythm.
Regulate your self-talk
- Similar to the pre-performance routine for actions, it is important to keep your self-talk the same in both practice and competition. Establish words or phrases that work to enhance your performance. These can be motivational or instructional in nature. Using the same self-talk in practice and competition can help you focus and feel prepared.
- CAUTION: Beware of creeping thoughts of doubt or negativity. If thoughts arise that don’t benefit you, do not dwell on them or allow them to take root in your mind. Stick to your established and beneficial self-talk.
Regulate your energy level
- Every athlete needs a different level of energy for peak performance. Some athletes need to be very calm and relaxed while others need to be jumping around with through-the-roof energy. Don’t worry if your optimal energy level is unique to your teammates or others. Make sure you understand where you need to be and what you need to do to get yourself there.
- CAUTION: Your sport may require you to have different levels of energy at different times. Check in with yourself frequently to see if you are where you need to be.