Every athlete that competes long enough either has or will get a chance to be the hero. I can still remember my own experiences in crunch time. Whether it was in little league or in college, the moments feel like they were yesterday. After all, those are the experiences we train for. Those moments represent countless hours spent refining your craft when nobody’s watching. However, when you’re an 80% free throw shooter and haven’t missed consecutive free throws all season, how can you miss 2 straight in the 4th quarter of the conference finals? When you know you can locate your fastball on either edge of the plate in bullpens, how in the world can you walk the leadoff hitter on 4 pitches? Being overwhelmed in big spots during competition doesn’t make an athlete mentally weak, it means they’re human. The ability to “ignore the noise” in adverse situations should be addressed in practice but is often overlooked. A team’s mental approach can have more influence on the outcome of a game than the sum of their physical tools.
What changes from practice to game time? Are nerves and inexperience to blame for an athlete freezing up in pressure packed situations? Sure, nerves create anxiety and inexperience can have an effect when adversity is unfamiliar to a young athlete. But the game is the game, regardless if you’re playing at a practice or in front of millions of people. Pressure is often self-applied. Nerves come from thinking about outside factors that should have no influence on your ability to execute. I know the times I failed in big spots were when my mind wasn’t clear. Whether I was thinking about my mechanics, velocity readings on the scoreboard, or what coach was thinking about my performance, I was limiting my natural ability to compete.
“The ability to perform instinctively is critical to consistent execution in competition. The reason why you practice is so you can trust your method when its time to play. Athletes who lack trust tend to:
- Second-guess their decisions
- Over-analyze their technique
- Take too long to make a decision
- Avoid taking risks and making plays to avoid mistakes
- Dwell on past mistakes
The more you practice a skill, you’ll develop a memory (motor) program for that movement. With repetition, movements start to feel natural and effortless. If you over control a well-learned skill, your performance suffers,” (Patrick Cohn, How to Perform with Trust in Competition).
It’s easy to say to trust your ability, trust your training. But it’s hard to let your instincts take over when you have doubt in the back of your head about your preparation. Getting after it every single day and maximizing your practice time can provide confidence. Most athletes put time in. They take hundreds of swings off the tee or take 100 unguarded set shots in the gym. Athletes that love to work on deficiencies in their game are much harder to find. To be successful you have to learn to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Ignoring your weaknesses will not make them go away. Turning your weaknesses into strengths will allow your mind to be clear when the game is on the line.
Are your coaches applying pressure in your practices? If not, they should lower their expectations in tight spots late in games. At some point, an athlete must shift gears from a mechanical mindset to a competitive one. “You should spend at least 40% of your practice time in the performance mindset, as competition nears, to help you make an easy transition,” (Patrick Cohn, How to Perform with Trust in Competition). I remember hearing about Tiger Woods’ intense practice regimen. He would run sprints and try to putt when his heart was racing. This was his way of learning to embrace the adrenaline, to use the pressure in the clutch opportunities. I know it may come as a surprise to anyone 13 or younger, but Tiger Woods used to be the most dominant, clutch athlete on the planet. It’s no coincidence that the pressure didn’t faze Tiger one bit.
The last piece of the puzzle is to learn to simplify your thoughts in competition. We work with young baseball players every day and we’ll ask them questions about their approach at the plate. You’d be amazed at how much goes through their head from pitch to pitch. Some will say “I’m thinking about keeping my hands inside the ball” or “I focus on slotting my back elbow.” Practice is the setting to think about mechanical adjustments. The game speeds up on overthinkers. Paralysis by analysis causes athletes to forget how to play the game like they did when they were 7 years old. A hitter should have simple thoughts like “see the ball”, “attack strikes”, “swing hard”. Any thoughts deeper than that will hinder your ability to flat out compete.
If you’re overthinking, slow the game down. To slow the game down, speed up practice. When competing in practice, work on having simple thoughts and a calm focus. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable every day you train so you’re ready to be the hero when you get your shot.