Practice is the practical foundation of sports success, meaning it's what you do that determines whether you do or do not achieve your sports goals.
In this post, I will describe why practice is so vital to sports success and the specific mental areas where your efforts in practice must be directed. For you to be the best athlete you can be, you must be serious about your practice in every area that impacts your athletic performances including physical, technical, tactical, and mental.
Practice, the third part of my Prime Performance System, is comprised of five essential elements the goal of which is to ensure that you get the most out of your efforts.
Practice Like You Compete
The reality is that there is one huge difference between practice and competitions: competitions matters! How well you perform and results in practice don't have any value beyond that day. And the fact that competitions matters brings with it all sorts of baggage related to expectations, focusing on results, comparing yourself with other athletes, and fear of failure. That's why so many athletes practice much better than they compete.
Here are two important rules in sports. First, whatever you do in competitions, you must first do in practice. If you want to perform technically and tactically well in competitions, you better get that technique and those tactics down in practice first. The same holds true for every other aspect of your competitive preparations, whether perform physical readiness or mental preparation.
Second, whatever you do in practice is what you will do in a competition. Ideally, the purpose of practice is to develop effective skills and habits that will translate into great performances on game day. But here's the problem: athletes often practice bad skills and habits in practice. For example, if you practice sloppy technique (not intentionally, of course), that's what you become good at and that's what comes out in the competition.
Whether you practice good or bad skills and habits has a huge impact on your mental preparation. Here's an example that drives me absolutely crazy. On game day, you go to elaborate lengths to prepare to perform your best. Yet, I see athletes at the start of practice hanging out and chatting it up with their friends. What these athletes are doing is developing the skills and habits of performing at about 70 percent focus and intensity.
So think about what you do on game day to get ready to perform your best and do the same things in practice.
Consistency is what often separates great athletes from good athletes. The ability of the world's best athletes to go out there, day in and day, week in and week out, month in and month, and year in and year out, is remarkable. The key question is: What makes them so consistent? No doubt innate talent plays a big role, but I would argue that their consistently great performances and competitive results come from consistent preparation in every aspect of their sport and life including their physical conditioning, on-field practice efforts, technique and tactics, mental practice, nutrition, sleep, and school.
Additionally, their consistently great performances comes from consistency of their mind. Regardless of the circumstances, their attitude and confidence are steadfast. They reach their ideal level of physical intensity every drill and play, whether in practice or competitions. These superstars have an unwavering focus and a specific mindset that they adopt before every practice or competitive effort. One key to their consistent performing is a relentlessness that keeps them motivated to keep working hard and never give up. Finally, they have consistent, and positive, reactions to both success and failure; win or lose, they keep on the path that they believe will work for them.
Most importantly, consistently great performances will come from consistency in your practice efforts. The best way to build this consistency is to have a clearly defined goal for every practice session and a structured practice routine that you use before every practice performance. There are three benefits to your practice routine. First, It ensures that you maximize every physical and mental area that will impact your practice. Second, it will ingrain consistent mental and physical skills and habits. Finally, this routine will ensure that every time you practice or compete, you are total prepared to perform your best.
The only way to improve as an athlete is to experiment and try new things. The problem is that improvement is difficult; it takes time and it's frustrating. Experimentation is uncomfortable because new things are unfamiliar, they don't feel good, and they don't usually work right away.
Yet, despite these obstacles, for you to achieve your sports goals, you must be open and motivated to try new things, physically, technically, tactically, mentally, and with your equipment. Only through experimentation can you find that precise mixture of those ingredients that will result in consistently great performances.
One way that I find effective with experimentation is to go to extremes. For example, with your physical intensity, you can try a few drills really relaxed, a few really fired up, and a few somewhere in the middle. In doing so, you identify what your ideal intensity is.
There's an old Texas saying: "If all you ever do is all you've ever done, then all you'll ever get is all you've ever got." Which means if you're not experimenting and trying new things, you're not getting better. Your goal is to constantly seek out and experiment with new ways to perform better.
We live in a culture in which we are led to believe that everything can be accomplished quickly and with little effort (e.g., communication: social media, fame: reality TV, wealth: get-rich-quick schemes). But the reality is just the opposite. Anything in life worth doing takes commitment, time, and energy including achieving your sports goals.
If you buy into the 'fast and now' attitude, you are doomed to a sports experience filled with frustration, dissatisfaction, and failure. This unhealthy perspective will come face-to-face with the normal challenges of our sport including uneven or no progress in practice, and poor results in competitions.
To get the most out of your preparations, you must take the long view on your sport. You must see setbacks as normal and expected bumps in the road to your goals, not brick walls that can't be climbed or knocked down. You need to stay positive and motivated during down periods. You must be focused on the process and the present rather be pulled back to the failures of the past or forward to the possible results of the future. Ultimately, you must have patience, knowing that chasing your sports dreams is a long-term commitment; persistence, knowing that your only chance of success is to keep plugging away; and, finally, perseverance, knowing that you must overcome the inevitable ups and downs of your sport.
The four elements above are directed toward maximizing the quality and value of your practice. The quality of your practice will have an immense impact on how you development as a athlete and the results you produce in competitions. Specifically, it enables you to get the most out of your practice efforts, thereby producing more improvement more quickly. It allows you to make the most efficient and effective use of your practice time. Quality practice enables you to ingrain effective physical, technical, tactical, and mental skills and habits that will result in consistently high-quality performances. Your goal is to engage in high-quality practice every moment of every practice day.
Do you want to learn more about how my Prime Performance System can help you or your young athletes achieve their sports goals? Get your FREE Prime Sport: Psychology of Champion Athletes e-book.