Have you noticed that when you practice you perform more naturally and with a higher level of confidence than when you compete? Think about it, you are better able to hit the golf ball the way you want it, land the first serve without a glitch, or throw the ideal football pass without any hesitation. You put a lot of time and effort to do your very best. However, when it really matters, athletes often feel frustrated because their performance fails to demonstrate all the great effort they had put in their practice.
It is true that practicing and performing are two very different situations. When you practice, you primarily concentrate on improving specific technical skills. You work hard to develop muscle memory to help you unconsciously repeat the same stroke, hit, shot or swing. But, are you also practicing by visualizing yourself in situations that resemble real competition?
Top athletes spend countless of hours simulating performance situations that they will encounter in real competition. They believe the more they practice in simulated situations the more likely they are to appropriately respond when situation arises. For example, during practice, to help Tiger Woods deal with unexpected noises coming from crowds, his father used to yell when Tiger reached the top of his backswing. Simulating this annoying situation eventually helped Tiger learn how to cope with this distraction. So, if you are a baseball player, visualize yourself being behind the count; if you play tennis, ask your coach to purposefully call shots out. If you golf, practice in windy conditions. If you play basketball, push yourself to make 20 consecutive free throws.
Practice in situations that make you feel uncomfortable until you feel comfortable. You will raise your level of competitiveness, feel more confident about your skills, and more relaxed when it really matters. Practice like you mean it!!
Alex Diaz, PhD