I’ve been involved in high-level sports for most of my life. The first 25 years, I was an alpine ski racer who competed internationally. My athletic life has continued to this day with a 2nd degree black belt in karate, running marathons, and competing in Ironman triathlons. In all cases, I learned the ups and downs of sports mostly the hard way, mostly through trial and error, and sometimes through painful failure. That, I can say with 20/20 hindsight and absolute certainty, is no way to figure out what it takes to be the best athlete you can be. Sure, even the best athletes in the world have to make a lot of mistakes and fail on the way to success. But it is a whole lot easier if you have at least some sense of what works and what doesn’t before problems arise.
The last 26 years of my athletic life have been devoted to helping athletes (and coaches and parents) figure things out before they have problems, so when those problems arise, rather than flailing around, they have some plan for finding solutions.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over these many years in sports, and one that many young athletes don’t seem to get, is that practice really does matter. Too often, I see athletes pretty much wasting their time in practice; all the things that are necessary for quality practice just aren’t there very often. I can’t tell you how much it irritates me when I’m working with young athletes and see them do things that so obviously prevent them from getting the most out of their practice. With that said, let me present to you my 5 Things I Hate to See Athletes Do in Practice:
1. Talking to other athletes just before they begin a drill. Focus is the most important mental contributor to quality practice. Yet, what do I see more often than not before athletes start a drill or a simulated game scenario? Athletes chatting it up, continuing to talk when the drill begins, and, amazingly enough, athletes who are still talking to their pals well into the drill. What’s missing here? Focus, of course. They are focusing on their conversations and what is behind them. What they should be focusing on is what they are working on and what lies ahead in the drill.
Tip: About a minute before your drill, stop talking to the athletes around you. Narrow your focus, do some mental imagery of the upcoming drill, and focus on what you’ll be working on.
2. Cruising at the start of practice. When I compete in sports, the clock starts with the starter’s gun goes off or the whistle is blown. But you wouldn’t know it by the way many athletes approach the beginning of practice. I regularly see young athletes ease into practice by cruising through the first few drills to save energy and then ramping up their intensity near the end of practice. This habit of working their way into practice is related to intensity. Sports require power, quickness, and agility, as well as an aggressive mindset. If you don’t have both intensity and aggressiveness from the moment practice begins, you’re training your mind and body to not be ready when it needs to be. And that habit will hurt you in competition because there’s no place for easing into things when it really counts.
Tip: Get your intensity up (“rev your engine”) before you begin every drill by jumping up and down. Fire your mind up with aggressive thoughts. And explode into the first (and every ) part of practice. Coaches, makes sure you have a clearly identified starting point for every drill, so your athletes get used to going for it from the get-go.
3. Giving up without a fight in practice. This is my number-one pet peeve when it comes to practice. So many athletes I see will struggle in practice and just give up. What a truly terrible habit to get into! If you get used to giving up at the smallest problem in practice, that’s what your mind and body will learn to do in a competition. There are usually some deeper psychological issues at play here that cause athletes to give up at the slightest mistake or setback, notably perfectionism and fear of failure. But the bottom line is that when you bail out of a drill, one thing happens 100 percent of the time: you fail to improve and prepare for competition.
Tip: Fight for your life in all aspects of practice. Of course, there will be some times when you can’t finish the drill because you’re going all out. Those “failures” are the good kind because you are pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. Learning to never give up after a mistake will serve you well in competitions where even the top athletes make mistakes, but get it right back and fight to the finish.
4. Letting up at the end of practice. I see so many young athletes ease up before a drill or practice session actually ends. This is another habit that drives me crazy. Just like with cruising at the start of practice, athletes are ingraining letting up before they are really finished. How often have you seen a athletes having a good competition and then, with the end in sight, makes a big mistake and it costs them a good result? This frustrating experience usually occurs because athletes think they’re finished and lose focus and intensity. But, just as the clock starts at the beginning of a competition, it stops when athletes cross the finish line, so you need to make sure that you are focused and intense all the way to the finish.
Tip: In practice, always go hard till you cross the line or the coach blows the whistle. Coaches, always have a clearly defined finish line or end of a drill in practice so your athletes can get used to going hard in practice to the finish.
5. Asking coaches to make things easier when practice gets difficult. Young athletes love ideal conditions, whether a beautifully manicured field or great weather. But how often do athletes compete under those ideal conditions? Not that often. Yet, I constantly hear, “Hey coach, things are getting too hard here. Can you make it easier?” If you are competing in situations where the conditions are bad, you shouldn’t even begin to practice until the conditions are as rough as the expected competitive conditions. The fact is the only way to perform well in tough competitive conditions is train under those conditions. By doing so, you learn what you need to do to deal with those tough conditions and you build confidence that can still perform well even when the going gets tough.
Tip: Rather than looking for those ideal practice conditions, seek out the worst possible conditions. When the conditions are really bad, say “Bring it on,” go for it, and perform the best you can under those difficult conditions (while realizing that it isn’t going to be pretty or perfect). Coaches, create tough conditions in practice so your athletes will learn how to deal with them in competition.