The Wimbledon Tennis Championships just concluded and the Women’s Soccer World Cup is under way. And then there’s you. You’ve worked hard in pursuit of your goals and, hopefully, you’ve achieved at least some of your competitive goals including qualifying for an upcoming big event. You may not be in the “Big Show” yet, but that doesn’t mean that your approaching big competition is any less important.
But getting there isn’t enough; you want to perform your best in the “Big One!” Continuing to improve your technique and maintaining your fitness through a long competitive season will have helped. But whether you succeed or fail to achieve your goals at these all-important competitions ultimately depends on what happens between your ears as these events near. Approaching these competitions with the right attitude is your key to performing your best.
The problem is that important events can play mind games with your head. Instead of just wanting to do your best, you REALLY want to do your best or, even worse, you MUST do your best. Your focus can shift from “What do I have to do to perform well?” to “What kind of result do I want to get?” or “What will happen if I don’t perform well?” What had been goals turn into pressure-laden expectations. What is supposed to be a challenge to enjoy becomes a threat to fear. If you go the “dark side” of big events, you have lost before you even step into the competitive arena.
There are two schools of thought on how to prepare for a big competition. One approach is to try to ignore the fact that it’s important and simply say, “It’s no big deal so there’s nothing to get worked up about.” In significant events, such as a conference or national championship, some athletes will train in isolation and keep away from anyone who can cause distractions or create expectations and pressure, such as fans (however well meaning they are), before big events. These athletes want to treat important events like just another competition and to ignore the hype surrounding the event.
The risk of this approach is that big competitions are hard to ignore even if athletes keep isolated. By ignoring the reality of the situation, you may not be preparing yourself for the magnitude of the event that will inevitably hit you sooner or later. You will have to face the hyped expectations—usually from family, friends, coaches, and fans—at some point, but you won’t be mentally prepared to handle the inescapable pressure that comes with the big event.
The other school of thought argues that big competitions can’t be avoided, ignored, or downplayed. Rather, athletes must face the reality of these events and do what they can to respond positively to the unavoidable expectations and pressures. And for some athletes, for example, where the competition means a lot to a town, there is nowhere for them to hide. This approach has athletes say, “This event is a big deal, so let’s figure out how to deal with it positively.” With this tactic, you must acknowledge that your upcoming competition is a huge event and is not to be taken lightly. You must establish an attitude that will enable you to achieve your goals (“I am going to believe in myself, stay grounded, and focus on what I need to do to perform my best.”). This attitude helps you deflect the external and self-imposed pressures and enables you to maintain a positive and healthy perspective and focus as you approach the big competition. The risk of this approach is that, despite your best efforts, you won’t be able to deflect the expectations and pressure. Instead of inoculating yourself against the pressure, you actually succumb to it.
With either approach, the most important thing you must do is to stay focused on the process of your preparations and do your best to ignore any emphasis on the possible results of the competition (an outcome focus is a kiss of death for athletes!). You need to figure out what you need to do to be totally prepared to perform your best (e.g., technical and tactical training, mental preparation). You should also recognize what and who might interfere with your preparations (e.g., too much time with family and friends). Finally, you must take deliberate steps to ensure that you maintain that attitude and do the things that you have learned will lead you to success.
What we can learn from this is that there is no one ideal approach. You must look at how you have handled big competitions in the past. If you performed well using one approach, then stick with it (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”). But if it didn’t work before, don’t expect it to work next time. In this case, you will want to do something different. Regardless of the approach you take, the goal is to enter a big event feeling motivated, confident, relaxed, and focused. If you feel that way, you have a better chance of performing your best and achieving the goals you have set for yourself.