For many sports, it’s that time of the competitive season when results REALLY start to matter. For many athletes and teams, from high school to pros, the REALLY important competitions of the year—States, Regionals Nationals, Worlds—are coming up and it’s REALLY important that they perform their best.
Yet, this is also the time of year when many athletes aren’t performing well at all. In fact, in the last few weeks, I’ve been getting emails and calls from parents and coaches who are desperate for help in getting their athletes back on track. Here’s the consistent message I’m getting: “My kid is performing REALLY fast in practice, but, in competitions, he/she is a totally different athlete. He/she seems scared during competitions. While performing, he/she is REALLY cautious. And, after the competition, he/she kicks him/herself for performing REALLY tentatively.”
So, what happens to athletes as the big competitions approach that causes them to go from “all out” to “play it safe” in such a short time? And what can you do about it so you can set yourself up for success in the REALLY important competitions that are fast approaching?
Why the Change?
Results matter. Let’s be realistic: results matter! You don’t get ahead in your sport because you’re a nice kid or because you try hard (though effort helps). Rather, you move up the competitive ladder because you get the results in the form of wins, placings, , and qualifying for the bigger tournaments or series.
The problem is that when you focus on results, you are actually less likely to get those results for two reasons. First, if you are focusing on results, you’re not focusing on the process, namely, what you need to do to perform your best to get those results. Plus, this result focus can cause you to get really nervous before competitions which makes it nearly impossible for you to perform your best.
“Too” zone. With this emphasis on results, you enter the “too” zone in which you care too much about results and your results become too important to you. In other words, failure to get the results you want is perceived as a direct threat to your self-esteem and goals.
Expectations and pressure. You create expectations which lead to pressure that cause a threat reaction in which you are nervous and tight before competitions. If you are saying any of the following about your upcoming competitions, you know you have gone to the “dark side:” I must…, I have to…, I need to…, I should…, I better…, I gotta…. Each of these is always followed by an implicit threat: “…or else something bad will happen.”
Overthink. In response to this downward spiral, you start to overthink, try too hard, and attempt to control every aspect of your performances. These reactions only cause you to dig yourself into a deeper mental and emotional hole.
This quadruple whammy pretty much ensures that you will perform scared, tight, and cautiously. The paradox here is that this shift almost guarantees that you don’t get the results you want.
How to Reverse the Spiral?
Think less, feel more. The first step in getting back on track involves realizing that thinking more about your performing or putting more effort in won’t work. To the contrary, you actually need to do just the opposite, namely, less thinking, less trying, more feeling, and more letting go.
It starts by recognizing that performing well is about feeling, not thinking. Two types of feelings are involved. First, the physical feelings you like to have before competitions. You want feel strong, comfortable, and at your ideal intensity. Second, the emotional feelings you like to have before competitions. Some athletes like to feel happy and relaxed. Others like to feel inspired and excited.
Perform like a kid. One very consistent feeling athletes often lose this time of year is why they perform in their sport in the first place. Remember that feeling of freedom and joy you used to feel before competitions started to REALLY matter. For example, one athlete I work with who is competing at the World Junior Ski Championships in Are, Sweden next week said that he skis his best when he feels the way he felt when he was a kid. He just loved (and still loves) bombing around a mountain, “hucking” big air, and being a little crazy. In recent years, as his goals have risen and competing in his sport has REALLY started to matters, he has lost touch with the incredible love and joy he feels in his sport. My advice to him? Get back to that feeling and do a lot of bombing, hucking, and craziness in the coming week leading up the big event!
Express yourself. You need to get out of “protective mode” in reaction to seeing the upcoming competitions as threats to avoid and get into “expressive mode” in response to seeing the upcoming competitions as challenges and opportunities to pursue your love of your sport. Competing in sports is like creating a painting on a canvas. You don’t think through every stroke of paint you put on the canvas. Rather, you get in front of the canvas, see and feel the image you want to create, and then you simply turn off your mind and trust your creativity to express that internal image on the canvas. The same holds true for sports. Just before you enter the competitive arena, see and feel how you want to perform, and then trust that your body will express itself during the competition the way you’ve trained it to.
Nothing to lose. You have to perform as if you have nothing to lose (because, in the big picture, you have nothing to lose). You will surely perform your worst if you feel as if every competition is life or death. Now that is pressure! You perform your best when you let go of expectations, pressure, and fear of failure. You perform your best when you are totally focused on the process and the present. You perform your best when you turn off your mind and just let your body do what it knows how to do. You perform your best when you take risks and just go for it. And you perform your best when you are having fun and competing because of your deepest feelings for your sport.
“F&%# it!” (apologies for the bad language). For you to perform your best, you have to get in the starting gate and just say “F&%# it!” This attitude doesn’t mean not caring about your sport, but rather not caring about the consequences of your sport. It means being able to accept whatever happens as long as you take your shot and perform your best. When you adopt the “F&%# it!” attitude, you liberate yourself to perform without doubt, worry, or fear, and with confidence, commitment, and courage.
Three Goals on Game Day
When you are able to clear out the mental and emotional clutter from your mind that’s holding you back, you can then free your mind to focus on three simple goals on game day.
Getting Prepared. Before the competition, you want to be able to say, “I’m as prepared as I can be to perform my very best.” Ultimately, that’s all you can do. Being well prepared doesn’t guarantee success (because you can’t control everything in sport), but not being prepared certainly ensures failure.
Bring it! During a competition, your singular goal is to “bring it,” meaning being fully commit to and completely focused on performing the best you can from start to finish. Bringing it doesn’t guarantee success (because S&%# happens in sport), but not bringing it certainly ensures failure.
No regrets. After the competition, whether you won or lost, you want to look back and have no regrets because you left it all out there. Of course, if things don’t work out the way you had hoped, you’ll be disappointed. But knowing you accomplished these three goals will minimize the regrets and inspire you to pursue these three goals in the next competition. And I truly believe that if you continue down this road, at some point, good things will happen.
Do you want to learn more about how to be mentally prepared to perform your best and achieve your sports goals? Download my FREE Prime Sport: Psychology of Champion Athletes e-book.