I get referrals every week from parents and coaches who want to understand how their athletes can play better under pressure, and more importantly, how their athletes can take what they learn in practice and transfer it to the playing field or whatever competitive environment in which they compete. Most players work very hard in practice to understand exactly what they’re supposed to do in a game, but things are completely different once the actual competition begins.
What do we know about competition?
First, the environment of a competition is a much more variable. Let me explain. In a game, pretty much everything is unknown. The only things that we’re sure of are the rules and the time. That’s about it. Conversely, in practice, you can control just about any factor that you choose. You can take away control, and you can give control. You dictate the environment. As a coach, you can set up an intrasquad game, or you can have your players run a drill and try to overcome a challenge that you’ve created.
As a coach or a player, you can do your best to mimic a highly competitive environment, but it’s never quite the same as the real thing. In a game, pressure is just different. The variable nature of competition almost always increases the amount of pressure on the players, because they’re now competing against someone or something that really doesn’t want to give up any control. In golf, for example, every shot you hit is from a different lie and different yardage, and with a variety of clubs. Every play you call in football and every shot you take in a basketball game has different circumstances surrounding it.
It’s important to understand the difference between how the mind functions in practice and how it works in competition. In practice, we commonly try to improve and build, and to do this successfully, we know that we need to give up some of our ego attached to outcomes and results. We also know that when we try to improve, we’re likely to fail more than a few times along the way.
Competition Is Different
In an actual game or match, you’re battling for an outcome, for something that you desire and something that means a lot to you and the people around you. This means that every play, every shot, and every outcome has a significance that’s much deeper than just improvement.
This creates a huge pressure burden on every athlete. When I evaluate athletes and work to help them improve their games, I often make use of examples from other competitive areas. One of my roommates in college is now a trauma orthopedic surgeon. I asked him how he handles pressure. I found his answer to be quite interesting and something that all athletes can relate to and learn from. As a trauma orthopedic surgeon, he said, you never know what’s coming through the door, except for one thing: You know that the individual on whom you’re about to operate has been involved in a traumatic event and needs medical attention.
You may have certain pieces of the person’s medical condition and history, but that’s about it. This means that the surgeon has to do a rapid and immediate assessment to figure out exactly what the next move should be. Thankfully, he or she understands that there are components and factors that they can control and procedures that they can fall back on every time, regardless of the situation’s particulars. Whether it’s breathing, circulation, or any other system, they understand the factors that are at the core of everything they need to do regardless of how the pressure may build – and it does build. People talk faster, think more intensely, and act more purposefully. The role of the trauma surgeon is to constantly exhibit control, even if control isn’t yet a given. Whatever’s happening around them, they need to maintain a demeanor that says, “I’m in control.”
Athletics is no different. Whether you’re playing in Yankee Stadium, the U.S. Open, or in your backyard, the ballyard is the ballyard. Nothing changes except how you embrace and engage the pressure situation.
Flipping The Switch In Performance
If, like a lot of people, you find that you succeed in practice but struggle in competition, there are a couple of steps you can learn to make the mental adjustment to the challenge at hand, managing the increased pressure of competition, or what I call The Switch. Before going into the individual steps, it is important to clarify what I mean as The Switch – The Switch is the mental switch that happens in athletes that actively engage the challenge of the moment and competition and embrace the uncertainty. It is only then that they become comfortable in the uncomfortable and become masters of the competitive moment. The Switch is the mental operation behind the physical experience of competition, and the steps to make The Switch are:
Abandon the need for validation and ultimately embrace the challenge of competition.
To abandon the need for validation, you have to give up the need for approval and acceptance from your coaches, your family, and your friends. Competition demands everything from you. If you take some of that competitive power away by trying to please a coach, a scout, or college recruiter, you’re giving up control and power and using precious resources to deal with a distraction.
Learn to accept the fact that the outcome is always uncertain, and instead invest in the process to achieve a desired outcome.
The results of every game you play are unknown. You simply can’t control outcomes. Most people try to control outcomes because they’re trying to prevent a negative outcome, as though they’re not capable of handling the bad as well as the good.
What does it say about you if you can’t handle the negative? It says that you don’t have faith in yourself to manage both the good and the bad, that you don’t have the ability and the resources to overcome challenges, and that if something is going to go your way, it must go perfectly. To make The Switch in competition, you have to accept that the outcome is unknown but be willing to fight for whatever happens with everything you have. Investing in the process is the way to get there.
Athletes with the IT Factor can take that process and that training and the things under their control and do something with them to help raise the probability that they’ll achieve an outcome they desire. Let’s be real. If you’re competing and you’re not trying to win, you might as well stop going to competitions. We compete to win. It’s who we are. One of the underlying drives is accomplishment. In order to be competitive, you must let go of the need to control the outcome but invest everything you have in trying to achieve the outcome that you desire.
Compete with a present focus.
The single most important question you can ask yourself is, “What is important now?” If you don’t play to get your coach’s approval and validation, and you don’t play for the outcome of the game so that it can give you that validation, you can then play with a present focus: “I accept the things I’ve done in the past. I know the future is uncertain, but the only thing that matters is now. If I’ve won every match before this one, this match doesn’t know the difference. I must meet the demands of this match right here, right now, with all of my resources aligned to reach that goal.”
It’s a simple question, but it’s hard. Most human beings are desperate to rewrite the past. If we’ve had troubles, we want to make them better – not for the present, but to make the past more accommodating to our mindset and our ego. The future is unknown. We have to accept that. Every moment and every second is a blessing. Nothing is a given. If we can’t control the future, and we can’t rewrite the past, why not invest in the present?
In order to make The Switch, the game that’s right here and right now – regardless of your past successes and failures, regardless of the decisions that are going to be made and the opportunities you’re going to have in the future – is all that matters. The moment is now. Those who can make the cognitive switch to be great in competition are the ones who can focus on the now-the present moment and challenge.
Use your tools creatively.
It’s how you apply them that really matters. Imagine that you’ve hired a carpenter to move a wall and install new windows in your house. Do you want a carpenter who only has one tool? What if that carpenter attended just one weekend workshop and only learned how to use a hammer. As the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.
What makes the master carpenter brilliant is that he or she can take any tool in their toolbox and use it not only for what it was intended for, but for a wide variety of other functions. Good craftsmen learn to use tools to do whatever they need to do to get the job done. They aren’t limited to a tool’s stated or primary purpose.
I see this with athletes all the time. They get stuck trying to apply a strategy or a technique in a strictly literal sense. They don’t allow themselves the cognitive and physical flexibility to apply the tools they have in new ways. Just because you use trial and error and get creative doesn’t mean that you’re abandoning what you’ve learned. You’re just looking for alternate options and thinking outside the box, because if you don’t, you’re going to be very limited when you try to apply your training. An athlete becomes a creative artist when he or she can take the skills they’ve learned and apply them in a unique way to handle whatever situation or challenge they’ve encountered. That’s what it takes to make The Switch.
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