How to Turn Practice Skills into Game-Time Execution

As a mental performance coach, one of the main reasons athletes come to me for help is because they aren’t playing well in games. But it’s not just that they aren’t playing well in games, it’s that they are playing well in practice.

There is a disconnect between the talents they show in practice and their execution in a game.

Talk about frustrating!

If you’ve experienced this yourself as an athlete, or perhaps are experiencing it right now, you know how irritating and confusing this is. Trying to wrap your head around what’s going wrong can drive you crazy!

I experienced this personally back in college. In practice, I’d hit the ball with ease, but my average in games didn’t reflect the talents I was exhibiting. Funny enough, what I did directly mirrored what I see a lot of athletes do…

I over-analyzed my mechanics.

An athlete's mind has been trained over many years to focus on technique and try to perfect their mechanics. After all, it’s hard to succeed without a strong foundation. However, this is typically not the cause of you not performing well in games.

What I failed to realize as a player, and have now come to understand clearly as a professional in the sport psychology field, is that when you play well in practices but fail to translate that to games, it’s not your technique that’s to blame, but your mind.

And so, in this article, we are going to dive into what truly causes this disconnect, and then show you how you can turn practice skills into game-time execution.

What Causes You to Underperform in Competition

If it’s not your physical mechanics that are to blame, then we need to turn to your mental game.

Now, a quick explanation may be helpful to show you just why your physical skills aren’t the problem.

If you are doing well in practice, you clearly have the necessary talents and skills to succeed, right? You aren’t all of a sudden forgetting how to play between practice and the game.

What’s happening is that there are certain mental blocks occurring, keeping you from allowing the skills you possess to shine during games.

If you remove the blocks, then your talents will come bursting in, and your gameplay will drastically increase.

So…what are the mental blocks that keep you from performing well in games?

It can be summed up to three mental game challenges: anxiety, fear of failure, and poor focus.

Sports Performance Anxiety

Anxiety can be present in both practices and games, but typically it's felt stronger during competition due to the added pressure to succeed.

It’s understood that practices are a time for working, improving, and as a result, making mistakes. Games, on the other hand, are a time for performing. Your aim is to win, to show what you have trained for, and sometimes…perfection.

This desire to succeed opens the door for sports performance anxiety. This involves extreme worry about what’s going to happen that then results in physical and psychological symptoms leading to you performing below your potential.

Fear of Failure

During practices, mistakes are not always welcomed, but they are accepted. You recognize the importance of messing up, so that you have a new lesson to begin working on.

The difference between practices and games is the acceptance of such mistakes. During a game, the last thing you want to do is fail. Failure means you lose, failure means your stats drop, and failure can potentially mean you’re benched.

It’s the fear of such failure that can keep you from taking those skills you show in practice and translating them into a game.

During practice, you’re likely more relaxed. Your attention is given more to what you’re doing, rather than the outcome. During a game, this is switched. It’s much easier to become distracted by the outcome, and play timidly as a result.

Poor Focus

How many distractions can you find during practice? No matter how many you locate, I promise there are a lot less than during games.

When it comes to competition, distractions are everywhere. The first place you will find them is the fact that there’s now an opponent. Rather than simply working on your skills, you are faced with competing against someone else.

There’s also the addition of fans. Yeah, some people might watch your practices, but not nearly as many, or with the same intensity, as there are watching your games.

Then, there’s the field condition, officials, weather, mistakes, and so many more things that work to keep your attention from where it needs to be placed…on the present moment.

Due to these many distractions, it can be difficult to control your focus, leading to you playing worse in games than you do in practice.

How to Turn Practice Skills into Game-Time Execution

Now that you’re aware of the three main mental game challenges resulting in your inability to take the skills you show in practice and translate them into a game, what can you do about it?

Well, a good way to understand the work that needs to be done is to imagine if the problem were physical.

Let’s say you realized it was some aspect of your mechanics that was holding you back during games. What would you do?

You would likely dissect the problem, break down your mechanics, and begin working each day to fine-tune them and improve the area that was holding you back.

In simple terms, you would work to overcome the block and work on improving your skills.

That is the same approach you must take to overcome the mental game challenges keeping you from performing well in games. They need to be worked through and your mental skills must be improved.

Now, we could break it down and work on sports performance anxiety, fear of failure, and focus individually, however, many of the skills that would be involved would overlap.

So, what we’re going to do is simply work on a strategy you can use, that if implemented, will cultivate the necessary mental skills you need to control your mind better and turn practice skills into game-time execution.

Pay Attention to How You’re Thinking

Whether you’re dealing with anxiety, fear, or poor focus, there is a single factor they all have in common: your thoughts.

Each one is influenced by the way you are thinking.

When you’re anxious, it is due to the worries you have about what may or may not happen. When you’re fearful, you are thinking about all the things that could possibly go wrong. When you lose focus, your thoughts are centered on distractions.

At the core of your inability to translate practice play into game-time execution, are uncontrolled thoughts.

The strategy to gain control of your thoughts is implementing positive and productive self-talk.

When you focus on your thoughts, you can use them to your advantage. Simply by altering what you’re thinking, you can increase confidence, promote a sense of calm, and refocus your attention where it needs to be placed.

It’s not easy to control your thinking, especially during games, but if you can, if you can decide to think something more positive and productive, it will make a huge difference on your level of play.

Here are a few examples of some self-talk statements you can use depending on whether you’re struggling with anxiety, fear, or poor focus.

Self-Talk for Anxiety:
  • Take a deep breath and stay calm.
  • I trust in myself and my skills.
  • I’ve got this. I’m prepared and excited to play.
  • I can’t wait to play today!
Self-Talk for Fear:
  • I am confident in my skills.
  • Let go of the outcome and focus on the present.
  • I’m going to have a great game.
  • I know I’m a great player.
Self-Talk for Poor Focus:
  • Stop and refocus.
  • Be here.
  • Focus on myself and my responsibilities.
  • I can only control what I can control. Be present.

I know these may seem simple, but the point is to get yourself thinking in a different way. It’s more about the pattern interrupt that happens as you force yourself to repeat these new statements instead of the typical negative self-talk exhibited during games.

Use Mental Rehearsal

Confidence and pressure.

Those are two sneaky little devils that can wreak mayhem on your performances if left unchecked. Confidence, if it’s too low, and pressure, if it’s too much to bear.

The mental training tool known as mental rehearsal can help to be sure both confidence and pressure are aligned just as they should be going into competition.

Mental rehearsal is the practice of visualizing yourself performing. There are two key elements you must be sure to use to make your mental rehearsal powerful: detail and emotion.

Go into as much detail as possible while you’re visualizing. Ask yourself, who’s there? What does the field or court look like? Who am I playing?

Next, bring emotion into the practice. A key emotion you want to feel as an athlete while visualizing is confidence. Get yourself feeling as confident as you can possibly feel. That will begin to anchor the feeling of confidence with your sport.

The next part of emotion comes at the end of visualizing. Feel successful and happy, just like you would if you played well in real life.

Mental rehearsal works to increase your confidence, which simultaneously helps you manage the pressure that can cause you to underperform in competition compared to what you do during practice.

Set Yourself Clear Objectives

During practice, when you’re performing a drill, what are you focused on? Probably that drill.

Okay, but during a game, when you’re playing, what are you focused on? Oh it could be a whole number of things: the score, your stats, what your coach is thinking, the other team, the officials, the list goes on and on.

So what does that tell us?

That if you want to play as well as you do in practice during a game, you have to mimick the type of awareness you have.

That is where performance objectives come into play. These are clear targets you set for yourself during a performance. What they do is center your attention onto something that will help you perform your best.

By giving yourself something to focus on, you are working to reduce your mind’s tendency to think about all the other unhelpful things that only lower your level of play.

Now, for your objectives, we’re going to set targets that have to do with the outcome, right? Like a certain number of points, runs, or any other statistical marker?

Nope!

Performance objectives must be 100% in your control.

Think of these as the actions that will lead you to your destination. While you can’t fully control the outcome of a game, you can influence it through the process. That process is what performance objectives force you to focus on.

Here are a few examples of what some performance objectives may look like for you:

  • Stay balanced during my swing.
  • Focus on feeling confident even after making a mistake.
  • Repeat my self-talk during the game.
  • Follow through on all my shots.
  • Keep my eyes locked on my target.
  • Give full effort on every play.
  • Remind myself to let go of mistakes and focus on the next play.
  • Use breath work whenever I feel anxious.
  • Stick to my routine throughout the game.

Simple, and part of the process is what you’re going for with your objectives. They provide you with a clear idea of what you need to be focused on that will put you in the best position to take your practice skills and translate them into a game.

Final Thoughts

An incredibly frustrating situation to find yourself in as an athlete is seeing a disconnect between the level of your play in practices and games.

Over and over you think, scrutinizing and analyzing your mechanics, wondering what’s going wrong!

But here’s the truth…if you’re playing well in practice, it’s not your skills that are to blame. Your challenge is mental.

There are three main mental game challenges that lead to poor play during games: sports performance anxiety, fear of failure, and poor focus.

To overcome these challenges, your job is to work on cultivating stronger mental skills, such as confidence and control over your attention. The three mental game tools described in this article will help you do just that.

Pay attention to how you’re thinking, use mental rehearsal, and set performance objectives. That is a strong strategy to help you turn practice skills into game-time execution. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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