Learning How to Win on Bad Days in Sports
Have you ever showed up to the field and kind of already known you weren’t going to play well that day?
As though something inside of you could tell what the future would be. Foreshadowing the inevitable terrible game you were destined to have.
Sometimes when you get to the end of these games, it can seem as though it would have been better to have walked up to your coach and said, “Sorry coach, I just don’t have it today. You better play someone else.”
Getting benched is better than watching as all your stats crumble into a pile of trash.
But what if that feeling didn’t mean you were destined for a bad game?
Every athlete has days where they don’t feel like they’ve got it. In other words, they are having an off day. So the question isn’t whether or not you will have one of these days as an athlete, but how will you respond when you do?
And if you’ve struggled in the past to play well when you weren’t feeling it, that’s okay. Let’s leave that in the past and move on.
It’s time to learn how to win even on the worst of days. This starts with uncovering what exactly causes you, as an athlete, to have off days.
Why Athletes Have Off Days
No, I’m not talking about a rest day. We all know why coaches give players rest days…to allow their minds and bodies to recover. The type of off day I’m referring to is when you simply don’t feel like yourself.
Those days where the rim looks a little smaller than usual, your swing feels off, you feel less coordinated than usual, and something just doesn’t quite feel right.
Have you ever had one of those days?
I imagine you have, if you’ve been playing sports long enough. They’re inevitable. Of course it’d be nice to always feel like you’re on each day. With your mechanics working in harmony and your mind full of confidence…that would be the dream.
But the truth is, even the best of the best have days where things just aren’t clicking. What makes the greats great is being able to get themselves to perform well even when they’re not feeling it.
They know how to dig deep, refocus themselves, and push through the worst of days to where it may appear to onlookers as though they’re never off.
That is something any athlete can learn how to do. But before we get further into the strategy you can use to fight through a bad game, here are the main causes of athletes having an off day:
- Lack of Preparation: when you aren’t prepared, you may be leaving up to chance whether or not you feel good that day. This is especially true if you missed a week of practices and are jumping right back into a game.
- Injury: if you’ve been injured, and here think of a nagging injury, it may be difficult for you to feel 100% and have full confidence going into a game.
- Negative Past Experience: this happens a lot when you’ve played poorly against a specific opponent, or on a certain playing field, in the past. That past memory will haunt you, lowering your confidence and leading to you not feeling like you’re going to have a good game.
- Increased Pressure: if it’s a big game, or if there is someone watching you who you really want to impress, then this type of pressure can have the negative effect of leading to you feeling like you’re not going to play as well as you’d like.
- Perfectionism: with perfectionism, you are focused on being perfect. This can result in you overanalyzing your mechanics going into a game and being too aware of any small feeling that may then signify you aren’t going to have a good day.
- A Hot Streak: now there doesn’t seem to be too much negative about playing really well recently…except for the ever pressing question on your mind of, can I keep this up? Sometimes what happens is that this fear leads you to play tense and almost expect to play badly in a coming game simply because you’ve been doing so well recently.
A key question to ask yourself is whether you play badly on off days because you’re destined to play badly, or because you feel that you don’t have it that day, and so this feeling turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I was working with an athlete who was a perfect example of the negative past experience cause from above.
He played poorly in front of his coaches one time, and now he feels that he can’t play well in front of them at all. Every time he does play in front of them, something feels off and he can just tell that it’s not going to go his way.
What he had done was created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This can happen to any athlete, especially when you play badly once after feeling off for that day. As a result, what happens is whenever you feel that way again in the future, your mind automatically says, “Uh oh, here we go again.”
Your past performances do not need to influence your current game. Just because you’ve played poorly against a certain opponent the last six times you faced them, that doesn’t mean that this time you won’t play really well.
But your past performances do impact how you play if you allow fear to thrive and feel destined to perform poorly simply due to how you feel.
To work on counteracting this, you have to learn how to refocus yourself on these days, and dig down deep to play well and win, even when you’re feeling like everything is pointing towards you playing horribly.
And it all starts with first being able to recognize the feeling.
The Importance of Self-Awareness
Self-awareness refers to recognizing what you’re thinking and feeling and understanding why.
As an athlete, self-awareness is crucial when it comes to your mindset. First and foremost, you have to know what kind of mindset you need to perform your best. We’ll get more into that later.
But in addition, you have to be able to pinpoint when you aren’t feeling like it’s your day, before the game begins. It’s easy to look back and say, “Oh I just didn’t feel great going into the game.” That’s good and all and gives you a wonderful post game excuse.
However, it does nothing to help you in the moment to make sure that the feeling doesn’t create a self-fulfilling prophecy and lead to you playing badly.
To begin growing your self-awareness, a great exercise is writing in a journal. This forces you to begin paying attention to how you’re feeling and what factors are playing into you feeling that way.
What you can do with this is write in a journal each morning, at night, or after practices/games.
If you had a good day, write about it. List out what made it good; how did you feel, how did you play, and what may have led to you feeling that way?
When you have a bad day or you just weren’t feeling it, write about it.
This allows you to begin examining how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking on a deeper level. That kind of awareness of yourself provides you the power to first recognize when you’re having an off day, and then do something about it!
Sport Psychology Tips to Perform Well on Bad Days
Once you gain a high level of self-awareness, you will begin to notice when you may not be feeling it that day before the game begins.
The worst feeling is to look back on a game and realize you just weren’t all there mentally. Wishing you could go back and change your mindset from the get go.
What you want to be able to do is notice, “Okay, today I’m feeling a bit off,” and then be able to use certain strategies to shift how you’re feeling going into the game.
If you can do this, you will be able to raise your level of play on these types of days, which will help you have more consistent performances over time.
For the rest of this article, you will learn three different tips you can use to win even when it seems like it’s not your day.
Tip #1: Pay Attention to What You’re Saying
Imagine you’re about to start a game and you realize you just aren’t feeling it today. Everything is pointing towards you likely repeating what normally happens when you feel like this; having a bad game.
What will you be thinking?
Here are a few examples I’ve heard from athletes I work with:
- “Here we go again!”
- “I know I’m not going to play well today.”
- “There’s no way I can play well after how bad I’ve been doing in practice.”
- “Today is going to be awful.”
- “I never play well when I feel like this.”
You know what these sound like? Self-fulfilling prophecies. Even if you were able to play well when you feel down, it’s not going to happen if you keep telling yourself how you can’t win and how you never play well when you feel like this.
You are asking to have a crappy game!
Instead, pay attention to what you say to yourself and work to say something that boosts your confidence and gives you a better chance of having a good game.
Let’s face it, when it seems like a bad day for you, you might as well give yourself a chance to play well. What’s the worst that can happen? You play badly? Well, that’s almost guaranteed if you keep telling yourself you’re going to play badly.
Here’s what you can say to yourself instead:
- “I can play well no matter how I’m feeling.”
- “I know I can do well today.”
- “I play my best even when I don’t feel good.”
- “Today is a new day and the week of practices are in the past.”
- “I’ve got this today, it’s going to be a great game.”
I know, sometimes these sentences seem like a lie, but here’s the deal: you’ve got to get yourself thinking more positively to give yourself a chance of playing well.
Tip #2: Keep it Simple
When you’re having an off day, a lot of times it’s easy to feel like you have to press and try to do too much.
Instead, what you want to do is keep it simple.
By keeping it simple, I mean focusing on the small things you do well. Don’t try to do too much, that will only result in you pressing and cause you to force an outcome which rarely ends up in your favor.
Here’s how you can keep it simple during a game: think about the top two or three things you need to do to perform well. Don’t think too much about the outcome or the fact that you’re having a bad day. Just keep things nice and simple.
An example is a baseball player who’s not feeling it at the plate. He should keep it simple, thinking about what he needs to focus on to get himself a hit.
Maybe that’s staying balanced throughout his swing, or it involves focusing on picking up the ball earlier in the pitcher’s delivery.
An example for a tennis player is when she isn’t hitting the ball in play very much. Her swing feels off today. She should think about what small aspect needs to be done well in order to hit it in more often.
Here, she may identify her footwork as being slow that day. Therefore, she should give more attention to her footwork.
When you keep things simple, it narrows your focus and gives you something within your control to pay attention to rather than the fact that you’re having an off day.
Tip #3: Know Your Peak Mindset
Sometimes it’s easier to know when you aren’t feeling that great than it is to know when you are feeling that great. More specifically, to describe when you don’t feel like you’re going to play well, verses describing when you do play well.
To be able to perform well even on your off days, you first must know, specifically, what your mindset is like when you play your best. This is known as your peak performance mindset.
There are certain moods athletes are in when they are at their best. Working as a mental performance coach, I’ve seen a wide range of different types of mindsets.
Some athletes perform their best when they are relaxed and having fun. Others do their best when they’re focused on proving other people wrong. What works for you works for you, that’s all that matters.
What you need to do is define that. In a single sentence, what does your peak performance mindset look like?
Then, whenever you find yourself feeling like you’re going to play poorly, think about what your mindset is like when you play your best, and try to get yourself into that frame of mind.
Not everyday is going to feel like you’re on top of the world. To be a consistent player, you have to learn how to win even on bad days as an athlete.
To do so, there are certain tips you can use.
You first want to pay attention to what you’re saying to yourself. Be careful not to create a self-fulfilling prophecy (a negative one, that is).
Next, be sure to keep things simple. Break down your game to very specific aspects you can focus on.
Lastly, know what your peak performance mindset looks like. Then, work to get yourself into that mindset going into the game.
If you use these tips, it will help you learn how to win even on bad days in sports. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do
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Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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