Why Athletes Underperform in Games
Nothing's worse than putting in hours upon hours of work only to underperform in competition.
To make matters worse, you're probably performing well in practice. It's games where you're having trouble. But unfortunately, games are what matter.
So what can you do if you're underperforming during games? You show high-level skills in practice, and you know that you're training as hard, if not harder than others who are playing well. So what can you do?
Well, what you need to do first is identify what's causing you to underperform in games. From there, you need to work on overcoming the cause.
If you do, that's where you free yourself to simply perform like you know you're capable of during games.
What Causes You to Underperform in Games?
If you're like most athletes, if you're underperforming in competition your mind will immediately shoot to your mechanics. You may watch more film, break down your swing, shot, or throw, and make any tweaks you can that you think will help.
And sometimes this does help. But a lot of times it actually hurts. Because for the majority of players, the reason you underperform is not physical. It's mental.
The best way to tell is by looking at how you're doing in training and practice. If your mechanics are smooth then and you perform well, then what do you think is changing come game time? Your mechanics aren't all of a sudden getting thrown out the window.
Instead, there's likely a mental block causing you to underperform.
Now, sometimes it is physical, so we will cover that in more detail. But there are countless mental game challenges that are to blame for athletes underperforming in competitions.
Your Physical Skills
Before we examine your mental game, it's always a good idea to check and see if there's anything physical that may be causing you to underperform. These adjustments can often be made a lot easier than altering your mindset.
What you can do is film yourself during practice. Then film yourself during games (or look at film from past games if you have it).
Now, what you're looking for are any mechanical changes being made between practices and games that may be causing you to underperform.
You may also notice that your mechanics are off in practice as well, you're just getting away with it there because play is not happening at game speed.
If you identify any mechanical aspect that needs to be worked on, put it into practice or take some time to train those areas of your game on your own.
Now, what you want to be careful of is focusing too much on your mechanics during games. That will only distract you, as you'll learn in one of the following causes.
If you decide something mechanical needs to be improved, do so during practice to build muscle memory. But during games you have to let go. You can't control mechanics during games because the game is moving too fast.
During games you just want to be reacting.
So, check and see if anything physical is causing you to underperform during games. If there is, work on it during practice to build muscle memory, but then let go and simply react during games.
Sports Performance Anxiety
Now we're getting into the mental blocks that may be causing you to underperform in games. Sports performance anxiety involves extreme worries about what may or may not happen.
A lot of times this will be centered around not wanting to make a mistake. What happens when you have anxiety is that you focus too much on the outcome. This leads to you pressing and you may play more tense.
Anxiety in sports is caused by outcome-oriented thinking. This is where you focus too much on the outcome. Whether it's the outcome of the game, a play, your stats, or even what people will think of you. You are worried about the future.
Here we see a big difference between practices and games. During practice, you are likely more focused in the present moment. What you're doing doesn't matter the same way it does during games. So, you give more attention to what you're doing and less attention to the outcome.
But during games, all of a sudden what you do matters. So you try to force an outcome which only keeps you from playing up to your potential.
Fear of Failure
I've worked with a lot of athletes who struggle with the fear of failure. It's a common mental block among athletes because no one wants to fail. You don't go out there hoping to play terribly.
But the truth is, mistakes happen, bad games happen, and sometimes you're going to lose. And that's okay. Until it's not okay because you are afraid of making mistakes and afraid of losing.
There's one commonality between the players I've worked with who've dealt with the fear of failure: they all hold themselves back.
One told me it used to feel like he was playing with his foot on the break. Even if he didn't play badly, he was still frustrated because he didn't play like he knew he could.
Have you ever felt like that? Where you’re playing timidly and holding yourself back?
If so, that's due to fear. And when you play with fear, you will consistently underperform.
It's okay to want to play your best during games. In fact, I seriously hope that's your aim. Otherwise, what are you training so hard for?
But here's the problem...when that desire to play your best turns into a need to be perfect.
When you want to play your best, you also understand the reality that mistakes will happen and that mistakes can and should be used to help you improve.
But when you need to be perfect, mistakes mean you aren't good enough.
You will focus too much on the outcome and if you do make a mistake, you will likely get overly upset which then negatively impacts your play moving forward.
The second way is that over time, perfectionism lowers your confidence. If each game you see yourself as not good enough and never being perfect, how much confidence do you think you'll have? Very little.
And as you're about to learn, low confidence will easily cause you to underperform during games.
During games, you have to let go. This is not the time to be second guessing and over analyzing your mechanics. That's what practices are for. During games, it's all about reacting.
You want your muscle memory to take over.
Think about athletes who say they played in the flow state. Most say they weren't thinking, they were just doing. There's a reason for that...your mind typically just gets in the way when you play.
Now, as a mental performance coach, I help athletes use their minds to increase their performances. So I do have them think during games. But that's only because they're thinking already, only, they're thinking about things that are hurting them.
Because the flow state cannot be forced. It must be allowed to happen. And it will never be allowed as long as self-doubt's around.
If you're playing a game and you're doubting your skills, or worse, doubting your ability to perform well during games, that's going to be a huge reason why you're underperforming.
How to Stop Underperforming in Games
Once you identify what's causing you to underperform in games, the next step is for you to get to work!
If it's your physical skills that are holding you back, you want to get specific about what part of your mechanics you need to work on. Then, make a practice plan for yourself to be sure you are making progress on improving.
Now, if the reason you are underperforming in games is due to a mental block, then you want to work on overcoming these challenges.
You can do this on your own, where you work on overcoming performance anxiety in sports, managing fear of failure, etc.
Or, you can work with a mental coach who will help you overcome your mental blocks and teach you strong mental skills that will increase your performance.
I provide one-on-one mental performance coaching for athletes who are currently underperforming in competition.
Through weekly coaching sessions, we will work together to identify the reason you underperform and then work on strengthening your mindset so you can perform like you know you can during games.
Whether you work on your own, or work with a mental coach, it's important that you begin taking steps to stop underperforming during games
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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