Why You Perform Well in Practice But Not Games: And How to Fix This!
Right now, is there a disconnect between the level of your play in practice and the quality of your performance come game time? If there is, you are likely at the point of complete frustration.
There is honestly nothing more irritating for an athlete or performer than to know you can perform well because you’ve seen yourself do it time and time again in practice, but come game time, you produce terribly below your potential.
Not only is this cause for irritation, but also confusion. The question of why consumes your mind. Why, just why, can’t you translate your play in practice into the game?
I’ve got some good news, you can stop looking to mechanical issues as the culprit. For most athletes, this is the first place you will turn. I’ve been there and can attest, constant scrutiny of your mechanics will only lead to further problems.
If it’s not physical, then what is to blame? Beyond your physical talents, there is only one place left to turn… your mind.
The True Causes of The Disconnect
For so many athletes and performers, our minds are the last place we turn. So much emphasis has been placed on physical skills. Of course, you must become highly skilled in your sport. However, physicality and mechanics are only one side of the equation.
I can remember feeling completely exhausted by my constant analysis of my mechanics. If I wasn’t hitting well in a game, I thought for sure, something had to be off with my swing.
Funny enough, I was crushing the ball in practice. This showed there was absolutely nothing wrong with my mechanics. Meaning, something else was to blame for my lack of production.
I could never quite grasp this concept in college. Mainly, I think, due to my desire to control the situation. There was immediate control in going to the batting cage and scrutinizing every aspect of my swing.
But you shouldn’t aim for control; you should strive for success. Something that can only come about when you have the mindset to match your physical skills.
So, let go of the need to perfect your mechanics. If you are doing well in practice, obviously you have the skills and talents necessary to succeed. We now must turn to the mental blocks which are to blame for the lack of practice-to-game translation.
At first glance, what will initially stick out to anyone in terms of the difference between a game and practice is pressure. For the most part, practice is a safe environment. It’s a place you can fail over and over.
No one is keeping score, and there is no stat line judging your performance. This automatically allows you to focus on your skills and improve the intricacies of your performance.
Jump to a game and everything changes. Now they’re keeping score, and each little mistake is carefully outlined on the stat sheet. All of a sudden, so many other possibilities present themselves for you to turn your focus.
What this leads to is pressure. Pressure is derived from expectations. You expect yourself to perform a certain way, your parents expect you to play well, and your coaches expect you to help the team win.
The interesting part about pressure is it’s all created within your own mind. Yeah, you have your coaches, teammates, parents, and fans expecting you to perform well, but the pressure is all of your own making.
Now, me saying that doesn’t eliminate the presence of this pressure. What it does do, though, is help you realize the power you possess.
A lot of times we think we must feel pressure in order to be invested in our performance. However, in reality, allowing pressure to become fixed in your mind results in lower levels of production.
You are consumed with worry and fear, both of which are a direct result of the expectations you feel, leading to pressure becoming your main focal point of concern.
Instead of trusting in your abilities and the success you’ve seen in practice, you begin to doubt yourself. This doubt grows the more pressure you place on yourself to succeed.
Anxiety is characterized by extreme worry. This worry is based in fear, as you are concerned about the game not going the way you would like.
That really is the main driving force for anxiety. We can get into all other technical areas, but at the core, your worry is driven by the idea that you are not going to succeed.
What happens when your mind is full of anxious thoughts? Well, as you know, your performances will suffer. So much of success in sports and life boils down to focus.
When you are consumed with thoughts of worry and dread, that is where your attention is fixed. Instead of focusing on what matters, i.e. your responsibilities, you are focused on the outcome. Not even a good outcome, but one in which you fail.
In practice, you may feel some anxiety around what your coaches or teammates think of you, but nothing like during a game. Practice is a place where mistakes are welcomed. It provides you with an opportunity to learn and improve.
Come game time, it’s easy to adopt the mindset that you must be perfect. This sort of perfectionism results in anxiety. Since anxiety is worry, you naturally worry about not being perfect.
Anxiety also has a lot to do with judgment. During a game, there are so many more eyes and numbers judging your every move. Most of the time in practice, people are not paying attention to every little move you make.
That all changes in a game, or at least, you perceive it does. You make a bad pass, judgment. You strike out, judgment. You drop a pass, judgment. The concern and worry about what other people are thinking of you do nothing but interfere with the quality of your play.
The more anxiety you feel, the further you will fear the outcome you are so desperately seeking to avoid.
"When you are consumed with thoughts of worry and dread, that is where your attention is fixed. Instead of focusing on what matters, i.e. your responsibilities, you are focused on the outcome. Not even a good outcome, but one in which you fail."
Fear of Failure
Anxiety is rooted in fear. This fear, lasting long enough, morphs into a full-fledged fear of failure. Defining this phobia is a deep-rooted fear of failing and making a mistake.
Why do we fear failing, especially if it’s a natural and widespread understood necessity on the path to success? There are five reasons we can point to as to why you fear failing. They all have one thing in common, a negative perception of what may happen if you are to fail.
Reason one is the expectation of feeling ashamed upon failing. Number two is that failure causes negative self-talk to form, leading to an emotional state you dread. Third is the negative impact failure can have on your future plans.
Fourth is feeling that you will lose the esteem of others if you fail. Lastly, there’s a belief that your failure may result in someone you care about feeling stress.
When you’re in practice, yes there may be failures, but the severity is much less than that of a performance. Likely, the fear of failure will not be as prevalent during practice, except for the fear in the back of your mind of not performing well in your upcoming game.
Come game day, all your fears surrounding failing are amplified. Today is the day the consequences of failing will be felt. Weighing heavily on your mind, fear of failure results in poor focus and hinders your chances of attaining peak performance.
The Core Cause of All This Thinking
What do pressure, performance anxiety, and fear of failure all have in common? Outcome-oriented thinking.
As an athlete or performer, it’s a tricky dance, balancing between wanting to succeed and keeping yourself focused on the process that will get you there.
It’s natural and easy for your mind to drift into the future, seeking control over the outcome of your performance. However, as the three previous sections outlined, allowing your mind to be fixed in the future leads to nothing but lower levels of performance.
This was a fact foreign to me in college. Every game, day, and practice my mind was consumed with frets and worries about how my next performance would go. The more I focused on the outcome, the higher my anxiety grew, and the more fear controlled my thinking.
Now, as with anything, there are two sides to the story. Being so fearful and anxious, along with the pressure I placed on myself to succeed, led to an incredible work ethic. I felt the drive to train out of fear.
While I did work hard due to my insecurities and worries, there is a far better way to go about cultivating a strong work ethic. And honestly, the negative impact anxiety, fear, and added pressure had on my performances far outweighed the results I gained from working hard.
When you focus on the outcome, you find yourself taken out of the moment. There needs to be a baseline idea of how you want a performance or even a season to go. Once you get clear on that idea (what you are defining as success) let it go!
Continuing to focus and concern yourself with whether or not it’ll happen will tip the scale in favor of it NOT happening.
There are many intricate details playing into the outcome of a game or performance. All you can do is focus on your responsibilities.
Is it within your control to dictate what the outcome will be? Sadly, no. I know most of us wish it were the case but simply put, you are only in control of you.
What you do have the power to do is put yourself in the best position to succeed. By focusing on the present moment, your tasks, and your responsibilities, you will do just that.
That’s a lot easier said than done, I know. And it’s not the only fix when it comes to practice performance not translating into games.
Turn Practice Talent into Game Time Execution
There is a huge difference between games and practice. While the skills and techniques are the same, the added pressure, possibility of failure, and outcome you desperately desire result in it feeling like a completely new sport at times.
Fans don’t cheer for practice players and no one remembers the athlete who cranked out killer practices. What matters is game time execution. So how can we get you to take all that talent you show off in practice and transfer it into games?
Knowing the mind is the true culprit, there are a few steps you can take. These will involve working through any mental blocks that may be present and turning your mindset away from the outcome and onto the process.
"Fans don’t cheer for practice players and no one remembers the athlete who cranked out killer practices. What matters is game time execution."
Step #1: Identify Your Main Distraction
For step one, you want to identify what your main distraction is. This is going to be the mental block keeping you from performing freely and without concern.
Think back to three causes described earlier. Does the pressure from yourself or others mount into an overwhelming distraction, pulling all your focus away from the process?
Perhaps it’s the anxiety resulting from the pressure driving your lack of production come game time. The fret and worry resulting from performance anxiety can be detrimental to your performance level.
Or maybe fear is the true leading factor for yourself. Being terrified to fail puts you on the fast track to failure. Everywhere you look, another opportunity or moment for you to fail becomes present.
Now, I wish I could say each one of these will be distinctly different and easily identifiable for yourself. But, the truth is, they play off one another. Pressure often results in fear, which then leads to anxiety surrounding failure.
However, typically one stands out among the rest as the main culprit. So, think for yourself, and identify your main distraction resulting in the lack of translation from the practice field to the game.
Step #2: Work Through Your Distractor
Once you identify what is getting in the way of you performing optimally, you must now do something to change. There will be no improvement in your level of play if you fail to counteract the effects of the distraction.
Pressure, anxiety, and fear of failure can all be overcome and handled in a more positive and healthy manner. All it takes is a little effort on your part and a strategy to follow.
How to Handle Pressure:
One of the most effective ways to manage pressure is witnessing yourself succeed in a pressure-filled environment. Now, this can be difficult if every time you are faced with such a situation you freeze.
That is where mental imagery comes into play.
Here is how the process works:
Step 1: Find yourself a quiet location, free from any distractions.
Step 2: Get into a comfortable position with your back straight, either sitting on a chair or on the ground. Avoid lying on a couch, as that will make it more difficult to visualize clearly.
Step 3: Breathe to get yourself relaxed. Take ten to twenty deep breaths, focusing on your breath and allowing your mind to become settled.
Step 4: Create your image. Now you want to bring yourself into the moment in which you feel pressure. Make it as real as possible by incorporating all the sights and sounds of the environment.
Step 5: Generate your optimal emotional state. If you make the situation real enough, your normal emotions will set in. Recognize them, and then replace them with how you wish to feel.
If you want a more in-depth view of how to use mental imagery to handle pressure, you can read an article I wrote on the subject here.
Overcome Performance Anxiety:
There are four steps you can take if you wish to overcome performance anxiety.
While you may never fully be rid of worrisome thoughts, as they are a natural part of life, you may work to overcome the negative effects this form of thinking has on your performance.
The four steps are as follows:
Step 1: Accept your pre-performance nerves.
Step 2: Prepare as much as you can.
Step 3: Utilize visualization.
Step 4: Let go of expectations.
If you want a more in-depth view of overcoming performance anxiety, you can read the full article I wrote on the subject here.
Managing Your Fear:
When fear of failure is getting in your way, a shift must take place in how you view failure. No longer should it be the source of concern, but rather a gateway towards progress.
To alter the way you view failure, and not have fear of failure keep you from peak performance, there are a few steps you can follow.
Step 1: Accept the fear of failure.
Step 2: Locate the cause of your fear of failure.
Step 3: Implement mental training tools such as self-talk, imagery, and mindfulness.
If you want a more in-depth view of how to manage your fear of failing, you can read the full article I wrote on the subject here.
Step 3: Become Process Oriented
Do you remember what I said was the common factor among the three distractors? It was where you place your attention. By allowing your mind to become consumed with thoughts about the outcome of your performance, you remove yourself from the moment.
Success happens in the present moment. It may seem to culminate with a win or a certain stat line, but the real success happens each moment during competition.
The more you can stay focused in the moment, on the process that will lead to the outcome you desire, the greater your success will be.
You see how I still said the outcome you desire? It’s not that you don’t want to attain a certain result, it’s just, once you set that intention, you must let it go and refocus yourself on the process.
Leading into a competition, one of the best ways to get yourself focused on the process is by setting process goals. These will become what you aim to achieve during the game.
By being intentional and specific with your process goals, you’ll be in a phenomenal position to succeed.
Set yourself process goals in terms of your mindset and your physical performance that are completely within your control. Not only does this remove your attention from the future, but it also helps you stay more focused on what’s in your control.
A frustrating and devastating situation to be in as an athlete or performer is having your practice performance fail to translate into game-time execution.
Being a practice player is not a title any of us are striving to achieve. No one remembers the person who killed it in practice. All that matters is the results you attain come competition.
If your goal is to reach peak performance, you have to figure out how the skills you possess in practice can be translated into the game.
You first need to identify the main distractor causing this frustration, work to manage it in a better way, and then train yourself to focus on the process during competition.
If you do, in no time you’ll see more of the success you achieve in practice become prevalent during games.
Do you struggle with translating practice performance into game time execution?
If this is truly keeping you from reaching your potential, why not get more direct and detailed help?
With one-on-one mental performance coaching, we will work together to build a plan targeted toward getting you on track to succeed in games, just like you do during practice.
To learn more about mental coaching, please fill out the form below or schedule a free introductory coaching call.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
Contact Success Starts Within Today
Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.
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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