What to do if You’re Playing Badly in Practice

Are you struggling in practice? Find out why

When practices haven’t been going as you’d like, especially early in the season, I know this can quickly stress you out. I had one athlete tell me the other day that he just didn’t want to deal with all of this anymore.

Since it’s early in the season, you might be worried about a starting spot…or if you have been a starter, you might be worried about losing your starting spot and how embarrassing that’s going to be.

But if those worries are on your mind, that might just highlight one of the main problems going on.

I understand how frustrating and stressful it is when you’re not doing well in practice. And so, in this article, we’re going to explore the main reasons why this may be happening, and then talk about some steps you can take to turn it around!

Why You’re Playing Badly in Practice

First, I want you to think about what’s truly going on in practice…meaning, what is it that’s making you feel like you’re not playing well?

Because there is a big difference between feeling like you’re not doing a good job in practice and actually performing badly.

For example, are you expecting yourself to play perfectly? If so, even one mistake will make you feel like you’re playing badly. If that’s the case, I strongly recommend reframing your standards and expectations for practice.

Practice is a time to make mistakes, not play perfectly. And having the goal of being perfect in practice will only keep you from improving. In fact, perfection is never something you should expect, even during games.

It does nothing but distract you and keep you from playing your best.

So first and foremost, are you demanding perfection from yourself during practice? If so, change that to goals that are more focused on the process and improving.

Now, what about the second option…you don’t just feel like you’re playing badly, you actually are playing badly. You’re missing every field goal, hitting balls into the top of the cage, and can’t seem to make a single basket.

If that’s the case, what’s going on?

Well let me ask you, when you train by yourself, are you doing okay? If the answer’s yes, why all of a sudden the change come practice?

What’s the biggest difference between practices and training on your own? Eyeballs. There are more people watching you during practice which means more pressure, and more people to judge you if you mess up.

The Stress of Practice

This is very similar to what happens when you don’t play well in games but you play well in practice. It is the added pressure and the goal of playing well that actually hurts your performance.

The same principle applies when you do well on your own, but then struggle when the coach or other teammates are watching.

There is stress when other people’s eyes are on you. Now all of a sudden, instead of just shooting, swinging, or kicking, you are performing. Hoping to do well (or more often than not, hoping not to screw up).

Now why is it that this stress is bad? Because, when you feel stress to perform well because you want the approval of others — such as wanting to get the starting spot — your movements are no longer natural.

When you’re doing your best, whether it’s in practice, individual training, or in a game, you are performing freely and naturally. Your focus is in the present and you feel confident.

When there’s stress, you tense up, play timidly, and your focus is on anything but the present moment.

Take for example a field goal kicker. On his own, he kicks great. In practice, he struggles. Why? Because of the stress he feels. And since there’s stress, he tries too hard and his kicks are tense and not very fluid.

Then he gets mad at himself. He focuses even more on needing to make the next kick, his muscles tighten as he tries hard, and what happens…another miss.

Have you ever experienced something similar? Where you make a mistake, then try even harder to play well, only to make another mistake? It’s because the trying adds even more pressure to the stress and pressure you’re already feeling.

Learning to Let Go & Play

So what can you do, then, if you are feeling this pressure during practice? I mean, the truth is, you want to start. You want to play well. But what can you do if that very goal of playing well and starting is holding you back?

It all boils down to letting go and simply playing. Something, I know, is a lot easier said than done.

When you’re training on your own and everything’s going well, what are you focused on? Are you thinking about impressing your coach, or are you simply training?

It is a lot easier to focus on the skill you’re working on in training because there aren’t those additional eyes watching you. But what we can do is use the principles that apply to training on your own to help you during practice.

The three main principles include: feeling relaxed, staying present, and focusing on improvement.

Feeling Relaxed

Now, when I say feeling relaxed, I don’t mean you feel the same way you do when you’re sitting on the couch or lounging on the beach. I’m talking more in terms of your mental state.

When training on your own, even if you’re sweating and out of breath, your mind is still more relaxed than when you are feeling pressure during practice (and especially during a game).

That level of mental relaxation allows you to play more naturally and for your movements to be more fluid. Which is why your goal needs to be to get into a more relaxed mindset for practice.

A great and simple way you can do so is by taking nice, deep breaths. While you’re waiting to shoot, swing, kick, or anything else, make sure you are taking deep breaths.

Then, right before you perform your skill, take another deep breath to calm yourself down and begin centering yourself in the present moment.

Staying Present

In training, your mind is much more focused on what you’re doing. This is what I mean when I say staying present.

As soon as you start to think about what coach thinks of you, whether you’re going to start, or anything else, you’re not present.

Also, if you get caught up thinking about a mistake you just made or a bad practice you had recently, you are no longer present.

But to play your best, you need to be present. What helps is giving your mind something simple and concrete to focus on.

For example, a basketball player might focus on keeping her elbows in on her shot. Or a tennis player might focus on moving his feet.

Give yourself something that’s part of the process that will keep you present.

Focusing on Improvement

In training, when you’re by yourself or with a friend, your mind is much more focused on improving. Meaning, there isn’t as much judgment in each individual action, because you are training to perform well in the future.

But in practice, when coach is watching and you feel like you’re being judged, all of a sudden it feels like a performance. If you can take more of an improving mindset to practice, not only will you perform better, but you’ll improve quicker.

To help, you want to change the way you see mistakes. Begin asking yourself what you can learn from missed shots and bad kicks, instead of beating yourself up and feeling like you’re a bad player or have lost your chance of starting.

Final Thoughts

When you aren’t playing well in practice, I know this is incredibly frustrating and stressful for you. You have trained and trained, only to see nothing translate in practices.

But just remember, the main reason for this has to do with your mindset. If you are good when training on your own, your skills haven’t suddenly vanished. There’s just something getting in the way and blocking them from appearing during practice.

That something is going to be the stress and pressure you feel, causing you to try harder and see practices like a performance.

What you want to do is remind yourself to stay relaxed by taking deep breaths, stay present by focusing on a simple objective, and focus on improving. Learn from mistakes instead of judging yourself.

If you do, you will see your practices become more natural, and your level of play increase.

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 Straw

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.

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