posted on: July 26, 2018
author: Brian Lomax
Over the last several years, there have been many books extolling the virtues of practice and mastery. Grit, Peak, and The Talent Code are just a few. The 10,000 hour rule, popularized and oversimplified by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, has become part of the daily lexicon. Want to be a master of what you do? You have to practice and you have to practice a lot. But what are you practicing? That is the million dollar question.
When thinking of practice, we generally think of skill building and/or repetition. We want to perfect a skill or get it in a groove so that when we compete, the skill will be there. The problem is this – most athletes don’t know all of the skills that they should be practicing. Depending on the level of experience, most will understand the technical skills that they need to work on, but will ignore the mental and emotional skills needed to succeed in competition. And competing is a skill in itself.
Many athletes and coaches don’t treat competing as a skill, and therefore players are not properly prepared to handle the challenges of competition. Their technical skills may be excellent in practice and overall, but they may struggle to execute them with the consequences of winning and losing in their minds. They are not as comfortable in those situations because they haven’t been exposed to them enough.
A couple of years ago, I watched a Google Talk with former professional tennis player and number 4 in the world, Brad Gilbert. He talked about how he played matches with his friends every day, and that he had played “a ton of matches” by the time he was 10. 10! Think about that for a moment. By the age of 10 he had already acquired so much knowledge about the nature of the game and how to win it. For those of you who may not be familiar with Gilbert, his tennis skills were not overly impressive or attractive. However, he had a deep knowledge of the sport of tennis and he knew how to win a tennis match. This experience took him to number 4 in the world even though his game was “ugly.” How did he acquire this knowledge? By practicing competing.
There are two levels of practicing competing that you can incorporate into your training: situational and complete. Situational practice refers to practicing the various situations that could occur in your sport. An example of this from tennis is tie-breakers. Tie-breakers are an important part of tennis and they determine the winner of a set or possibly a match. You can play these repeatedly in practice and it will help you get used to the format so that you can be more successful in these important games. Feeling more comfortable with the format will raise your confidence with tie-breakers and you’ll have a more positive attitude when you reach one in an actual match. You can do the same with other situations in tennis or in any sport.
Complete practice refers to playing a full match or competition from beginning to end. This is important because there are many dynamics that occur within a full competition that you can’t replicate in situational practice. For example, it’s difficult to replicate the mental and emotional factors that may be present when you reach a specific situation in a competition. In our tie-breaker scenario, you could be feeling different emotions and have a different focus depending on how you arrived at this tie-breaker. If you had a 5-1 lead and now find yourself at 6-all, you’re probably going to feel differently than your opponent who has climbed back into the match. However, you’re still in the set, so you have to deal with it in the present.
The process of playing a full competition is like a journey. On this journey, there will be highs and lows, and you have to know how to navigate these. Bad calls, bad behavior, bad luck, and fatigue are factors that can occur in a real competition that most athletes don’t incorporate into their situational practice. You can use full competition practice as a means of doing so.
While having great form or technique is important, it’s meaningless if you can’t perform it under the pressure of competition. Like it or not, we determine who is the best in our sports by how much they win, not by how attractive their game is. Learn more about how to win in your sport by practicing competing more often.
Brian Lomax founded PerformanceXtra™ in 2009 with a mission of helping athletes achieve their goals and their top performances more consistently through a progression of mental skills that enables them to focus on what is truly important.
Learn more about the author: https://performancextra.com/brian-lomax/