If our performance is better during training sessions compared to competition it could be due to not having mental control when feeling under pressure. Whether you are an athlete or a coach, you can reflect on the differences between training and competition.
During training sessions:
- It is where we learn and practice new skills. There is not usually as much pressure and sometimes we find the sessions boring because they may be repetitive. It is normal to make mistakes, and we also have more opportunities to practice specific techniques (e.g., passes, penalty shoots, correct our posture).
- The focus is not on the result rather we focus on the technical aspects, strategy or skill that we are trying to master. This is why it is easier to experience ‘flow’, the joyful experience happening when we are immersed in a challenging task.
- Since we do not feel so much pressure, we do not have to think on the specific movements or the posture and our skills do not come out ‘forced’, so our performance unfolds automatically.
- Athletes play in different contexts less familiar than the training sessions. They get out of their comfort zone for instance while playing with the rival team or from feeling exposed to the public.
- There are moments when the skills need to be executed right the first time, and situations like these may make the difference between classifying to a final game or not. This is one of the reasons why many athletes focus on the results instead of the process or the action they are doing at that time.
- Athletes can feel pressure due to internal factors (e.g., fear of failure, thinking on outcomes if they do not win), or external (e.g., competing on a really hot day).
How can we train mentally for competition?
- Reflect about the importance of training. If you commit to train it is going to be reflected on the competition day and you will feel more confident about yourself. Make every session count, so you get a learning experience from every session, whether it is about the skill you are practicing or about yourself. Reflect on the types of mistakes you make, e.g., whether you do not anticipate to the rival on time or you are too quick, whether you pass too strong on the right side or too gently on the left side, whether your performance is better when you are over-aroused than under-aroused.
- If you are a coach, ensure that you cover in every session the following aspects: technical, tactical, physiological and psychological; Establish challenging and achievable goals and check their progress to consider whether they need modification.
- Simulate the training as much as possible to the event day to reduce the difference between the training sessions and the competition. For instance: get familiar with the venue or the route where it is going to take place. If you cannot go beforehand you can check out the place through maps on the internet. Practice training with the same stimuli, for example: playing through background noise and cheering audience. This is so you get used to concentrate on the task at hand even if there are distractions.
- Practice controlling your emotions, for instance on how you react when you make a mistake, or when you are faced with an obstacle. If you ruminate about the mistake or you blame yourself about the way you have done something, then you will be wasting your effort and you will be losing your attention from the task at hand. Instead, focus on the present and be positive. Practice ways to respond to those difficult situations in which emotional control is key (e.g., when you do not agree with the referee, or a journalist asks you an uncomfortable question, or you are getting angry because you are losing).