The most common challenge I help people address, across every sport, is the difficulty transferring skills from practice to competition.
For some it's a complete mystery: How can I hit everything perfectly on the practice range and then fall apart on the course? How can I be so comfortable in practice and so uncomfortable when it comes time to compete on a bigger stage? What is so different?
The answer to these complex questions is a simple word – noise. The difference between practice and competition is the mental and physical “noise” associated with performing when it matters most.
To keep the analogy going, as athletes what we’re really after is the signal. The signal is your purpose, your process, your execution. So just like most things when it comes to the mental game, this is simple…but not easy. It’s as simple as focusing on the execution of the task at hand, but it’s not easy due to the noise involved when we move from training to competing.
Here’s a quick summary of what interferes with the signal:
- Conscious thought: you over-analyze and over-think things, leading to a performance that’s more mechanical than fluid, as opposed to just trusting your training and performing “without thinking” (think of signing your name or driving a car – you don’t have to talk yourself through these actions once you’ve learned them).
- Past/Future-based thinking: you get caught up in what happened on the last hole, play, etc., or what might happen next, instead of developing an ever-increasing ability to play in the moment, focused on the task at hand.
- Muscle tension: when your goal as an athlete is to perform naturally and with fluidity, muscle tension is kryptonite. A lack of blood flow and oxygen to the necessary muscles creates a tense, uncomfortable feeling which can prevent you from transferring your skills from training to competition. This tension is the byproduct of the mental noise above, so we can’t think of them as separate.
Now, in order to help you separate the signal from the noise, here are two mental skills you can develop and implement:
1) Present tense inner dialogue
Keep yourself in the moment by keeping your self-talk, and the questions you ask yourself, in the present tense. When you get distracted, use your inner dialogue to bring your attention back to “the signal”. And, as I tell all my athletes, stay in the process (and out of the results) - keep your focus on the task at hand and your execution of the current shot, pitch, point, etc.
2) Belly breathing
In order to directly counteract the muscle tension detailed above, you can increase blood flow/oxygen and slow your body’s stress response by simply breathing in the correct way. You will want to fill up your lungs with air on the inhale (you’ll know you’re doing this if your belly expands, hence the name!), pause for a count, and then slowly and deeply exhale. It’s most effective if your exhale is slightly longer than your inhale (i.e., inhale for 4 seconds, exhale for 6 seconds, and increase these numbers with practice). [Bonus points if you check out this video of one of the all-time great hip hop artists teaming up with Elmo to teach you about belly breathing.]
So remember – your ability to perform during competition at the same (or higher) level as practice will depend on your ability to separate the signal from the noise.