By Bo Hanson – 4x Olympian, Coaching Consultant & Director of Athlete Assessments

This article was written during national team selection time for one of our clients. It reminded me of how I felt during my own selection for various national and Olympic teams, and inspired me to share the most important lessons I learnt about the connection between training and competition. This article is about techniques to help athletes control their nerves so they can compete at least as well as they train, if not better. At the end of this article, I’ve also included my top three coaching tips for helping athletes manage their nerves during competition.

One of the hardest disappointments is when athletes have not competed as well in a race as they have done in training. Why does this happen? What is the major difference between training and competition? How do you ensure that your athletes perform to their full potential during competition?

One key reason is competition has more ‘attached’ to it. It is what all the training is leading to and for many, the reason they do their sport. There is a result at the end of a race or game, a measure of them and in the minds of the athletes it ‘counts’. Most stake their pride and status on their race results or if they win the game or not. Training on the other hand, is for many, just seen as ‘practice’. There will always be another training session, so it does not count as much and there is little at stake. Or is there?

Training is NOT just another Practice Session

To create better competition results, coaches can help their athletes improve their performance in two key ways:

  1. Ensure your athletes treat practice more seriously than just seeing it as another session. During training set technical, physical and mental goals for and with your athletes. This will ensure they are focused on what is going to make them go fastest, be stronger, go higher or play the game better during training (and ultimately in competition).
  2. Coach your athletes to manage their thinking and mindset for competition. They must first do this in training consistently to be able to do this effectively in competition.

To train effectively athletes need to have an attitude of professionalism. This is not about being elite or overly serious (it can still be an enjoyable and fun session!), it is more about making the session count. Being professional is about having goals to achieve each and every time you hit the field, pitch, court or water. Each athlete should have a technical, physical and mental goal they are working towards and each goal must be measurable and specific. Here are some examples.

Technical Goal

A technical goal in tennis may be to focus on the handgrip or foot placement when taking a particular type of shot. In rowing, it may be to catch the water before the legs push the seat back. Coaches can video tape sessions to provide accurate feedback on this or any other, technical point.

Mental Goal

An example of a mental goal in a track and field hurdle session could be to visualize stepping over each hurdle with the same fluidity as sprinting and maintaining focus on an athlete’s own track lane to the finishing line. The athletes won’t do this 100% of the session, you explain this before they start the practice session and then make calls to do this for set periods throughout the training (say start out with six times during a session of a few minutes each time, then build up to a larger proportion of the training session). The basic premise is to train your mind to narrow your concentration to chosen elements of the techniques within your sport. By becoming better at this, athletes improve their ability to focus on what matters to their performance when it comes time to compete. They also become better at ignoring distractions which do not add to their performance.

Physical Goal

An example of a physical goal would be to complete the practice session with heart rates within a certain zone as stipulated by the coach. Or to lift a certain weight for the repetitions set. Once again, specific and measurable goals.

For the coach, you should set goals with and for your athletes each session. They could be the same goals for all of the squad or you may need to set individual goals for each athlete, depending on the situation and what is needed. You might also like to refer to another article Athletes – Improve Faster for more on this topic.

Treating each practice session like it is a limited opportunity to perfect your mental, physical and technical preparation, ensures no sessions are wasted. Each session is a vital element in piecing together a performance that on race or game day that the team, athletes and coaches can be proud of. The reality is that a lost session cannot be retrieved. The best athletes I know have a very high level of pride in each and every performance, whether it is a practice session or competition. They never let themselves down.

From my own experience at University, I recall what it was like to turn up to an exam knowing I hadn’t done enough study. I hadn’t made the most of the time opportunity I was granted. This is never a confident feeling. Competition is the same, you want to turn up to your races or games with the confidence that you have done everything you can to prepare effectively, that each opportunity was maximized. This feeling of confidence translates into a sense of entitlement to perform well. You deserve to perform well and it’s now a matter of doing what you have done in training when it’s competition day.

Many athletes believe they have to do something different on competition day to what they do at training. This belief does not help achieve their best performance when it matters the most. This perception is largely based on them not taking training as seriously as they should and therefore it makes sense that competition day demands a different approach. My recommendation is to make practice as important as competition and competition as an opportunity to perform as well (if not better) as you have done in practice sessions.

Train your Thinking and Mindset for Competition

On game day, all of the hard preparation has been done and it is the time to perform your best. The main challenge is to manage your thinking. I am not suggesting this is an easy thing to do but here is a start. To create a great performance there are certain inputs that must combine. Inputs on competition day largely relate to how you think, feel and behave prior to and during a race or game.

Thinking is about what you say to yourself. I stressed earlier, the need to have a mental goal at each and every training session. When you train like this, then you know what you need to say to yourself and it comes easily on competition day because you’ve been doing this the whole training season. It is useful to consider a time in your past when you did perform at your very best and recall exactly what you had said to yourself and how you had felt before and during that competition. Spend some time identifying this to use again. You can also use your past disappointing performances to your advantage by identifying the critical elements of what you had said to yourself on those occasions, and then ensure that you avoid repeating this.

What you say to yourself is a way of expressing your inner beliefs and these will either help or hinder your performance. Focus on saying and thinking positive helpful things. Also, what you say to yourself will have an impact on how you feel. On competition day, consider how you need to feel emotionally. That is, specifically for you, do you need to be fired up, calm, quiet, loud, soft, or composed? It is different for everyone. Knowing how you need to feel in order to be your best is a vital element in performing well at any time.

Finally, how are you going to behave on competition day? Hopefully your behaviors will be reflective of how you have conducted yourself during all those practice sessions and therefore competition day is no different. I have seen some athletes become something different on competition day and subsequently perform poorly due to this loss of behavioral control. Ensure you and your team knows how they should behave at competitions. Be very clear on your pre-race or pre-game routines and what you can and cannot do before, during and after the race or game.

In the end, competing is all about how you train. So train like your season results depend on it. Practice over and over again what you need to say to yourself, how you need to feel and how you need to behave on competition day. This will make racing or your games feel familiar and something to be confident about that you deserve the best performance.

A Quick Fix for Competition Day
(when you haven’t had the benefit of ‘training’ your nerves)

If you’re saying to yourself that this article is all well and good if you were reading it at the beginning of the training season, but you’re now about to compete, what can you do? Here are my top 3 recommendations for competing at your best if you haven’t had the advantage of ‘training’ your nerves during practice

  1. Put the game or race into perspective. In your life to come you will face far greater challenges and moments than the one you are about to face in this competition. This is a growth opportunity to prepare you to deal with life’s future challenges. This always helped me cope with anxiety. At the end of the day, this is a sporting competition so keep it in perspective.
  2. Breathe and think composed thoughts. Composure is a wonderful word and a performance state for most people. Breathe deeply in through the nose and slowly release through the mouth and as you release, feel your heart rate slow slightly. Tell yourself you are in control. Do this several times and repeat whenever your nerves kick in.
  3. On the start line or as the game is about to begin, focus on the most important things. For example, in a regatta, it would be the starter’s alignment, your boat’s position, where and how you sit on your seat, your grip on the oar and the first stroke. If racing in a crew or playing in a team sport, always say positive things to those around you. Provide encouragement without blatantly talking it up or being loud and obnoxious. Do not bother distracting other teams, instead focus on your team and what you can control. Competing well is all about controlling yourself and unleashing your power in a technically confined framework. Getting overly pumped up and aggressive rarely helps fine motor skills.

These strategies worked for me. Create your own and reap the rewards of better and more consistent performances.

Where to from here…

If you have enjoyed this article, you might also find valuable our selection of articles on Sport Psychology and the Mental Game. This includes articles on:

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