“Practice makes perfect” as the old saying goes. But practice and competition are two completely different ball games, and it’s important to understand the connection between the two in order to excel at both.
Athletes train all throughout their off-season to fine tune their strengths and work out the kinks in their game, but it’s easy to lose the momentum built from preparation when the lights come on.
The difference is often in your mindset.
In order to be at your best during competition, you need to come into the game prepared, and then position yourself mentally to allow your raw talent and skills to take over.
At the end of the day, you can practice as much as Kobe Bryant, but if you don’t have that Mamba Mentality during the heat of competition, this can all be for naught.
“Flow” is the feeling of excelling at something naturally, defined as occurring when “you’re so immersed and energized by an activity that the rest of the world seems to disappear.” (Psychology Today). This is often referred to as “being the zone.”
Flow state, while difficult to achieve, is optimal for allowing your abilities to shine through without overthinking, pressure, or stress holding you back.
Flow state occurs when the skills you’ve mastered before entering a game are matched with the adrenaline of the moment, combining to bring out the best in your abilities.
This happens effortlessly, but can be harshly contradicted by putting unnecessary pressure on yourself or feeling the need to do something extraordinary.
By positioning yourself for success mentally, your physical abilities should naturally follow suit.
Making the Mental Adjustment
The most important thing to understand is that if you’ve worked your absolute hardest, there’s no moment you don’t deserve to play in.
Your preparation justifies you being on the mound, in the field, or in the batter’s box at any given moment, and you should never feel like you have to be more than the player you are to seize the moment.
It’s often hard to handle the pressure of a big moment when you’re thinking about it. When you think too much you get tight, your heart rate goes up, your brain starts over analyzing, and you can’t get past your mistakes.
Instead, think back to all the swings you took in the cage, all the ground balls you’ve fielded in practice, all the bullpen sessions you’ve thrown. Reflecting on everything you’ve done up to that point will give you confidence, whereas focusing on what you need to do will increase the stress you put on yourself and can impair your performance.
It’s also important to understand that you will make mistakes.
Messing up is a natural part of life, but it’s how you bounce back from mistakes that will define you. It’s very easy for one mistake to compound into many if you let it get to your head.
If you strike out or make an error, shake it off, it happens to everyone! Reset your mind, and think back to all those times you did it well in practice!
Just don’t let pressure and/or shame overpower your fundamentals.
While practice is a good time to be a perfectionist, game time is not. Analyzing your mechanics during practice will help you get better, but doing so in the heat of competition will only stress you out, without leading to a positive state of mind or any additional improvement.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, and all the pressure you place on yourself at one moment in one game isn’t going to take away from the practice you have put in over the years. Positive thought can’t replace practice, but it can set you up for the success that a strong work ethic brings.
Practice Makes Perfect
Improvement is never ending.
Every time you step on the field is an opportunity for improvement, games just aren’t the time to focus on that. Competition will make you better, but it’s not the time to focus on improving your skills, it’s the time to apply them.
Practice is about working towards the bigger picture of improving yourself as a player, which is done through creating an actionable plan for growth and working hard towards it. But competition is about that exact moment, the little picture that means the world when you’re immersed within it.
By working hard in practice, you’ll trust yourself and be more confident to excel in big moments than you will from stacking up unnecessary pressure on yourself all at once.
Excelling in competition is a culmination of preparation, which comes from your hard work, and then allowing this to flow through you when it matters most, which will ultimately boost your chances of success.