Game Gaps: Why Is Practice Easier Than Crunch Time?

The sentiment is often repeated among coaches: “He can do it in practice, but it’s different in the game.”

As a coach and athlete, one of the main objectives in practice is to prepare your team or yourself for the emotional, visual and physical dynamics of the game. We have all heard the training mantra, “practice how you play.”

So, then, why do some athletes struggle to find consistency once game stressors arise?

There are many factors involved in performance gaps. One major obstacle is players not making time in their daily lives to reflect and retool their “inside skills.” Well-intended mental skills coaches overloading athletes with tools, strategies and concepts that can overload their system is another. Put another way, sometimes trying to find a state of no-thought by adding thought doesn’t always work.

Finally, practices are often concerned with quantity over quality, and, as a result, players are not given time to practice doing nothing between actions.

However, players can close the gap from practice time to game time by reflecting on the following realities . . .

Don’t let fine focus override the visual system — The athlete that starts over-focusing on the target sends additional stressors to the brain, therefore losing the ability to see more within the field of play. Game situations require players to see more and look less at any given external target. During gameplay, elite athletes are paying attention to the ball, cutoff person or glove, as well as the surrounding space or other visual cues that help with better judgment. Concentrating harder and over-fixating on any one piece of the visual world explains many of the setbacks coaches witness in athletes.

The outside world takes control — Rather than staying committed to their calming, confident inner-voice, players get distracted by the external noise and switch to thinking solely about results. Elite athletes stay disciplined in their routines and pre-actions no matter the game situation. This inside-out living makes the outside world nonexistent in terms of affecting one’s mood or mindset. Athletes need to understand that their mood dictates what thoughts become dominant, which then affects stress and anxiety levels. Being aware that you are slipping into the outside-in world is the first step in gameplay consistency. The poor performer allows outside world events to dictate emotions—and they have it backward. Conversely, inside-out players realize their mood controls external events. Put another way, experience does not create a state of mind. Instead, a state of mind creates an experience.

The weakness-avoidance loop catches up — Spend more time in practice working on the situations that plague your game skills. If you can’t throw a changeup with runners on base or have problems will slow rollers in bunt defense, then allocate more time and repetitions for those situations. Don’t be the player who never makes yourself uncomfortable in practice settings and spends way too much time on the stuff you are already really good at. If the speed of play is an issue for you, then simulate more game-speed situations in practice and realize that sometimes smooth is slow and quick is too fast.

There’s no such thing as the “Big Game” — Training, practice, exhibitions and the championship game should all be perceived in the same way when it comes to effort, mood and emotional discipline. Players who have not taken the time to rehearse and manage the “downtime” in all games typically become exposed as the game continues. For example, a fielder needs to use the time in between innings to create, refine and practice controlling what they can control. The controllable—one’s mood, images, attention level and actions—become the anchor when game situations arise.

The “WTF” rule: You can wallow in the fog, or you can work the fix — The best game performers have it, and the ones that need to bridge the gap from practice time to game time need to learn to live by it. Every situation in the game—or life—has this choice. The best performers instinctively go into the “work the fix” mode when setbacks arise. Others get caught in the fog that sometimes lasts until the end of the game.

Work? No, this is fun — Newsflash: The game you are playing is just that—a game. The best performers have a tremendous perspective on life and take time each day—or even in the middle of the game—to reflect on what matters. Recently, Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon was asked how he stays so calm in stressful at-bats.

“There are bigger things going on in the world, like taking bullets for your country on the other side of the world,” Rendon said. “This should be a breeze for us.”

This mindset starts in your daily life and shows up in practice. Soon, the perceived pressures of the game become less noticeable as your game mood becomes your everyday mood.

What if this was the finale? — How free and easy would you practice if it was the final time you took the practice field? Reminding themselves of the “WTF” rule on a daily basis allows the best athletes to stay in the moment and have the proper mood and perspective that allows for a great performance.

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