You’ve prepared all week for your next tournament. Doubling the amount of practice time. Putting all your focus into your sessions. You’re killing it. Winning matches you thought you would lose, making plays you never thought you could. You’re ready.
Your name gets called for your first match and you are brimming with anticipation. You know this player, and you’ve beaten him in the past, and you’re ready to put all this hard work into action. The first match starts and mid way through you notice that you’re missing things that you weren’t missing in practice. Things aren’t going as smoothly as expected and your self-talk is kicking in.
“Why am I missing?”
“Ugh, how did I let that hit me?”
“Come on, focus.”
Luckily you win the match, but it definitely didn’t go the way you thought it would. I mean, you spent all that time practicing, and this first rounder almost beat you. Now the thoughts are flooding in, and before you know it, you’ve lost your next two matches and you’re out of the tournament.
So how does this happen? How is it you can play so well in practice, put in so much time, and still under perform?
Awareness and Understanding
I see and hear these situations happening all the time. The first thing you need to know is this is all very natural. It’s truly all part of the journey. However, it can be incredibly disheartening, and really make you want to throw in the towel. It feels like there’s nothing else that you can do. You dedicated time, you practiced, and you were playing well. What else is there?
There is an often overlooked aspect of competition that plays a huge role in your performance. Specifically the amount of variables that arise in the gap between practicing, and competing. Variables that can catch us off guard, and prevent us from playing at our peak performance, regardless of practice.
An extreme example of this is ‘Stage Fright‘ or performance anxiety. For example an actor spends a ton of time remembering lines, getting into character, and rehearsing with others. The day of the performance however, he stumbles over his lines. The audience, the lights, it’s something the actor hadn’t fully prepared for.
There are more variables in competition than just ‘stage fright’. Overcoming these variables will have a huge impact on your performance at every level. But to overcome them, we first need need to become aware of them.
Let’s start with the obvious and then move on to the more obscure.
Every venue that you go to will be different. Some will have nice chairs, but bad monitors. Or bad chairs, but good monitors. You might play in a house, a bar or even a gaming lounge. The quality of the venue typically coincides with the size or prestige of the event. Although each experience you have may be different, they all share one thing in common.
They aren’t your typical practice environment. They aren’t your computer room, or your bedroom.
The venue might have blasting music that is so loud you can’t hear the game or your controller. Worse, you might even recognize the music and become distracted by it. There could be flashing lights or weird smells. The venue could be either -40° or 400°! (Fahrenheit of course). Heck, you could just be sitting at a different angle than you’re used to.
Although the stark difference between your nice, comfy, well lit, medium climate room and the chaos that is a typical venue is obvious, it can still take players time to fully adjust. Your brain may not fully be ready when you sit down to start playing, and that can throw off your performance.
The amount of time you spend practicing, doesn’t always mean you’re getting quality practice. We touched on this concept before when discussing what we call ‘Precise Practice‘. That’s not to say the amount of time you spend practicing, should go undervalued.
This can go deeper than just a few examples of practice methods due to the flexibility that we have on what defines ‘quality practice’. Simply put, if you’re mindlessly playing, but you’re doing it for longer play sessions than normal, then you can expect inconsistent results. Understanding this concept can really help you manage your performance expectations as well.
By avoiding a feeling of entitlement as a result of our practice, we can allow our understanding and growth from each win or loss have the most impact. But if we believe we deserve to win based on the amount of hours we spend, then we risk blocking out the necessary information we need to pivot our performance.
Concentration is the most important factor in playing at your peak. What you choose to concentrate on, right before or during a match can have a massive impact on the outcome. Although it may seem like the most obvious, it tends to be the one thing holding most players back. Our brain’s natural ability to concentrate is what enables us to compete in the first place. In fact, our brains are really good at concentration and focus. However, it tends to put it’s efforts towards more than just our game.
The brain is an excellent time traveler. Often times living in either the past or the future, but rarely the present. These thoughts can open the door to all sorts of distracting and detrimental issues. The worst of them all being ‘Self-Talk’.
“I’ve never lost to this person before.” (Past)
“What if I win, and get the upset!” (Future)
“Ugh, why am I letting myself get hit by that.” (Past-Present)
“The next time he does that, i’m going to do this.” (Future-Present)
Although, these can be valid thoughts, they serve a negative purpose during a game. It doesn’t have to be as severe as self talk though. Your mind can naturally wander, and it typically will.
Out of our three mental options, read, react and think. Thinking is by far the slowest, and can leave you further behind than before.
“What’s that smell?”
“Why does my hand feel that way?”
“Did I respond to that text?”
*Something funny you just read online*
In any and all cases, the moment the mind wanders, it can dampen your effectiveness.
Another aspect to consider with concentration is your energy levels. Being overly excited can be as inimical as being hesitant or fearful. This is why caffeine and food intake are big considerations for competition.
The Final Verdict
The reason you play better in practice than you do in tournament is because you don’t have to factor any of the above into your mind. You’re comfortable in your own space, confident in the type of practice that you’re conducting, and you don’t worry if your mind wanders.
There are four conditions that we want to meet every time we perform. It has been said that the best performances we have seen out of athletes all share these conditions in common.
These conditions are so much easier to meet while practicing, than they are in competition. Often times we look at competition as super serious, and a teeth gritting experience. So we overlook the Enjoyment. Or at least we hold it off until we’ve won. The excitement and anticipation can hinder our ability to Focus, not to mention the environmental factors at most venues.
We’ve paid to play, there is skin in the game, reputation, self worth, desires, wants, expectations, etc. Relaxation seems impossible with all of those things weighing you down. Self-Trust can be the absolute hardest in tournament settings. The desire to not lose, or make mistakes can leave you playing shy. Something that you don’t worry about while you’re practicing.
You aren’t afraid to take chances when you practice, you trust your decision making because there is simply less on the line. If you lose, you just move on to the next game, or check social media. No sweat! In tournament however, all of that safety can disappear if you aren’t prepared.
Now that you are aware of the variables and hopefully have an understanding of them. Let’s look at ways you can prepare for and overcome them.
Practice Like You’re Competing
A good practice session usually has a ton of focus, an aspect of your game to work on, and expectations. This leads to a lot of active thinking, and mid game reflecting. However, taking expectations into a competition isn’t always the best idea. I suggest you spend time in your practice sessions, playing as if you are in a tournament.
That means, no cell phone in between or after matches. If you have a music playlist you plan to use in tournament, listen to it. Playing every game with as much effort as possible and applying your full level of concentration to the game. Play as if you’re in grand finals every single game. This will help build the mental pathways necessary to competing at a high level. It will help you learn how to dig deep when you need it, and it will create a level of invisible pressure that can help you cope with real pressure when it appears.
This method will also help you make a separation between competition and how you normally play. That way when you sit down for your tournament matches, you’ll already be primed and understand the expectation of effort that you have, not the expectation of outcome. You may also be surprised at the inner dialogues that arise during these sessions. Don’t run from them, learn from them.
Practice Concentration in Isolation
Stopping the wandering mind is very difficult, and may even be impossible. However, you can practice concentration enough to at least identify when you’re mind is wandering, and bring it back. There are a ton of methods out there that you can use for this. I suggest two different methods that have proven effective. One is simple meditation. The other is focusing on an uninteresting object for 2 minutes a day. The best way to do this is create a trigger word that can bring you back to focus every time your mind wanders. Something that will either help you focus on your breathing again, or the object.
These methods won’t turn you into some hyper concentrated robot, but they will allow you to identify when you’re wandering, and help you bring yourself back quickly.
Simulating the Environment
I can only speak about this one from personal experience. To help get accustom to different environments, I would do my best to simulate as many environmental variables as I could. I typically practice while wearing shoes, since I will be wearing shoes at the venue. Sometimes I practice while looking at the screen from a different angle, like you normally do at a tournament. Other practical things are, playing in silence, and in an uncomfortable chair. I’m not saying these things will help you win a tournament, but it might prepare you for the shock that your brain might feel. Over time, those environmental factors become far more manageable on their own, but it never hurts to speed it up.
As you improve, and your self-trust increases, you will find the transition between practice and competition to be far easier.
In time all of those variables fade into the background, and it’s just you, your opponent, and the game.