When athlete’s have poor performances it’s easy to say “you’re in your head” but that’s probably not an accurate description of what is happening overall.
Practice Is a Time To Think. Game Day Is When You Let It Go
For many athletes there is a big disconnect between practice and Game Day. Practice is a time for an athlete to be consciously “thinking” about their skills. Practice is a time to work on mechanics. This is where the focus is on the technical aspect of their sport.
Athlete’s also work on the Physical aspect of their sport. This is where the struggle happens. (It happens on Game Day too, but here it is expected and often looked forward to.)
Practice is where the “work” happens and it is where an athlete is building up their inventory of skills and abilities so that, come Game Day, they can overcome as many challenges as possible and take advantage of as many opportunities as possible.
Practice With a Purpose
Where many athletes go wrong (and their coaches don’t help them) is when practice is just…activity.
For many athletes, practice becomes another session on the calendar. If it’s not Game Day…it’s practice.
Practice becomes the thing you do during the week and Game Day is the thing that happens on the weekend.
To the immature athlete practice is…practice…and therefore not as serious. Game Day is when it’s time to “turn it on”.
The mature athlete realizes that practice is where you increase your Skills Inventory so you can be successful on Game Day. Practice then has a purpose and isn’t just more activity.
Where Coaches Mess This Up
In the last decade, in team sports especially, there has been this push for non-parent coaches.
I get it…but it’s a huge mistake in my opinion.
In an effort to eliminate the challenges of educating and working with parents who may have their own athletes best interest in mind at the expense of other athletes (supposedly)… programs have gone to young athletes who are…neutral.(Again…supposedly.)
But in an effort to find coaching neutrality programs are puting uneducated coaches on the field who can’t help athletes.
Athletes who try hard and have great potential (and parents who fund it all) are missing critical opportunities to learn and to apply what they are learning to their respective Game Days.
There is a big difference between “doing” a sport and helping someone “learn how to do” a sport. In every practice there are hundreds if not thousands of “touch points” where a coach can help an athlete and yet so many young and inexperienced coaches miss those opportunities.
And it’s the athlete who suffers.
Many Coaches stand back in training not wanting to coach too much (or, because they really don’t know what’s going on) and the athlete loses critical opportunities to actually learn.
And by “learning” I mean accumulating an appropriate amount and level of skill that they can apply to their next Game Day in order to have success.
The amount of time an athlete spends in practice is irrelevant unless it is deliberate and can transfer to their next Game Day.
Therefore “time spent” doesn’t necessarily equate to “experience”.
Just because your athlete has played their sport for however many years doesn’t mean they have actually learned anything.
A Quick Background On Learning
When we have an experience, we create new neural connections in our brain. If those experiences are weak then the new neural connections are also weak. Kind of like when you tell a child that the pot on the stove is hot so don’t touch it.
When we have learning experiences that are impactful and emotionally strong then the corresponding neural connection in the brain is also strong. Kind of like when the child forgets what mom told him/her and grabs the hot pot. Strong, emotional experience. Strong connection.
For most athletes, much of their experience in practice I would argue are more the former than the latter. “Time spent” results in weak connections.
And one more thing about experiences is that if we don’t revisit those experiences then they tend to be forgotten. Kind of like when you tell a child that the pot is hot, but a long period of time goes by and they forget what you told them.
So consider an athlete who goes to practice every day but isn’t having very impactful experiences? They are going through the motions but the coach they interact with daily isn’t helping the athlete bridge the gap between what they are doing in practice and what they are doing on Game Day.
Bridging The Gap Between Practice and Game Day
Remember, the goal of practice is to develop an Athlete Inventory of Skills. Those skills are what an athlete has at their disposal to apply on Game Day.
If…practice does not teach the appropriate skills an athlete needs for Game Day then they can’t be successful.
It’s like learning Spanish but you end up in France on Game Day. All of that effort in practice doesn’t apply no matter how hard you “work”.
Let’s say, in an effort to “entertain instead of educate” coaches use hundreds of drills to keep an athlete interested, yet, the time between training experiences is so long the athlete forgets what and why they were learning it in the first place and can’t apply it? (Sorry, that was a long sentence.)
Let’s say, to use our language example again, the athlete is only learning verbs. Practice time is spent on verbs, verbs and more verbs. But Game Day requires nouns and pronouns and adjectives in addition to verbs? The athlete is only able to withstand challenges and take advantage of opportunities that have verbs involved.
You can see how…if the athlete hasn’t been given the right ingredients in practice, or then reminded of how they apply on Game Day…they might not be able to apply what they’ve learned on Game Day.
My Professional Athlete’s Are The Best At This
I’m not just talking about my athletes who are getting paid for their sport. I’m talking about `professional” in attitude.
Doesn’t matter if they are U14 or U50
The athletes who are professional in attitude are the one’s who use practice deliberately. They are the one’s who practice according to what they need to be prepared for on Game Day.
They make the connection between the “Oh…I wasn’t very good last Game Day at this. I need to work on that at practice.”
Then they get to practice and remember…”Oh…that thing I wasn’t very good at last Game Day…I’m doing this drill so I’m good at doing that the next time.”
They bridge the gap. They make the connection of experiences and then the neural connection in their brain gets stronger.
Then, when next Game Day comes…they…are…better. Better than they were last Game Day.
And that’s the whole reason we’re here!
So How Does This Affect An Athlete On Game Day?
Well, I just gave a way a bit of what is going to happen on Game Day, but let me tell you more about what we’re actually trying to get to.
A question I will ask my athletes is, “Have you ever done something (in practice or on Game Day) where you thought, “OMG I can’t believe I just did that!”
Not in an embarrassing sort of experience.
I’m talking about a performance where you blew your own mind with something you just did successfully.
This can happen for athletes at any age and at any skill level.
99% of the time the athlete will tell me…”Yeah, totally!”
Those experiences are examples of how an athlete has been able to get out of their conscious mind and into their subconscious mind.
It’s where an athlete has gone from the “work” of trying so hard to the “allowing” it to happen.
The brain has…left the building…and the body has done what it can do naturally.
But this ONLY HAPPENS if the athlete has had enough appropriate, deliberate practice.
It can ONLY HAPPEN if the athlete has the appropriate inventory of skills and then is able to apply them at the right time and the right place on Game Day.
So if your coaches have had you speaking French…and then only just a little…and you’ve only been working on verbs…don’t expect to be able to go to Barcelona, Spain this weekend and order the Paella. (It’s a meal. Google it. It’s tasty.)
Why Inexperienced Athletes Still Need To “Think” On Game Day
Practice is a time to think. It’s a time to bridge the gap between what you are working on and how it’s going to apply to Game Day.
Ideally, on Game Day…you can just be.
You can just…react.
You can let your body do what it knows it can do naturally.
But if it’s not natural…yet…you need to think about it!
If an athlete is relatively inexperienced then Game Day comes and that athlete doesn’t have the required inventory of skills to be successful.
And not all skills can be replicated in practice! Sometimes, on Game Day, there are situations and experiences that are only experienced on Game Day. We try to cover as much as we can in practice but Game Day experience is essential to athletic success.
It’s just unfortunate when situations occur on Game Day that an athlete hasn’t experienced and they lose because of it.
Sometimes you DO have to chalk up a loss due to lack of experience.
The purpose of practice is to make things feel “formulaic”. When you understand a formula you are more apt to get the correct result regardless of what numbers go into it.
If I know that X + X = 2X then it doesn’t matter if X is 1 or 2 or 4 or 7. Throw any variable at me and I’ll get the answer.
When athletes get into situations that are outside a formula we can only hope they can think “on the fly”.
But when you are thinking on the fly speed becomes the problem.
Your opponent is most likely operating faster than you have time to think. Doesn’t matter if it’s a puck or a tennis ball, a ski hill or a luge track. If you are trying to think-as-you-go you’re probably going to get walloped. (Slapped. Kicked. Run over. You name it.)
We use practice, deliberately, to help an athlete understand the “formula” of their sport.
With an understanding of ANY sport experience builds so an athlete can feel like, “I’ve been here before. I understand how this is going to go.”
THAT is when an athlete truly becomes empowered.
Experienced Athletes Can “Allow” Success To Happen
When an athlete has enough experience that is relevant to their current level of competition they can begin to expect success. While we don’t like to have expectations about our future performances, past success helps to build confidence.
When an athlete has a certain level of confidence they can “allow” themselves to just “be”. They can let their brain shut off and allow the body to do what it knows how to do.
But here’s the rub…the athlete can ONLY do that if they have enough experience!
When an athlete has the requisite skills and abilities to be successful they can trust in their body to do what it knows best.
Now…that being said…EVERY athlete can benefit from being able to shut their brain off and “not think” but I know a lot of young athletes will misunderstand that.
They will think, “Oh, I don’t have to work on it because the key to being successful is to not think on Game day.”
No…that’s not what I mean.
If you are inexperienced, you need to work.
You need to work on your skills.
You need to develop your “athlete inventory of skills”.
You need to develop the skills on how to “allow” your body to do what it knows to do…
…but if your body doesn’t know what to do you…then you need to be working on that.
You need to be looking critically at your game and deciding what it is you need to work on in practice.
You need to work with your coaches so you are getting the work YOU feel you need to be working on in order to be successful.
Good coaches will listen and find a way to help you.
You’re Probably Not “In Your Head”
The term “in your head” refers to an athlete who is thinking too much on Game Day.
If you have enough experience with a particular athlete you have probably seen them perform well. Maybe that was in practice or it was on previous Game Day’s. Either way, the term “in your head” is not good, it’s bad.
Young coaches will use the term “in your head” and in that case it means, “I really don’t know how to coach you at this point so I’m going to tell you it’s in your head and maybe you’ll relax a bit and hopefully figure it out on your own.”
This is NOT coaching.
Now…that being said, you’re probably heard or seen a professional or Olympic level athlete who referred to their performance where they were “in their head” or “not relaxed enough” or “thinking too much” or not “letting things go”.
All of those terms are applicable…if you’re a professional or Olympic level athlete.
But the truth is, if you’re young, and still inexperienced, you’re JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO BE IN OR OUT OF YOUR HEAD…YET.
Sure, there are times when we’d love for a young athlete to be relaxed and to have some fun.
The truth is, the Game Day Moment may just be too big for this athlete…at this moment in time.
It doesn’t mean they can’t get better and it doesn’t mean that they are incapable of great performances.
But telling them they are “in their head” doesn’t really help them, in fact, it can hurt them. It can make them doubt their own abilities and I can tell you that if your athlete is smart in other areas of their life they are smart enough to know what they are feeling.
Telling them they are “in their head” is lazy and doesn’t give them any solutions.
So what are the solutions?
Here Are The Solutions
If an athlete doesn’t have a level of expertise that is commensurate to the Game Day performances they want or need then they aren’t really able to relax come Game Day.
And to be honest they shouldn’t relax on Game Day. They still have more to learn!
Game Day performances, or lack thereof, (barring injury) typically tell me that:
- The athlete doesn’t have enough experience to be able to relax on Game Day and get into what we call the Flow State.
- An athlete who lacks experience needs to be prepared by their coach for the next Game Day experience AND be given some leeway when performance goes bad. We aren’t sitting kids, or pulling goalies, or berating them on the sideline. We go back to the drawing board and give them the tools they need to be a little better than they were the day before.
- We avoid comparison mode. Doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, new or experienced, comparison mode kills development. It immediately puts athletes in a bad head space. Compare the athlete only to who they were yesterday not to who someone else is today.
- Bridge the gap between Game Day and Practice Day. Take video. Review video. Come up with a game plan on what improvements need to be made. Are they physical, technical or tactical improvements? Then make those improvements.
- Inexperienced athletes can’t be expected to make the jump to playing “out of their head” if they don’t have the experience to relax in that moment. They are still thinking and learning and making those neurological connections.
The truth is your athlete probably isn’t good enough to be good enough…yet.
And that’s ok.
As coaches and parents and administrators we need to give our athletes the tools they need to succeed. If you show up to the next Game Day and the experience is above and beyond what they are capable of, let them know! Don’t tell them, “You’re in your head” when in fact they don’t have a head to be “in” yet.
Break it down. Let them know what they need to improve and help them bridge the gap between practice and Game Day.
And then…get to work!
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