A Mindset Change: Practice like you play
There is one simple phrase or saying that every coach will emphasize, regardless of their caliber or the sport in which they coach. “Practice like you Play”…and coaches aren’t the only ones harping on the importance of it. Even the most successful athletes in the world attribute their greatest success to the way that they practice. And, while we aren’t all TOP athletes, there is still something to say about a person or a player who consistently strives to bring their best self, every day, in every aspect of life.
“Practice like you Play” is important, but in my opinion, it is one of those ‘empty’ statements that we just say because we know we should. So, why does this phrase tend to be so over emphasized, but so under applied? Because it is hard! It is probably one of the hardest skills that an athlete will ever have to learn. Because in order to do it right, it can’t just be done once.
So, how the heck am I supposed to practice like it is a game, without all of the factors that make games so unique? Well, it is a skill and just like every skill, we learn by doing…and doing it over and over again. So, what can we do to learn how to “practice like we play”?
Learn About Your ‘Game Time’ Self
Perhaps the most important part about sports is learning about ourselves…who we are as people, as athletes, as competitors and as teammates…recognizing when we struggle and when we thrive. We all possess certain skills and personality traits that define who we are as competitors. These specific characteristics make us all unique in the way that we react to certain situations and environments, hence why we see some athletes thriving under pressure and some not. Regardless, we will never learn to “practice like we play” without establishing who we are in both environments. Ready, set…homework time. Grab a notebook and start thinking about your last few matches or tournaments. Write down as many words as you can to describe the characteristics of the environment as well as your own physical and mental characteristics. For example:
- Characteristics: big crowd, hot gym, mean fans, heckling, loud gym, low ceilings, bad game calls, fast whistle, slippery floor, bright lights, pressure situation.
- Feelings/reactions Before: nervous, unsure, excited but scared about what others will think, angst to win, hopeful, overly-hyped but definitely shaky throughout my body. I can’t feel my legs!!
- Feelings/reactions During: hyped, nervous, scared, always wanting more out of myself, emotional roller coaster, crazy energetic when I was playing well but really quiet when I made errors.
- Feelings/reactions After: bummed I didn’t play as well as I had hoped but happy we won.
Create this same list for multiple different matches. Now, study the answers above. Write down any notable differences between the characteristics of the match and your overall reactions/feelings towards the match. With these answers in mind, ask yourself:
- In general, how do I feel on game day? Excited? Confident? Scared?
- When do I feel most confident? When do I feel least confident?
- What fires me up? What knocks me down?
- When do I feel at my best? What type of mindset do I have?
- Do I thrive under pressure? Do I enjoy performing in front of a crowd?
It also may be in our best interest to reach out to those around us. We tend to be our own worst critics or our own best fans, so it is important to hear how our opinions match up with the opinions of our coaches, family members and closest teammates. Think about asking some of the following questions:
- Coach, in which game-like situations do you see me thriving?
- Coach, in which game-like situations do you think I can improve?
- Mom, did it look like I was having fun in ______ game?
- Dad, when does it look like I am most stressed?
- Brother, have you seen a situation when I completely shut down?
- Teammate, when do you enjoy playing with me the most?
- Teammate, in what part of games do you see me step up?
- Teammate, where do you think I can step up more?
This is a lot of information…I know. But these are just examples. You are going to want to dive a lot deeper than just the basics in order to truly understand who you are as a competitor.
Applying Our Best Self in Practice
So, how do all of the questions above apply to the concept of “practicing like we play”. Well, when we find out who we are as players, we can learn how to replicate the things that bring us to our best and control the things that influence our worst. For example:
- Are you playing your best when you are energetic and does it take competition to feel energetic? If yes, then before every drill in practice, set a mini competition with yourself or with your teammates.
- Are you at your best in pressure situations, when the game is on the line? If yes, try giving one of your teammates $10 and tell them “if I don’t pursue every ball in this next drill, you get to keep the 10”.
- Are you at your best when you are calm? Perfect, discover a breathing routine that allows you to relax your body and your mind before every play.
- Are you best when you are confident? If so, create a positive self-talk routine that consumes your thoughts. After an error, go back to your position, immediately look at the next server and tell yourself something that you are going to focus on in the next play.
Learn About Your Teammates
Learning about ourselves is only half the battle in a team sport. While it is important to take care of ourselves first, there are 10-15 other people around us that make the game full and fluid. If just one teammate isn’t fully committed to the goal, it is almost impossible for that team to reach its greatest potential. So, it is our responsibility to learn through the skill of social perceptiveness…to learn to recognize our teammates behaviors and reactions and understand why they react the way that they do in certain situations.
Why? Well, when we learn about what makes those around us tick, we can start communicating more effectively. For example, I will be communicating differently to a teammate who thrives off pressure than to a teammate who is better in a controlled setting. Learning through social perceptiveness also allows us to hold each other accountable during practice. If we know that one of our teammates is best when she is bringing fire, then we must hold her accountable for bringing fire every day. Social perceptiveness and accountability allows us to bring out the best and the most consistent versions of each other.
Now that we have learned about ourselves and our teammates, we need to learn how to be consistent with what we are bringing to the gym every day. Find a routine and stick with it. If having a teammate yell in your face before every game gets you focused, then have them do it before practices as well. If doing 5 minuets of mental imagery before matches gets you pumped, then give yourself that 5 min before practice. Skip the steps now, you will skip them later. Cut corners now, you will cut them later. Develop a routine and embrace it.
No single point is more important than another in the game of volleyball. Whether match point, point number one, or just another ball in practice…in the grand scheme of things, they are all the same. Every touch, every rep, every thought should be just as mindful as the one before. This is the mindset that we should learn to adopt. Why?
Have you ever been the type of player who is great in practice, but struggles during the match? I have and it took me a long time to figure out why! Pressure, expectations, the fear of failure, nervousness…all of these characteristics play a huge role in the way that we perform. But, struggling in a game might also be a result of mindfulness. How? While being mindful is important, it is only beneficial to those who can be mindful on a consistent basis. Those who think that they can just “turn on” their mindfulness in a game, become susceptible to overthinking.
Welcome the Unexpected
We don’t always have control of the people or the environment around us. A gym might be freezing, a floor might be sticky, a glare might be blinding, a ref might give a bad call, a coach might make the wrong decision, we might get sick, we might get hurt. There are a million factors that we simply can’t control.
We can’t let these uncontrollable factors change the practice environment. Do we really think a referee is going to stop a game because it is cold? Do we think another team is going to let us win because we are on the glare side? Highly doubtful. Rather than letting these uncontrollable factors consume us, let’s embrace them and practice them. If you are a coach, try giving a few bad calls in practice to see how the team reacts. If you are a club director, try bumping up the music really loud so that players are forced to change their communication tactics. If you are a player, force yourself to stay energetic even if you are exhausted. Expect the unexpected and embrace it.
Replicate the Emotions
Emotions tend to be exaggerated in game-like situations. The highs feel high and the lows feel low. In practice, find ways to replicate those emotions so that you can learn how to de-intensify them in game situations. Whether you are a coach or a player, commit to creating a competitive atmosphere where good plays are rewarded and bad plays are punished (just like in a game).
Punishment…why are we all so afraid of punishment? We learn from punishment! We develop a sense of grit from punishment! We become competitors through punishment! It doesn’t need to be anything crazy…a punishment could be as simple as taking away a point every time we make an unforced error.
Commit to Yourself
Fact of the matter is, if we don’t do it consistently, we won’t learn. We need to commit to ourselves and commit to our teammates and bring the best versions of ourselves every day.
Get up, get out and go compete!