Why Are Some Athletes Better on the Practice Field?

Simone Biles, Olympic Gold Medal winning gymnast, said, “Practice creates confidence. Confidence empowers you.” She’s right. The problem is when an athlete can’t translate his or her performance in practice to the competition surface. This can frustrate coaches and baffle players. What is going on here?

Fear of Failure, Practice, Yips, Playing Scared, Hesitation, Lack of Trust, Lack of Confidence, Poor Emotional Control, Emotion Control Plan, Anger, Frustration, Head Case, Distractions, Concentration, Focus, Sport Psychology, Mental Toughness, Resilience, Team Culture, Culture Development, Mental Conditioning, Mental Training, Mindset

Jekyll and Hyde

My college tennis coach probably thought I had dual personalities. One showed up in practice, the other in the match. It was frustrating, to say the least. Perhaps you’ve seen this in your athletes too.

In practice I was loose, confident, and focused. As you’d expect, I played really well. However, no one gets credit for winning practice.

On match day, my game felt like I had one arm tied behind my back. I wasn’t comfortable on the court. My emotions got the best of me, and I was focused on the wrong things.

My coach was out of ideas about how to help me, but he knew I could perform better than what he saw.

I wasn’t reaching my potential. In part, this is what led me to sport psychology. I needed help.

3 Reasons Athletes May Be Better in Practice

Over the past decade, I’ve come across numerous athletes with the same problems I had. The first step to bring about change is identifying why your player is performing better in practice, but not when it counts.

Here are my top 3 reasons why an athlete may be a better practice player than in the game.

1. Fear of Making Mistakes

Athletes who are afraid to mess up often hesitate, hold back, and second guess their decisions during the flow of play. All of these drag down an athlete’s performance.

An athlete’s fear of making mistakes often stems from a lack of trust. She may not trust her coach and fears losing playing time. He may fear embarrassment because he doesn’t feel like an accepted member of his team. Or she may fear retribution and criticism from parents on the ride home.

I tell coaches that an athlete’s fear of making mistakes is usually a symptom of a team culture issue. Either way, it can be addressed and improved with the right approach.

2. Not Focused on the Right Targets

Athletes who aren’t focused on what’s important now struggle to play in the present moment.

When athletes play better in practice than in the game, they are probably focused on more of the right things in practice and more of the wrong things during the game.

To be at their best you want your players focused on the parts of their game that are specific, controllable, observable, and relevant. This helps athletes get locked into the moment and play their best.

3. Poor Emotional Control

When athletes are are fearful, distracted, and not meeting their expectations on the court emotions can run high.

Frustration, anger, nervousness, or anxiety begin to dominate their mindset. These emotions restrict positive thinking and physical movement. When this happens, performance deteriorates quickly.

Athletes need to learn to manage emotions and create an Emotion Control Plan to keep their cool in the heat of battle.

Bonus Download

To help you address this last reason (poor emotional control) with your athletes, you may find this Emotion Control Plan exercise helpful. Use it to help your athletes create a plan for managing their emotions under the pressures of competition.

Target the Right Reason

I talk with coaches and athletes who battle this Jekyll and Hyde syndrome – translating success in practice to the game. It’s frustrating for everyone involved. Understanding a few of the causes can help you and your athletes target the right solutions.

Most coaches aren’t experts in focus, emotional control, or helping athletes overcome fears. However, you can create a more trusting and supportive environment around your team. And you can point athletes to the right resources (such as the download above) to help them get out of their own way and perform to their true potential.

Question: How have you dealt with athletes struggling from this Jekyll and Hyde syndrome?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.


Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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