One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over many years in sports, and one that many young athletes don’t seem to get, is that practice really does matter. Too often, I see athletes wasting their time in practice. I can’t tell you how much it irritates me when I’m working with young athletes and see them do things that so obviously prevent them from getting the most out of their practice.
Here are my top 5 Things NOT Do in Practice:
1. Talking to other athletes just before they begin a drill. Focus is the most important mental contributor to quality practice. Yet, what do I see more often than not before athletes start a drill or a simulated game scenario? Athletes chatting it up, continuing to talk when the drill begins, and, amazingly enough, athletes who are still talking to their pals well into the drill. What’s missing here? Focus, of course. They are focusing on their conversations and what is behind them. What they should be focusing on is what they are working on and what lies ahead in the drill.
2. Cruising at the start of practice. When I compete in sports, the clock starts with the starter’s gun goes off or the whistle is blown. But you wouldn’t know it by the way many athletes approach the beginning of practice. I regularly see young athletes ease into practice by cruising through the first few drills to save energy and then ramping up their intensity near the end of practice. This habit of working their way into practice is related to intensity. Sports require power, quickness, and agility, as well as an aggressive mindset. If you don’t have both intensity and aggressiveness from the moment practice begins, you’re training your mind and body to not be ready when it needs to be. And that habit will hurt you in competition because there’s no place for easing into things when it really counts.
3. Giving up without a fight in practice. This is my number-one pet peeve when it comes to practice. So many athletes I see will struggle in practice and just give up. What a truly terrible habit to get into! If you get used to giving up at the smallest problem in practice, that’s what your mind and body will learn to do in a competition. There are usually some deeper psychological issues at play here that cause athletes to give up at the slightest mistake or setback, notably perfectionism and fear of failure. But the bottom line is that when you bail out of a drill, one thing happens 100 percent of the time: you fail to improve and prepare for competition.
4. Letting up at the end of practice. I see so many young athletes ease up before a drill or practice session actually ends. This is another habit that drives me crazy. Just like with cruising at the start of practice, athletes are ingraining letting up before they are really finished. How often have you seen a athletes having a good competition and then, with the end in sight, makes a big mistake and it costs them a good result? This frustrating experience usually occurs because athletes think they’re finished and lose focus and intensity. But, just as the clock starts at the beginning of a competition, it stops when athletes cross the finish line, so you need to make sure that you are focused and intense all the way to the finish.
5. Asking coaches to make things easier when practice gets difficult. Young athletes love ideal conditions, whether a beautifully manicured field or great weather. But how often do athletes compete under those ideal conditions? Not that often. Yet, I constantly hear, “Hey coach, things are getting too hard here. Can you make it easier?” If you are competing in situations where the conditions are bad, you shouldn’t even begin to practice until the conditions are as rough as the expected competitive conditions. The fact is the only way to perform well in tough competitive conditions is train under those conditions. By doing so, you learn what you need to do to deal with those tough conditions and you build confidence that can still perform well even when the going gets tough.
Dr. Jim Taylor is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of sports performance. He has worked with professional, world-class, collegiate, and junior-elite athletes for 30 years and written eight books related to sport psychology. A former world-ranked alpine ski racer, he is a second-degree black belt in karate, marathon runner, and Ironman triathlete. To learn more, visit www.drjimtaylor.com.