1. Have a goal and purpose
You must have a clear goal about what area you want to improve as you head out to training. For example, it might be technical, tactical, mental, or team related. You must also have a clear purpose for training each day. A purpose identifies specifically how you’re going to achieve your goal for the day. If your goal is to improve something technical, your purpose would be certain drills that would ingrain that new technique.
2. Train like you compete
When I say train like you compete, I don’t mean trying to perform at 100%, game-like intensity all of the time. The reality is that there are times in practice when you will be focusing on technique or tactics rather than going all out. When I say train like you compete, I mean putting 100% effort and focus into whatever you’re working on.
Admittedly, you probably won’t be able to practice at 100% because there’s no way to completely replicate competition in training, but if you can up your effort and focus from, say, 70% to 90%, when you get to the day of the competition, you’ll have little trouble kicking it up to 100% because your mind and body know that it’s time to compete.
3. Use keywords to maintain focus
The best way I have found to maintain focus in training is to develop and repeat a keyword that will remind you to focus on and practice what you are working on to improve. Whatever you’re working on, think up a simple keyword that is ideally one or two syllables and active (e.g., “Drive” instead of “Legs”). Then, just before you begin and while you’re doing the drill, repeat the keyword to yourself (out loud if necessary). If you’re saying the keyword, you have a much better chance of keeping the focus on the technique you’re working on, actually practicing it the entire drill, and ingraining it so that it becomes automatic.
4. Make mistakes
Rarely has there ever been perfect competitive performances, even by the very best athletes in the world. If the best make mistakes, you shouldn’t be surprised that you make mistakes too. What makes great athletes different is not that they don’t make mistakes, but rather how they respond to them. Instead of getting frustrated, angry, and depressed when they make mistakes, the best athletes stay positive and motivated. And, importantly, they learn from their mistakes so they don’t make them again. To ensure that mistakes mean success, immediately after a mistake, identify what exactly you did incorrectly, decide what you need to do to correct it, and focus on the correction during the next drill.
5. Have patience, persistence, and perseverance
Frustration and discouragement are two significant barriers to achieving your athletic goals. Let’s face it, sports are filled with obstacles, plateaus, and setbacks, and it’s easy to just want to give up. I think it’s especially hard for young athletes these days because of the messages they get from popular culture tell them that success should easy and they shouldn’t have to work that hard to get it. But that’s just not the way the real world works. Gosh, pursuing excellence is just plain difficult. That’s why most athletes never achieve their goals, because they quit when it gets hard.
I read a research study once that said that it takes 2,000 repetitions of a skill to ingrain it fully. The problem is that you can’t just make that many repetitions to really learn something. Rather, you have to have 2,000 quality repetitions, which means you may need to do several thousand more to get to that number. Also, other research shows that those who achieve excellence have put in thousands of hours of practice.
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.