The greatest challenge that athletes have is to play their best when it really counts. Regardless of the level of competition, whether a state championship, nationals, the Olympics, or World Series, every athlete needs to rise to the occasion of the big game (I will use 'game' to denote any sports competition including those that are races and meets). That goal is accomplished by working hard in practice and being as prepared as you can be as the important game approaches.
Those of you who regularly read my sport-related posts know that my goal for athletes is to achieve "Prime Sport," which I define as playing at a consistently high-level under the most challenging conditions. There is no more important time to achieve Prime Sport than in the biggest game of the year.
The days leading up to the big game are crucial to achieving your competitive goals. You have to get your equipment dialed in, you need to get some rest, and you might do a little fine tuning on your technique and tactics. But the area that will probably make the biggest difference in whether you play your best or get crushed is your attitude toward the big game. Your mindset will impact every psychological contributor to your competitive performances including your motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions. A healthy attitude will set you up for a psychology that will allow you to play your best. An unhealthy attitude, by contrast, will only set you up for failure.
A healthy attitude can be summed up in what I call the "5 P's for the Big Game:" Perspective, Process, Present, Positive, and Progress.
It's easy as the big game approaches to lose perspective. When I talk about perspective I mean the importance you place on the game. You may think: "This is the BIGGEST game of the season and I've worked so hard. If I don't play well, it will kill me!! I must play well!" It is just that attitude that may prevent you from getting the results you want. The reality is that, though this game may be important to you and, if you don't play well, you will be disappointed, it most certainly will not kill you.
Think of it this way. Let's say that before the big game, someone comes up to you, shows you a gun, and tells you that if you don't play well, he will be there after the game and will shoot you. Would you be nervous? Yes! Terrified, in fact! Would you be able to play well? Definitely not! Of course, there will be no one after the game with a gun, but, when you lose perspective and feel that your life (not your physical life, but your ego life) is on the line, then the same feelings of threat and fear arise. And there is little chance of your being confident, relaxed, or focused enough to play your best.
If you look too closely at this game, it's easy to think that it is life or death. But if you can step back and put the game in a long-term perspective, namely, it is just a small step in a journey toward your long-term goals, the so-called big game won't seem quite so important. The result? You'll be psychologically and emotionally prepared to play your best.
One of the most common problems that occurs in athletes as the big game approaches is a shift in their focus away from process and onto outcomes. Let me explain. A process focus involves paying attention to those things that help you play your best, for example, technique, tactics, and pre-game preparation. In contrast, outcome focus involves focusing on the possible results of the game: winning, losing, rankings, or who you might beat or lose to. Let me make this very clear: An outcome focus is the kiss of death in the big game. Here's why:
Many people believe that focusing on the outcome will increase the chances of that outcome occurring, but the opposite is actually true. When does the outcome of a game occur? When the final whistle blows, of course. And if you're focusing on the end of the game, what are you not focusing on? Well, the process, obviously. Here's the irony. By focusing on the process rather than the outcome, you have a much better chance of playing your best because you are paying attention to things that will help you play well. And, if you play well, you're more likely to achieve the results you wanted in the first place.
Also, why do you get nervous before big games? Because you're afraid of the outcome, more specifically, you're afraid of failure. So by focusing on the outcome, you're more likely to feel anxious (a little anxiety is good, but too much is really bad) and less likely to play well and achieve the result you want. In contrast, if you focus on the process, you won't have a fear of failure, you'll stay relaxed, and you're more likely to play your best, the result of which is that you'll achieve the competitive goals you had set for yourself.
Another shift that can occurs before big games is a focus on the present (what you need to do to play well now) to either a past focus -- onto results you had in the past -- or a future focus --onto the results you may or may not get in the big game.
Let's start with a past focus. There's a saying that you can't change the past, but you can ruin a perfectly good future by worrying about it. The reality is that you can't change the past, so there's no point in even thinking about it (except perhaps to learn from your mistakes so you don't repeat them). If something bad happened in the past, be disappointed, then let it go. If something good happened, revel in it, then let it go. Looking back has no value to your present.
Now about the future. Thinking about the future also does you no good. It can cause doubt and worry because it often triggers a fear of failure. A future focus can create anxiety because it makes you think about expectations that you might feel from others, whether parents, coaches, or the media. Mostly basically, if you're focusing on the future, you're not focusing on your play in the here and now.
If you want to control the future, the only way to do so is to control the present. This means directing your focus on what you need to do to play your best right now.
Perhaps the worst thing that happens to many young athletes before a big game is they go negative. The expectations and pressure that you can feel before a big game can cause your confidence, which may have been high from all of your training and games up to this point in the season, to plummet as you focus on all of the bad things that can happen in the upcoming game. You may go from being your best ally to your worst enemy. What are the chances of good things happening in the big game with this "dark" mindset? Let me answer that question for you: pretty darned low.
Your only chance to achieve your goals for the big game is to stay positive and remain your best ally. This doesn't mean you have to be Stuart Smiley (of Saturday Night Live fame) all the time -- feeling some doubt is natural. Just make sure that most of what you think about your upcoming game is positive.
Sports are unforgiving in how it judges athletes; the score doesn't lie. And we also live in a world where it is difficult not to compare yourself to your teammates and other competitors. But when you focus on them -- for example, think about how they are playing, how they will do in the big game, and whether you will beat them -- they win because if you're focusing on them, you're not focusing on you.
The only thing you should really focus on is yourself and the progress you're making toward your goals. You will always have ups and downs, but the key is to see that you are heading in the right direction. Are you improving your technique and tactics? Are your rankings getting better? As long as you are moving toward your goals and staying focused on improving, you will continue to get better and everyone else will take care of themselves.
So, if you really want to play your best in the upcoming big game, remember the 5 Ps and you can be pretty confident that your mind will help you, rather than hurt you, achieve your goals.