Every coach who has ever existed, not to exaggerate, has uttered the words “practice makes perfect,” at one time or another in an attempt to motivate their team to focus on the skill at hand.  Coaches say this in hopes of their athletes concentrating on all of the fundamentals in practice, making it easier to apply what they learned perfectly to a game situation.  These three simple words are much easier said than done.  Despite the popularity of this age-old saying, there are still a great deal of people who believe that talent is the sole defining factor that determines success at a high level of sport performance.  Neither of these cases are the absolute correct answer, but they both play a role in producing optimal athleticism.  Since sport performance has variables involving innate ability, the more accurate cliche quote to describe this would be, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”  I believe this portrays a more holistic view of what goes into optimizing sport performance because it shows the importance of practicing well, but does not neglect the truth that there are other factors that influence performance at a certain level.

(AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)
(AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)

In order to become a successful athlete at the highest attainable level, a large volume of quality practice of skills and attribute development are necessary in addition to a certain degree of natural ability.  In the field of strength and conditioning, coaches are mostly focused on attribute development, while leaving the practice of skills to the head coach.  Natural ability includes areas such as being “gifted with vast intellectual ability, eagerness to work, and power of working,” (Ericsson, et al., 1993). Most people think of natural ability as physical talent regarding body movement, but without the intellectual capacity to process surroundings or willingness to improve any flaws, the athlete is not likely to reach their full potential.  This is where the practice to game transfer comes into play.  It is not strange for players to thrive in practice situations, but struggle in games, especially high pressure moments.  In many cases, this phenomenon can be attributed to lack of focus or purpose by the athlete.  In a study about the efficiency of human performance, findings show that adults perform far below their maximal level, even at tasks they frequently complete.  This research article states the following:

“It is that we have too many other improvements to make, or do not know how to direct our practice, or do not really care enough about improving, or some mixture of these three conditions.” (Ericsson et al., 1993)

The above quote includes three parts that are all controllable mental aspects that are specific to game performance.  If an athlete has too many improvements to make and does not know how to direct their practice because of this, they can focus on one thing at a time in order of importance in order to have a more structured approach, allowing a clearer mind.  This notion of having a clear mind in practice is applicable to game performance if the athlete maintains a similar clear mental state in that situation.  Athletes run into problems when they are overstimulated by the unfamiliar environment of a packed stadium or something of the sort.  This over-stimulation causes athletes to pay attention to unimportant environmental stimulants, such as crowd noise, chants, lighting, and other distractions.  Whether the lack of focus on the athlete’s part is voluntary or involuntary, it takes away from their ability to devote general & fine motor skills, coordination and reaction at that moment (Baldwin, 2012).  The idea behind this is that performers practice so often that their skills become second nature, since thinking is unproductive to the overall goal.  Practice players play well in practice because there is not the same level of environmental stimulus.  They falter in games because they cannot effectively regulate their mental state.  Before games or high pressure situations, there should be an emphasis on being confident and focused because that close to a performance, the performer is not going to learn a new skill and implement it without trying it in practice, but they can control their mental state (Baldwin, 2012).

Different strategies of gaining the intense level of focus game situations require vary slightly depending on the coach or sport psychologist.  Similar to how the article by Baldwin clearly stated that the two things to focus on pregame in a basketball context, Dr. Cohn outlines his three big teaching points for players to develop their mental game from the context of tennis:

  1. Fear of failure

    (skysports.com)
    (skysports.com)
  2. Trying too hard to win
  3. Lack of confidence (Cohn, 2008)

It is apparent just by looking at the list that the presence of any one of these can cause a highly skilled athlete to falter in a performance-based setting.  Both models presented on game-focus have a fair share of overlap, just different way to approach similar issues.  It is difficult to say which method is more effective towards specific groups or individuals utilizing them, but it is safe to take away broader mental skills to focus on.  Confidence is obviously the direct overlap between both of the coaches models.  This being said, athletes must become skilled at finding their optimum level of confidence, without exceeding a certain level of over-stimulus.  Fear of failure and trying too hard to win are both factors determining the focus of the athlete.  If the athlete is worried about the outcome (winning or losing) more the game itself while it is being played, they will not have the capacity to excel in sport performance.

Athletes and coaches in the past have found effective player specific ways to clear the mind before and during games.  These athletes and coaches have been the most successful because their reflexes work significantly quicker than processing every minor detail of the game.  In order to develop players and train them to perform at the highest level of their potential, coaches must understand the concept of regulating game time mental state.  Once this is accomplished for good, there will no longer be players who play well in practice settings, but flake in real games where it matters.  To finally address the age-old question of ‘does practice make perfect?’, I believe that this is true only if the practice simulates game settings to an extent and includes teachings of how to control mental state effectively.  Practicing is a vital component to developing a successful athlete, but if that athlete is not mentally sound, all of the physical skills are put to waste.

References

Baldwin, D. (2012). Dominate in practice, but freeze up during games? read this. The Mental Handbook, retrieved from: http://dreallday.com/2012/10/10/nerves-during-games-why-it-happens-and-how-to-fix-it/

Cohn, P. (2008).  3 reasons you underperform in matches.  Sport Psychology for Tennis: Powerful mental game strategies for success, retrieved from: http://www.sportspsychologytennis.com/?p=749

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., Tesch-Romer, C. (1993).  The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.  Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406, Retrieved from: http://www.mockingbirdeducation.net/uploads/5/4/0/7/5407628/ericsson_1993.pdf

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