A problem sports psychologists often hear bemoaned by sportspeople of all levels, is an inability to replicate their training performance in a more competitive environment. Many squash players report being able to hit great lengths, cut in wonderful drops, and cover the court effortlessly in training for example, but when it comes to their big league matches or tournaments they're left frustrated, with their technique and poise seeming to desert them just when they need it the most.
This concept of a great 'practice athlete' is a common one in many sports. Some players seem to be able to turn it on in training, but just can't put it together in competition. The longer this goes on the more frustrated the player becomes, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle of poor performance, plummeting confidence, and increasingly bad results.
One of the biggest differences between training and competing for most players that report difficulties with consistency of performance, is in how relaxed they report feeling in the two different environments. In a sport such as squash where fluidity of movement and smoothness of technique are such crucial elements, being too tense and anxious in a matchplay situation will wreak havoc on performance – in a less pressurised practice environment however, it's usually far easier for the player to relax and focus on the relevant cues and processes of performing well as opposed to the overall outcomes of winning or losing.
It's this focus on OUTCOME over PROCESS that is all too often the root cause of the problem for those players who are great in training, but weak in competition. The increased mental and physical tension that they feel, often stems from focusing on the wrong things during the game. Instead of thinking about constructing rallies, playing their shots and just letting things flow together as they do in practice, the focus instead drifts to things like success and failure, how they'll look if they make mistakes, and what people will think or say about them – all things that are essentially beyond control, especially in the midst of a competitive match.
It's easy to say to ‘just relax', but any player that feels those tensions related to competing knows that it's unfortunately never as simple as that. One potential solution that many players have found useful is to try instead to adapt their point of focus and concentration, and strive to draw their competition mindset as close as possible to their training mindset. A great article at TheSportInMind website calls this ‘bridging the gap between practice and competition', and outlines a number of strategies to do this, including:
Making Practice Like Competition, by placing a little extra pressure on yourself in training. For the squash player this could be just a visualisation/imagery process, or it can be something more tangible such as having court sprint penalties for the loser in conditioned routines or practice games.
Inviting An Audience, to training sessions to increase that perceived external pressure felt in competition. Invite family or friends to watch while you train or play your practice matches, to replicate the stress that you may feel from competing in front of a crowd.
Holding More Frequent ‘Mock' Competitions, to immerse yourself in competitive scenarios on a more frequent basis. This might mean getting together with a group of friends for some mini round-robin tournaments where the winner gets the prize of not having to pay for their drinks at the bar afterwards (waters and fruits juices only, of course!). It could alternatively involve entering a couple of small local club tournaments or box leagues outside of your usual main stress-causing league matches or tournaments, where you go along and resolve to treat the matches purely as a practice session with no outcome goals whatsoever.
Not Changing Behaviours Or Actions Before You Play, to help keep everything between both training and competition as similar as possible, both physically and mentally. Get into the habit of having a consistent routine before you step on court, in terms of your warm-up, equipment, nutrition etc. Ensure you keep this the same before both training sessions and competitive matches, to get your mind and body into a familiar pre-performance routine that ensures you're as relaxed and comfortable as possible.
The article includes a number of other suggestions that may be useful to some, but the four outlined above are perhaps the most specific for the squash player. Make the effort to try and incorporate some or all of these strategies into your training/matchplay to help ensure you're more familiar with ‘pressure', and thus more able to relax and focus on the right things before competing – ultimately allowing yourself to start bridging that gap between practice performance and competition performance.
There's another really good article here from the excellent Competitive Advantage website for those looking for some further reading on this topic, that also offers some additional tips for both parents and coaches of players who struggle with practice/competition performance balance.
Gary Nisbet - B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
Squashskills Fitness & Performance Director
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