There is nothing more important to achieving your athletic goals than what you do in practice. It is during training that you ingrain the physical, technical, tactical, and mental habits that will come out in competitions. If you establish good habits, you’ll have a good chance of having a good performance. But if you instill bad habits, those will come out and you’ll have little chance of performing your best.
Despite its importance, most athletes don’t give much thought to how they can get the most out of their training efforts. That’s why the training time of athletes is often both inefficient and ineffective. So, in the spirit of total appreciation for the value of quality training, here are five tips that can help you get the most out of practice:
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.
When I’m working with athletes on the field, course, court, or what have you, I will often ask them what their goal and purpose is. If they don’t know, I don’t let them practice. I know that sounds harsh, but think of it this way. If you don’t have a clear goal and purpose, you won’t be working on anything to improve. You will not only not be getting better, but you will be making it harder to improve. Let me explain. When you’re not working on something, you are practicing and further ingraining old habits. The more deeply ingrained those old technical, tactical, and mental habits become, the harder it is to change them. So, by not having you train if you don’t have a clear goal or purpose, you may not be improving, but, at least, you’re also not making it harder to improve.
2. Train like you compete. When I ask coaches and athletes whether they should train like they compete or compete like they train, the vast majority say compete like you train. Their answer seems reasonable because if you can compete in the same relaxed state as when you train, the chances are you’d perform well.
The problem is that competing like you train is impossible. Why? Because there is a big difference between practice and competitions: competitions matter! So I say train like you compete. Think about everything you need to think, feel, and do in a competition and then replicate that in training. By doing so, you will practice and ingrain the skills and habits that you need to perform your best in competitions.
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.
By training like you compete, you won’t need to do anything new or different when the day of the competition arrives. And competitions won’t feel like a big deal because you’ve been practicing at that high level. All of those great skills and habits that you instilled in training will naturally come out and you’ll be able to perform your best.
3. Use keywords to maintain focus. Perhaps the greatest challenge you face in improving technically and tactically is maintaining focus in training. In fact, most sports are a real challenge when it comes to focusing because there are so many things to focus on at any given moment and so many thing trying to distract you. You may be totally focused on doing a drill correctly before it begins, but as soon as you start the drill, there are other things pulling your focus away from its goal and purpose.
As soon as you lose your focus, you lose your ability to work on the thing you were focusing. Here’s a simple rule: If you don’t focus on it, you don’t work on it. If you don’t work on it, you won’t learn it. And if you don’t learn it, you won’t be able to use it in a competition.
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. One of the most frustrating aspects of developing as an athlete is the mistakes that you make as you work to improve. Yet, athletes often don’t realize that mistakes are an essential part of getting better. Many athletes view mistakes as failure; if they screw up, they’ve failed. But mistakes only mean failure when you give in to them, don’t learn from them, and keep repeating them.
Mistakes are a natural part of the learning process and offer you valuable information about what you need to work on. Mistakes are actually positive signs because they mean you’re taking risks, moving out of your comfort zone, and working to improve. If you are not making mistakes, you’re just not pushing yourself to be your best.
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.
If you’re going to achieve your competitive goals, you need the 3 Ps of training. The first P is patience, really understanding that there are no quick and easy paths to success. You must be willing to accept that it will take a long time to reach your goals. The second P is persistence, which means keeping up maximum effort even when you’re tired, bored, and wishing you could be doing something else. The third P is perseverance, which involves facing and overcoming those obstacles, plateaus, and setbacks that are an inevitable part of the climb up the steep mountain to your goals.