July 25, 2013 • Coaching

Creating more consistent athletes

Four keys to eliminating the peaks and valleys in player performance

One of the telltale signs of being a truly great athlete is consistency. Some athletes occasionally may have a good game every now and then, but the truly great athletes perform to their potential on a consistent basis. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a scrimmage situation or a pressure-packed, late-game championship contest; great athletes are consistently ready to do battle.

Why is consistency hard to achieve? There are two primary areas that contribute to inconsistent play. The first is poor preparation and the second is stress.

Poor preparation

Most coaches are all too familiar with poor preparation on their athletes’ part. Many of you probably have a few players on your team who think they can turn it on and off at will. These are the players who often don’t give it their all during practice situations. They think they can just go through the motions during the week and, somehow, their skills and talent will magically appear come game time.

It’s these athletes who have many ups and downs throughout the season because they don’t work hard enough to earn the confidence necessary to be more consistent.

Suffocating stress

On the other hand, many of you have another group of athletes who look great in practice situations. When the game starts, however, these practice all-stars seem like completely different people in prime time. It’s almost as if aliens have taken over their bodies.

Game day puts a lot more stress on many athletes, which obviously creates a lot of problems. The doubts and distractions associated with added stress can disrupt your players’ focus, cause them to tense up and become tentative, and lose control of themselves. Whether it’s going from practice situations to games, or from regular-season games to the pressure-packed playoffs, stress causes many athletes to forget and abandon the physical, mechanical and mental skills that lead to success.

Keys to consistency

Since poor preparation and stress are often the causes of inconsistent play, it is critical that coaches teach players how to properly prepare for games and how to perform under pressure to help them be more consistent. Think of the simple equation of:

Consistent athlete Winning EdgeProper preparation + confident and focused mindset = consistency

Proper preparation really begins during practices. Remind your athletes that practice is designed to help them master the skills needed to play the game. The daily repetitions of drills lay the necessary foundation for skill mastery. By not doing enough of these repetitions, or more often, executing them without quality, athletes allow themselves to be inconsistent performers because they have not put in the necessary time and effort.

Encourage all of your athletes to set goals prior to the start of practice as they stretch or warm up to ensure that they are practicing with a purpose. Also, look to use a variety of challenging drills to maintain your athletes’ focus and interest in practice.

Proper preparation also involves mentally preparing oneself to be ready to compete before games. Athletes need to know what mindset gets them ready to perform at their best. If your athletes are unsure about what mindset works best for them, sit them down and help compare and contrast some of their all-time best and worst games. Were they more relaxed and calm, or energized and pumped, when they were playing their best? What were they focused on before and during the game? Where was their confidence level? Their answers and your insights to these questions help them determine their peak-performance mindset.

Encourage your athletes to develop a pre-game mental routine to help them get mentally ready to play. The individualized routine might include such things as: visualizing how they want play; listening to relaxing or energizing music; talking strategy with coaches and teammates; or reflecting on their goals and keys to success. This consistent routine helps to mentally prepare your players whether they are at home or on the road, playing in the morning, afternoon or evening, or playing an inter-squad game or playing for the national championship.

The other key area in helping your athletes perform more consistently is giving them some mental strategies to deal with the stress that is so much a part of competitive sports. Coaches and athletes should remember that a person is either scared by pressure situations or challenged by them. The choice is entirely up to how the athlete chooses to perceive or think about the situation.

If they see the situation as threat or a chance to screw up and embarrass themselves in front of everyone, stress will result. However, if athletes choose to view games and pressure situations as challenging opportunities, they then create the motivation and confidence to give themselves the best chance for being successful.

While there are a number of strategies coaches and athletes use to combat stress and create confidence, here are the four most-effective ones.

1. Keep it simple.

Most athletes think too much when they are under stress, and end up cluttering their minds and complicating the situation. Keep it simple by reminding your players to focus on the process versus worrying about making the game-winning play. Keeping it simple transforms pressure situations into easy and manageable tasks, which players can do and have done before.

2. “Gotta” vs. “gonna.”

So many times athletes heap pressure by telling themselves, “I gotta make this play.” This kind of self-talk typically puts too much pressure on an athlete to perform. Instead, athletes should focus more on what they are “gonna” do, which sounds much more confident and self-assured.

3. Remind athletes of past successes.

Focusing athletes on past successes is a great way to build their confidence. Basketball great Michael Jordan typically used this strategy before hitting game-winning shots. He would remind himself of other game-winning shots he had hit throughout his career.

Interestingly, there were past times that Jordan missed shots at the buzzer that he could have reflected on, but he would not allow his mind to go there. Similarly, remind your athletes of the past successes they have had, even if they were in practice situations. If they have done it once before, they can do it again.

4. Develop pre-performance mental routines.

Another way of helping your athletes deal with stress and play more consistently is to help them devise a pre-performance mental routine. Sport psychology consultant Ken Ravizza recommends using a simple three step pre-performance mental routine, which typically includes a control phase, a plan phase and a trust phase.

  • First, the control phase is designed to ensure that players are in control of themselves prior to performing.
  • Secondly, the plan phase encourages athletes to have their heads in the game so they know what to do ahead of time, before the play happens.
  • Finally, the trust phase emphasizes the importance of minimizing thinking as the play begins and trusting their instincts.

Have your athletes implement and customize this process into their routines before they perform.

Getting athletes to perform to their potential once in a while is tough enough. It’s even tougher to get them to do it on a consistent basis. I encourage you to use the following suggestions to ensure that your athletes’ heads are regularly in a position to be successful. If they can prepare properly and approach each situation with confidence and focus, they’ve got a great chance of being successful on a consistent basis.

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