“It’s just like any other game!” – How many times have you heard someone say that?
Maybe you’re a coach who’s said it to players before an important match. Maybe you’re an athlete who’s heard it from teammates or coaches who are trying to make things as normal as possible in the build up to a big competition. “If we do what we normally do, we’ll be alright.” And you know what, in certain circumstances, yup, that works fine.
But the truth is, that those big moments, the playoff games, the cup finals, the championship deciders… well actually, they are different, and no matter how much you try to convince yourself that they’re just like any other game, you and I both know that they aren’t. Coaches know it’s a different experience. Athletes know it’s different.
But here’s the thing. I was having a conversation with a colleague about this the other day and he made the point that “different” doesn’t have to mean “more difficult.” It doesn’t have to mean “more stressful.” It can just mean “different.”
So what are the differences that athletes and coaches generally experience at the “big” competitions? Well the obvious one is nerves. It’s perfectly normal before a competition that we think of as being important, to be a little more anxious than normal.
It’s good to remember though, that nerves aren’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s what we do with them that makes them useful or not. Perhaps before the big games, we might think a little more than usual about all of the things that might happen (good or bad), or we might get those butterflies that we don’t normally get. Sound familiar?
Another thing that can typically happen in the run up to the big competitions is that it can be easier to get distracted. Perhaps you’re competing at a multi-sport event for the first time or maybe you’re competing against a close rival.
There are naturally going to be more distractions than usual, like other athletes and teams, bigger, louder crowds, maybe more of a media presence, so again, the idea that “it’s just like any other game” just isn’t true.
Preparing for the big games
To approach those big games as if they’re just like any other game might not be as helpful as you think, because actually we don’t normally have to perform while experiencing unusually intense nervous thoughts and feelings. Maybe they only show up at the big competitions. The distractions that we’re going to face aren’t part of our normal performance either.
Personally, I think it’s important for athletes and coaches to acknowledge that yes, they might feel differently when the stakes are higher. But then it’s also vital to think about what you’re going to do about it.
Rather than trying to control those nervous thoughts and sensations, can we imagine accepting them and competing successfully despite them?
There’s a delicate balance though, between preparing as normal, treating it like any other game, and actually acknowledging that, you know what, this is a big game, and yes, it is important.
It’s a balance because increasing the level of importance attached to a game can actually make athletes more nervous.
During the 2014 World Cup, Steven Gerrard made a point of highlighting to the younger players just how important the game was and how terrible the teams’ summer would be if they lost against Uruguay.
England looked nervous. England lost 2-1. Ironically, Gerrard made the mistake that many consider lost them the game, but that’s neither here nor there… perhaps.
It’s important to acknowledge that the really big competitions and events are going to be different. Trying to deny that just means a potentially nasty surprise when we suddenly get really nervous.
But we we need to have strategies in place for dealing with those differences, otherwise we can get nervous thinking about how big the competition is! A tricky situation to be in.
Coaches: Your athletes know when a competition is important. They know what’s at stake, and constantly pointing that out to them might actually increase anxiety (theirs and yours!), rather than motivate. Know your athletes and be aware of how “psyching them up for the big game” might affect their performance. Be mindful of your own behaviour and try to be consistent.
Athletes: It’s okay to acknowledge that the big competitions are going to be a bit different in terms of what you might experience and how you might feel about it. Be a mindful athlete. Acknowledge any anxious thoughts or sensations as just thoughts and sensations that don’t have to affect your ability to go after what you really want.
So, what are your experiences of preparing for the big games? Do you treat them the same way as you do any other competition? Do you do anything different? Why not leave a comment below?