Play The Game AND The Occasion
Using training sessions to mirror aspects of real competitive situations is big in sport, which makes sense - right? Why practice passing or moving in repetitive, dull drills when 'the real thing' involves reading your opponents and teammates, making decisions, and coming up with solutions? Obviously the way to learn and so the way to improve 'real' performance is through more 'realistic' practice, full of these opportunities to develop perception and action.
But have you ever noticed how the heat of battle tends to cause some athletes to perform differently to how they've trained? Despite best efforts, despite learning how to think and how to act in almost any position, pattern or picture they might face, when it comes down to it some of their choices and actions become much less… functional.
So what follows when athletes behave less functionally? The game plan gets forgotten. The momentum shifts. They become reactive to their opponents, rather than proactive in establishing their own style. They become less effective. They lose(at least, more often than they should).
How would their results look if your athletes performed as consistently in competition as they do in their training sessions?
Because, you did train the strategy. You trained the positioning. You trained the decision making. You trained the game. But did you train the occasion? Despite making training as close to the real thing as possible, often we forget to replicate a crucial component of competition... the emotional demands.
Emotions affect actions. Whether they’re chasing a lead or defending one, it’s the first few minutes or the last, they’re making reserves run-out or a playing a cup final, the emotions influencing an athlete at any one time are varied. Some might see them as irrelevant, non-essential to the task at hand. That doesn't stop athletes feeling them. It doesn't stop them from influencing how an athlete performs.
Using an emotionally neutral practice environment to learn how to think, where to look, what option to choose, and how to move, will lead to consistent levels of performance in an emotionally neutral competition environment. The trouble is, they don't exist. Once the emotion dial gets cranked up to 11 on game-day, those consistent performances will soon become turbulent.
The answer is to replicate the emotional demands of competition, alongside the informational and spatial demands, in your training sessions. When you've established consistent performance under a variety of emotional demands in training, you can be confident of that performance level remaining consistent when those same emotions occur in competition.
So, how do you go about emotionally traumatising your athletes?!
Tips for Creating Emotional Demands
First, get your athletes on board with the idea. If they aren't invested in the process or don't understand the benefits then they'll soon start to hate it and you'll lose them. I'm not suggesting we drive anybody away from sport here. If your athletes are in it for fun, perhaps this isn’t the training style for them. But if they’re in it to become the best they can be, well then it becomes part of how they can achieve that.
Second, know the individuals you are working with. What level do they like to perform at, fired-up or iceman? What are their strengths, what are their weaknesses, what buttons can you push to start nudging them outside of their comfort zone? Conducting some simple psychological profiling of your athletes in this way can give you insight into how to generate emotional demands.
Finally, make them CARE about the training session. About the outcome. About succeeding. Then you can start to manipulate the emotional demands of that practice. Add some context, forfeits or 'punishments' for not achieving success are a good place to start. Again ensure the athletes are on-board, and be sure to consider the relevance of those forfeits. Is making your athletes run a few laps of the pitch or court really as emotionally demanding for them as losing a competitive fixture or event? Would setting them a short talk or presentation to staff and parents at the next home game or training session create a more genuine feeling of worry or pressure? How about not letting them leave unless they reach a certain performance target?! Perhaps not, but if they don’t care about the forfeit (or reward!), they won’t care about the result.
Sport is full of emotion, and that’s why we love it. Athletes need to learn to perform consistently with these emotions in order to achieve success on the competitive stage. The saying goes, "Play the game, not the occasion."
Train for both.