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mindsets: practice vs competition

Your brain is an interesting lump of an organ - astoundingly powerful and efficient, yet has weird little quirks that can cause massive performance failure. You have the ability to process information in a matter of milliseconds and react to it on a completely unconscious level, bypassing conscious thought. In fact, this ability to process information unconsciously is what will separate an elite from non-elite on competition day. On the other hand, you also have the ability to process information at a more conscious level, forcing your brain to adapt and learn new things through this cognitively demanding process. That being said, both unconscious and conscious information processing plays an important part in becoming an expert. This leads me to the purpose of today's blog: to highlight the different types of mindsets you should put yourself in when you're training and when you're competing. This is something many elite athletes utilize to become better - even if they don't realize they're doing it!


The training mindset

Everyone knows that the purpose of practice and training is to improve whatever skill or ability you're working on. However, there's more nuance to it than that and training doesn't boil down to simply "doing it". You need to make your training an extremely active process. Sure, playing your game over time will slowly make you better, but there is a ceiling, a plateau of skill.


When it comes to training, we all know the cliche "get outside your comfort zone". I want to break that down and show why it truly is important to follow that cliche. Your comfort zone is essentially the skills and abilities you can do unconsciously and without effort. That's why it's called the comfort zone; it feels more or less natural and easy to do. This is because your brain has already developed a level of expertise to handle this skill without needing to place extra mental demand trying to comprehend it. Picture your comfort zone as a circle. Our entire goal of training is to expand the size of that circle so that we have access to more automatic and developed skills without slowing down our brain by thinking.


To grow that circle, our training need to be spent doing actions that don't naturally happen. It's a clunky process because we are using the conscious part (frontal lobe) of our brain to control our actions, which, in brain terms, is a MUCH slower process. The goal here is to train these actions repetitively and with purpose so that our brain can encode the action and make it automatic and unconscious. Since this type of training is an active process, it requires preparation and planning. When you are preparing for practice, plan out the skills you want to work on that session and deliberately work on them. Also, set up a system of reminders to help you stay focused on the things you are working at, such as a note pad with the skills listed to refer to during the practice session. It'll likely feel like you're doing worse than normal, the session will be more fatiguing, you'll feel slow, and you'll fail...a lot. Keep practicing it anyways. Then practice it again. And again. Eventually, you'll reach a point where it's automatic and the skill seems to come naturally.


The competition mindset

Competition is not a day to try new things, but let me quickly explain why. By this point we've now spent countless hours refining our skills, perfecting them, and making it happen automatically. The reason we've been working on that is because we need the speed of unconscious action. At the elite level, those eye blink moments are what will separate the good players from the incredible players, and you can't afford the time loss caused by conscious thinking.


The mindset we need to get into on competition day is trust. If your training has been done deliberately and purposefully, you need to trust that the skills that you've developed are sitting and waiting to come out automatically. You've expanded your comfort zone to cover a larger set of finely tuned skills. Because of this, skills and abilities that used to sit outside your comfort zone and take effort now seem to happen without any thought at all. If we try to push beyond those limits like we do in practice, we risk massive performance failures. Practice is where we develop our skills, competition is where we display what we've learned. Trust in your own process and abilities to deliver a peak performance for you. There may be times where you have to risk stepping outside of the comfort zone, but you've spent endless hours perfecting your abilities within that zone and you want to let those abilities shine. I can almost guarantee that an optimal performance will happen more often within that zone rather than trying to push beyond it during a competition.


These peak performances happen when you're able to fully allow your abilities to happen rapidly, automatically, and unconsciously, which can only occur when you've trained a skill so intensely that your mind has integrated it in with your own natural ability. When you have to think about it, your thought process slows down and will cause a decrease in performance. That's the entire purpose of training: make it second nature.