Claudine Jennings interviews Alistair following “Learning to concentrate on the important aspects of performance” article.
C: So in your article talking about “do you need more than you need” you’re basically saying that all we’re trying to do is shoot tens and it doesn’t matter how that arrow gets in the middle of the target?
A: Absolutely. In competition that is all that matters and it’s important to keep that in mind. In practice you work hard to be able to do that but in competition you aren’t getting style points.
C: But surely you need the style to get the arrows in the middle?
A: You do and you don’t. You need a workable repetitive style and then you need a consistency within that style. Coaches for years, in all sports, have chosen to continue the myth if you like that perfect style equals prefect results and it doesn’t. You need to be clear about what you are trying to do.
C: But surely if you are shooting in competition, all be it shooting a reasonable score for what you expect, but the shots feel horrible and you’re just going to not enjoy it, your performance is going to suffer…
A: The performance doesn’t have to suffer on that particular day. You take that away, you take it back to the practice range, you take it back to your coach and you go ‘I’m not happy with this’, but at the end of the day ask any great athlete whether of not it always feels great and they will tell you no it very rarely feels great. they work a result be very clear about the difference between competition and practice.
C: So I suppose the flip side of that is that if you’re in competition and you feel you are shooting great shots and you’re just not getting the result you expect, what do you do with that?
A: You wait. It will happen. You can’t chase feel and a lot of athletes, a lot of coaches talk about the feel or the zone and you can’t go looking for that. What happens is that you do what you’re trying to do, you shoot your shots the way you want to shoot them and soon they will feel great, and when they feel great trust me you’re going to be performing at a very high level. It’s an idea of it not feeling like hard work and there being a lot of good feelings coming back. You shoot a great shot shoot and its not exactly where you wanted it to be, shoot another great shot and it will be, but you can’t go looking for that feel, people go looking for rhythm. They very quickly early on in their performance, in their competition, are berating the fact that it doesn’t feel right. They could be shooting tens. Which is just bizarre, they could be shooting exactly what they want to be shooting but they are “it doesn’t feel good”, and so then the performance starts to go downhill. You cant chase that rhythm, that feel. What you’re trying to do to begin with, and this is what you do in practice before the competition if need be is that you are looking to follow a set of rules that will lead you into that flow experience that very easy, good feeling that happens actually not that often. Outside of that your looking to go if I do this, this and this, whatever that may be that’s what you practice in practice, then I expect the arrow to end up where I wanted it to end up. Like I say, you’re not getting style points and nobody apart from you can feel how they feel. It’s not always going to feel great.
C: You use that phrase in your article “the more I practice the luckier I get”. Surely luck should never come into it
A: Its a much quoted idea and various people are said to have come up with it the first time. It is the mantra of all professional sports people that the more you practice the better you get within your technique. Not necessarily the best technique in the world, but within you technique, the more you pull stuff off. And that’s that lucky idea. Many many top athletes have quoted this idea of “the luckier I get’. It was well that wasn’t great, but it came out right”. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to shoot tens, pot snooker balls, hit free kicks… Trust in what you do, and it doesn’t have to be technically perfect. Don’t trust in what you do and it’s never going to work. Trust the technically imperfect shot will still work.
C: Surely the luck aspect are those millimetres that are the difference between success and failure. Can you measure them in how good they feel?
A: What that really comes down to is when you are really flowing those shots are in. It doesn’t matter if it’s just inside the tramlines in tennis or again a ten on an archery field, you cant go looking for that. So what you are trying to use is almost a step-wise progression which is “I trust my method, I’m going to use my method, I’m going to work my method quite hard, and then I expect to fall into a position where this is quite easy and it feels quite good. I can still get the result I’m looking for when its pretty workman-like early on, and workman-like or not flowing is not something that you should be beating yourself up for. That will lead into the right performance.
C: Doesn’t that mean there is something wrong with your method though? If it feels terrible all the time, albeit you’re getting the results you want, then…
A: You don’t look for it to feel terrible all the time. You don’t look for a massive discrepancy between how it feels practice and how it feels in competition, but let’s be brutally honest, in everything that we do we have good days and bad days, and the real test of our skill is that we can get through what is a bad day. You might go to work not feeling very well, or with your mind not on it and still perform perfectly well at work because you know what you’re doing, you’ve got quite a low resource usage method for work because you do it a lot, and you will get through that day. But at the end of the day you travel home and you go “well, that was pretty awful. From my point of view I did most of that badly. It was a bit of a struggle.” But to everybody else’s point of view it was just another day at the office, and you achieved what you were trying to achieve. That’s exactly what were talking about. You’ve got to trust the skills that you put down on the practice range which allow you to gauge how good it can be and then you cannot be standing there going “oh my goodness, this feels bad.” Yes it it possibly does feel bad, but if you can get the results you just keep going on with the technique that you use. You don’t look for mistakes in that technique, you don’t look to tweak or alter that technique in competition, you just keep going with it, trust in what you’re doing, and it will work out. But the days that it feel perfect are few and far between, even for the top athletes.
C: You talk about resource usage, and when you’re not flowing, when it doesn’t feel great, you are using up a lot of resources and it wears you down.
A: You don’t have to though, that’s exactly my point. If you just accept that you are shooting the arrows in the middle, that your result is good enough, there’s no need for that extra resource usage, there’s no need for that worry to come in. You just go “I trust what I’m doing. It’s not great today, it’s good enough, I’m still achieving what I need to achieve, it just doesn’t feel perfect.” But if you’re getting what you need out of it then you don’t need to worry about and increase your resource usage by pushing forwards on that. So really you’re just there going “OK. That’s today. Let’s get through this.” that’s what many many sportsmen have to do. Most of the time they get to the end of a performance going “it wasn’t great”. It might not be a world record, but it should have been good enough for them to have won.
C: So you should never come away from a competition with a PB or a good score and have anything to say about your technique?
A: Absolutely you should. When you’re back on the practice range you look at what was good, what was bad; how steady the aim was, what the posture was like… While you are doing it the only way to get through what you are trying to do is to be focussed in that moment, and to be concentrating in that moment on what you do.
C: The title of the article was ‘do you need more than you need’ so…
A: Never work harder than you have to. Never beat yourself up for stuff that is not necessary, that is not actually going to add to your performance. It might make you feel better, it might bring a millimetre, a point or two more, if it was feeling perfect, but if you start to worry about it you’re going to drop tens of points. It’s about ‘what do I need to do on that particular day.’
C: I think a lot of coaches would say that approach just encourages bad style and bad attitudes.
A: It encourages great performances, it encourages consistently good performances. Coaches jobs are there to pick out little faults. Coaches jobs are there to either beat you up and say it’s not good enough or pat you on the back and say it’s great. They need to have a job. They should not get confused about where that job starts and ends. And in competition there is nothing that you can do, really, to change anything. You are looking to use the style that you have worked hard on. And I would say that in competition, even in a learning phase, you would never want to chop and change. You would never want to step out of the moment. You can look at the end of the competition and say “well, we’re not going to do that again”, but during a competition you can’t be analytical of what it is that you are doing. You are just trying to do what you do.
C: So I suppose you’re saying you should take confidence and take solace from arrows going in the middle, and as you say, trust that your style and performance and how it feels to you will flow from there.
A: If you trust what you are doing, it will go well. If you are overly analytical which can lead to a soft of paralysis by analysis a little bit, a pickyness about what you’re doing… You see athletes with their shoulders drop and it’s just not good enough. So I’m not saying that you are aiming to build yourself up all of the time, I’m saying that you go “I’ve spent thousands of hours practising, this is what I do, this is how I’m trying to do it”. And if you can follow that then it will be fine.
C: Do you not still need a method when you’re in the final of a big event and it’s not flowing and it’s not feeling great?
A: That should never happen. Your method is developed on the practice field, and your method is no different in competition. I’ve seen people pump themselves up more than they would normally do, I’ve seen people try and be more relaxed than they normally would be, and huge huge errors come it. At the end of the day your practice absolutely mirrors your competition so it doesn’t matter whether you’re standing on a practice field or you’re standing in the final of the Olympics, it’s going to be the same. And to be fair your practice field should be more pressurised, there should be more feelings of excitement or tiredness or whatever, in order to mirror this. But there is no special dealing with special situations. In fact, what you have got to be able to do is go “yeah this is pretty scary”. And it doesn’t matter if this is the first competition you’ve been to or the Olympic final – “yeah this is pretty scary” let’s just take a deep breath, calm ourselves I the knowledge that the method and the technique are good enough, and go with that particular method. There is no special circumstances, and there is no difference between practice and competition.