Why is there a difference in my ability in competition and practice?


When athletes come to me for help they are generally not very clear about what it is they need to practice and more importantly failing are at. For most athletes, there is a misconception that the failing is within a technical aspect of their skill when it is actually a failure in accessing that skill i.e. PERFORMANCE.


Let’s take an example of a “simple” closed skill: shooting basketball free throws or executing an archery shot.  This is a complicated muscular controlled skill but it will be performed exactly the same every time. This means that the skill itself is not manipulated in execution, there is no half power shot due to close distance or decision making process as to how to best pass the ball or beat the goalkeeper.  This skill is repetitive and is an exacting set of muscular movements.  So once the learning phase of skill acquisition is completed, the very best performance of a closed skill requires no application of the cognitive parts of the brain.


Work done with pistol shooters and archers in the late 90’s studying psycho-physiology showed a reduction in heart rate and brain activity during the shot cycle in elite practitioners. This means that at the very highest level a “closed” skill is performed with no cognitive processing, in simple terms the individual does not think how they are executing the skill whilst performing it.




To explain this we must look at a little bit of psychology.  There are various resources open to the individual whilst performing a skill but first of all understand that there is only 100% available at any one time, there is no magic 10% to find to give 110%.


There will always be a percentage of the resource used up by the, well learned, technical skill, think in terms of that being a simple program that takes up very little processing power – 20%.  This percentage of processing power or use of resources is always needed to perform the skill, as proficiency in the skill increases this has reduced from over 100% originally when simple errors were made during initial learning of the skill.


So we have 80% resources open to us to perform before skill failure will occur because we have used up all the resources open to us.


The next major use of processing power is an emotional one: “TRUST:  This is the comfort and belief an individual has that they “can” perform the task.  This is where doubt and nerves come in and make us concentrate cognitively on how to perform that skill.


One of the toughest tests in an advanced driving course is the performer recounting everything they are doing to the instructor.  This removes the skill from a well learnt non-cognitive (some call it wrongly sub-conscious) task, to one that is cognitively analysed during performance causing failure due to increased use of resources past 100%.  It is important to point out that during performance if you use over 100% of your resources for whatever reason, it is the skill that will fail.


So trust must be worked upon.  This is done in training by simulating the situations that will occur in competition as closely as possible. This must be done in training as it is a safe environment where self esteem is not harmed by failure and these failures can be studied and strategies made to overcome them.


It is therefore vital once a skill is acquired to practice in a way that mirrors the competitive sphere this includes time constraints shooting the same number of arrows as the rounds demand and scoring. Where possible an individual should set themselves scoring goals for practice and in seeing if they are achieving them will increase trust.


Another component that will take up resources is fitness.  In order to perform a skill the individual must have a fitness level a factor of at least 5 times greater than is required, this is to reduce the resources utilized to its lowest level.  So if you are going to shoot 60 arrows in competition you must be fit enough to shoot 300 arrows in a session.  This is achieved in archery by volume training and fitness work such as cardio-vascular training but remember this is about improving the performance NOT the skill.


The final component is an emotional one specific to aspirations.  This climbs exponentially when in competition as opposed to a normal practice scenario.  This is linked to expectation.


So how can one practice for this? It must be done through tailored practice and through analyzing competition performance.  The feeling of stress symptoms, elevated heart beat and sweating as well as premonitions of failure occurs at every level of ability in performance. A novice at their first competition feels the same and exhibits the same symptoms as a performer in the final of the Olympics.


So how do you reduce anxiety?  By good practice and experience.  These feelings can never be removed, and they should not be, as a level of arousal is actually required to perform well.  How much, and in what form, any individual feels these symptoms is due to their personal make-up.  For some it is a feeling of euphoria and heightened senses which are the reason that they actually choose to compete and put themselves under pressure.


For others these feelings of anxiety are the negative side to their competitive experience. If you feel this way then you must learn to come to terms with your feelings and not fear them. It is best to have a balance between exhilaration that leads to a lack of control and fear which is paralyzing. The individual may study these emotions easily and quickly by jotting down 3 good things and 3 bad things as soon as a performance is complete. This is done immediately on completion and over time they will start to see trends in their behavior that they can work on with a skilled practitioner.


I hope that these thoughts will allow you to start to understand that it is the accessing of the skill, not the technical aspects of the skill itself, that is holding back performance under pressure. If you can accept your ability to consistently utilize a well learnt simple skill is not the problem, but it is the use of resources in accessing that skill under pressure which is crucial then you will no longer say “it was so much better in practice….”

Leave a Comment