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Training to compete: From calm practice into turbulent competition

bob palmer competition mental game training mental training mental training for sport sport mental game sport mental training sportexcel training Jun 03, 2020

My friend Dan is a white-water canoeing aficionado, not at an Olympic level, but for fun. Now that he is retired and has more free time, four or five times a year he travels across Canada and launches his canoe into churning, foaming, frothing rivers, clad in a wetsuit, supplies sealed in watertight containers, and then he cruises downstream at breakneck speed, navigating around half-submerged boulders in his unbreakable PVC-tough canoe. 

And he loves it. He is never more in the Zone than when talking about it and, I presume, while canoeing. He has wrapped his canoe around boulders, flipped in frigid water (albeit with his wetsuit) and rescued many a comrade. So, he isn’t always perfect, but sport never is. And he continues to go back for more at age 65!    

I, on the other hand, like canoeing on nice calm lakes and portaging around rapids. He can have his white water! But the vision of him tackling white water helped me to understand training to win and prepared me to write this article. The skills of Dan, and those like him, may be a long distance from your game of basketball, hockey or any other sport, but it is a good metaphor for how you train now and how you can train in the future.

Training is usually calm

Simply, most athletes train for their competitions by practicing skill drills and mock-up game-like situations. Their minds are calm and they are having fun, as losing doesn’t really matter to anything, not in stats, not in pride. Their bodies are relaxed as there is nothing to upset the calmness and no official scorekeepers or referees to tighten them up. Their athletic ability is relaxed as their mind is calm, with no coach watching to give input or criticism. Their sense of focus is undivided as distractions are minimal. And with most athletes, that is how most train for competition. Everything is calm!

However, competition is rarely calm. Imagine my friend Dan training for his white-water excursions on a flat calm lake. Perhaps he could find a boulder-strewn patch of shoreline to carve the canoe back and forth through the water to practice avoiding obstacles. I suppose he could run the canoe up on rocks and practice getting the canoe off.      

He could also tip the canoe and learn to refloat and upright the canoe. And this kind of training might help a bit if he were a novice canoeist, but it would all be for naught once the land tilted, the water tumbled, and his canoe got sucked into the current. Calm goes out the window and survival begins. 

Athletes need competition to learn to compete.

One of the most upsetting behaviors to see in competition is athletes getting angry and misbehaving to show everyone around them that they are inept and that they understand that they should be punished, if not by others, certainly by their own verbal whipping, posturing, and gestures. And the worse their behaviour becomes, by cussing or blaming others, the more they instruct those around them of their complete understanding of the way the fates have jinxed them. It must be the wind, Friday the 13th, the people watching, the comments of parents. 

Not true. I repeat, No! Not true. 

Athletes in competitions only need to understand one thing. In competition, that nice flat quiet lake (range) surface that you practiced on is no more. As soon as the first whistle sounds, the land begins to tilt. The water is moving faster. The skill required to perform in competition, as compared to practice, is as different as lake paddling on a quiet lake to paddling in the fast-moving torrent. As once the first whistle sounds, the land tilts instantly, the water flows faster, and you can’t believe that your game is suddenly capsizing. All that practice and you make stupid mistakes. And people seem louder and nastier, even as they try to help you. You catch yourself doing something you never do in practice—cuss to yourself or show belligerence to others. The land has tilted. The game is not the same. 

What do you do? 

There are only so many things you can do in practice training to get used to the tilting surface that will happen in competition. Sure, you can go head to head with the club champ or put a wager on the round or go out on windy or rainy-day adverse conditions, but it is still a fake “rapid” and the surface is still relatively calm. It is still a lake.

There are two types of skills for athletes to learn to get ready for the tilting surface of competitions. First, they have their technical game, which includes game skills and fitness. And second, they have their mental skills, which allow them to prepare for the event, imagine all the (land-tilting) problems that could happen, and then visualize themselves overcoming them. Better prep, but still only on imaginary rapids.

But as important and obvious as these first two preparations are, they are no match for the last and most important skill of all, the game skill when the tilting land gives way beneath their feet. And the only way they can learn the game skill is in the very rapids of competition with all the antics other athletes or coaches use to throw themselves and their opponents out of the Zone.

Plus, the bizarre official calls. Venue problems. Weather, if out of doors. But most singularly, the stress of competing for score is a good enough reason alone to tilt the surface. Your heart beats faster; you stop breathing, and you cruise at breakneck speed toward an awful score that capsizes your self-confidence.

But don’t you dare curse or misbehave, because there is a fix!

Five ways to calm the rapids

Every time my friend Dan heads down a fast-flowing river, he learns, even though he has been doing this for years. He learns from his spills; he learns from his successes. He learns whom to partner with and whom not. He learns the type of gear he needs. He learns the type of river to tackle. He learns. And that prepares him for the next time. No throwing of paddles. No cursing (well maybe a bit, as the water is pretty cold in the spring.)  And then back he goes again and tackles the next river with its set of rapids. Like Dan, here are five things you can do to calm the river.


Accept the fact that competing is an opportunity to practice the skill of competing. Give yourself a few competitions as practice and be patient. And then give yourself a few more and a few more. And a few more. Mmmmm. Maybe every competition is practice and you are simply fine-tuning your ability to compete. This is not a stage for beating yourself up or exposing others to your tantrums. You are alive, doing something you love, and learning how to compete. You are learning to be calm on a rushing, tilted surface.


Review your “mental tape recording” of each competition after you compete, because the competition is rich with information that can help you avoid making the same mistake twice. Look at where you made most of your mistakes. Look at the influence of your competitors. In the PanAm Games, one of my clients tied the PanAm record and in the next competition, his game went south. We compared his approach to both competitions and he learned specifically the kind of preparation he needed before a competition. The next competition he won. He had un-tilted the land.


Get help. Find yourself a great mental high-performance coach who can help you take what you did incorrectly and fix it so that it doesn’t happen again. This applies as well to additional technical skills. Coaches also have loads of competition tips that slow the rushing current.  It will make all the difference in your game.         


Train. Yes. On your own, away from your team or other competitors, and specifically work on your weaknesses. Have a problem with specific skills? Work on them. And visualize in your head, with high adrenaline levels so that you have the fuel to think faster and slow the flow. 


Apply what you learned in the competition to all of your visualizations. If you do nothing, you are wasting a wealth of data. You must look at all the situations that tilted the land and sped up the water. Imagine how those kinds of things feel calm (adrenalized calm) so that you can perform and win. The next time you get into that rushing river of competing for the score, it must feel wired but normal (when most people think that you must be kidding).      


My friend Dan has stowed away his gear for the winter, but the thirst he has for white water will keep him dreaming of the spring when foaming, frothing water splashes his face once again. Believe me, I can imagine his adrenaline, just like I can imagine yours as you await each and every game. Feel free to take these ideas and apply them to your game. You have a spectacular opportunity to review your past competitions in order to slow the current down by managing the crazy impact of competing to win, to navigate the blocks and distractions that abound at every turn, and to learn to perform with as much fun in competition as you do at your friendly practice venue.  




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