“Why do I play better in practice than in matches?” It’s probably the second-most popular question I hear from players, exceeded only by some variation of “OMG, I’m nervous, what do I do?” Sometimes, this question comes out as a defiant statement, where the player stubbornly says, “If I played like I did in practice, I would have killed him—the match would not have been close.” Interestingly, that statement is usually true. Yet what the person is missing is that matches and practice are different from each other in intensity and pressure. Even practice matches are different, as environmental factors like fans and the stakes of a tournament are difficult to simulate.
It’s interesting to note that in martial arts, they call all levels of competition “practice.” In martial arts, they realize that no matter whether a competitor is practicing or in a match, it’s all part of a journey where continual improvement is the goal. They don’t look at matches as “judgment day” where a win or a loss has significance other than taking that result and learning from it. Additionally, the martial arts faction understands the expectation that practice automatically takes place within a competitive match setting, further recognizing that one’s game need not be perfected going into competition. The events that take place during the competition will provide “match play practice” and lead to a better overall competitor.
Rafael Nadal has often been quoted as saying that each match into the tournament, he improved and built on the previous match, much like anyone would want to do in practice. This is a very useful mindset that has clearly served him well.
Hopefully, when a player becomes aware of the difference between practice and matches, and begins to adopt the martial arts mentality wherein match play is a time to “practice,” they will no longer express the frustration of performing differently—and will use this mentality to improve in match play. The remainder of this article will explore five key reasons players usually play differently in practice and match play.
1. Loss of focus
In matches, a player’s focus is usually on the outcome rather than on the present moment. When a player focuses on the outcome, they are focusing on something they cannot control. When they focus on the present, they are in a problem-solving mode. In practice, the focus is usually on the process: Learning new shots, adjusting and experimenting with new strategies. The key is to let go of the outcome! Focus on what it takes to win, specifically, on the process of what you have to do to get the desired result.
2. Too many expectations
In matches, a player usually expects to hit perfect shots, and shows little tolerance when this doesn’t happen. Conversely, in practice, a player usually expects to make mistakes and uses these mistakes to learn from. In fact, they are a vital part of improvement. In essence, the player is allowing themselves to make mistakes with the possible reward of experiencing breakthroughs. Paradoxically, perfection doesn’t exist. Players should expect to make mistakes in matches, and make appropriate adjustments just as they would in practice. This is a vital part of the process and challenge of competing.
3. Poor time management
In practice, players often rush through drills, allowing little time to incorporate rituals or even to discuss with your coach purpose, intention and the learning points for drills. It’s imperative to build in time to discuss purpose and intention for most everything you do on the practice court. Additionally, as a player, ensure that you take some time between shots or drills to simulate a match situation. Specifically, practice your between-point rituals. This built-in similarity to match play will help players relax and consequently play better, more strategic points.
4. Judging self
In practice it is rare that a player is nervous. This is often because they are not judging themselves, nor is anyone else. However, in match play, judgment and nervousness almost always accompany a player. This is the result of focusing on uncontrollables such as what others think or holding on to past points or events—to name just a couple of potential issues. It’s important to recognize that if you are nervous, so is your opponent! Everyone knows top players at all levels and sports get nervous. It’s not a matter of avoiding nerves, but accepting the nervousness and playing anyway. John McEnroe said, “Everybody chokes; it’s a matter of what they do next.”
5. Trying to impress others
In practice, a player’s focus is on improving and performing the drills that their coaches are working on with them. In matches, all of a sudden, others are watching and ranking points are on the line. Players often lose track of the match and instead focus on impressing the people who are watching. Conversely, they start thinking about how their ranking will rise or fall based on the projected outcome of the match. They may also consider whether a loss to a lower-ranked competitor would “look bad,” or worry about criticism from a parent or coach. In all cases, the player’s focus is no longer on the present, but on the uncontrollable future. It is key for a player to recognize when they lose their focus and to bring it back to the point at hand, and direct all thoughts to the present moment.
Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes helping them to unleash their mental edge through mindfulness, somatic psychology and mental training skills. Rob is author of 2 best selling books: Tennis Inside the Zone and Baseball Inside the Zone: Mental Training Workouts for Champions. He can be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.