It’s November now, which means that fall sports like cross country, rowing, volleyball, football, field hockey, and soccer are now into playoff and championship season.
Due to the high stakes nature of the upcoming competitions, many athletes begin to wonder what they can do differently to boost their performance. However, many changes at this point in the season are more likely to hurt, rather than help, performance. Athletes should rely on the routines and rituals that took them to the post-season.
Below I will describe some common post-season pitfalls that amateur athletes often fall into, and then explain how they can be avoided.
Stop tripping over your brain
One reason why athletes choke in big-time situations is that they start to over-analyze, over-think, or over-play. They get caught up in the importance of the competition and think that they need to do something better or differently than they have done in the past.
They fall victim to the centipede effect.
The psychological effect gets its name from a poem where a frog meets a centipede. The frog explains that he finds it difficult to coordinate his 4 legs and asks the centipede how she can walk so fast and coordinate her hundreds of legs all at once. Once the centipede begins to think about coordinating all of her legs, she effectively becomes paralyzed and is unable to walk. By over-thinking how she performs a basic task like walking, the centipede’s performance is compromised.
Something similar has probably happened to you. Have you ever:
- Started second guessing yourself or tripped while running up a set of stairs, after you began to focus on the next step;
- Tried to type faster only to end up slowing down or making more typos; or
- Lay awake frustrated in bed because the more you try to fall asleep, the more awake you become.
There are some things that the human body handles really well subconsciously. When the brain tries to consciously take over, it can screws things up.
By the time an athlete reaches the post-season, they have developed enough muscle memory to perform many of the fundamental movements in their sport subconsciously. They don’t have to deliberately think about how to perform the movement, they do it automatically, just like breathing. The more an athlete can push to their subconscious mind, the less the conscious mind will have to deal with, and the more likely an athlete is to reach “the Zone” or what is also called a “flow state.”
A flow state is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and we perform our best. It underlies all of mankind’s biggest breakthroughs in sports, science, arts, and technology. Undoubtedly, if you want to perform at your best, you need to be in a flow state and delegate as much as you can to your subconscious.
Don’t re-invent the wheel
Another pitfall that athletes fall victim to during important competitions is thinking that they need to prepare “better.” As a result, they change up their pre-competition routine. They experiment with different food the night before. They change their playlist. They accessorize their uniform. All they end up doing is signaling to their brain that this competition is different and then the brain starts over-thinking ways that it can act differently too…
You want to give yourself the best chance possible to utilize all of those hard-earned skills you’ve taught your body to perform on autopilot. The more “normal” things occur to you, the more comfortable your body and mind are going to feel and the more likely you are to enter a flow state.
Don’t try and switch up your pre-race routine, in either the days leading up to your competition, the morning of, or as a part of your warm-up. Treat playoffs and championships like “another day in the office.”
When the stakes are high, it is no time to be experimenting with new routines – that’s what the off-season, pre-season, and sometimes regular season are for.
Just another day
Back in 2014, I wrote one of the most grueling exams out there: The Uniform Final Exam (UFE) to become a Chartered Accountant. It spans 3 days, 13 total hours, and covers 5 courses worth of content.
Most accounting firms allow writers (who already have at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting, and two years of professional work experience, to take two months off of work to study for the exam full time – 40 hours per week for nine weeks. The exam is only offered once per year, so if a writer fails, not only do they have to wait an entire year to re-write it, but they also have to pay $1500 to re-write the exam and take another two months of unpaid leave from work to study again.
Accounting firms invest a tremendous amount of resources into ensuring that their employees have the best chance possible to perform under pressure and pass the exam. Why is this relevant? What can a high school athlete learn from this?
One of the key goals underlying the carefully crafted and refined nine-week study program is to prepare writers to treat the exam like “just another day.”
I wrote several formal mock exams under exam-like conditions: written in hotel conference rooms, with professional invigilators, and centralized marking pools that compared my results against my peers across the country. On days that I wasn’t writing “formal mock exams,” I wrote practice cases under exam-like conditions in a study group. Five days a week, nine weeks in a row.
By the time the actual exam arrived, I had spent the past nine weeks simulating this exact scenario. It did occur to me as just another day. This is also why Super Bowl players like Ben Roethlisberger and Olympic Gold Medalists like Marielle Thompson emphasize in interviews that the Super Bowl, or the Olympics, two of the biggest events in sports, are “just another game.”
The new normal
One thing that Super Bowl teams, Olympic teams, and other elite athletes do change up before a big competition is: arrive in the city a week before. While this may seem like a departure from the norm, it is done in an effort to get the players acclimatized to the venue, playing surface, time zone, and hype surrounding the competition, so that none of this comes as a shock to the system on game day.
The goal is to get the athletes used to going to work at this new office. Their pre-competition rituals, however, remain the same.
Guidelines for post-season routines
Here are some guidelines to help ensure that you don’t stray off the beaten path when heading into the post-season.
Unless you know the following aren’t working for you, minimize adjustments to:
- Meals and snacks – they don’t have to be exactly the same every time but don’t start experimenting with new foods or a new protein bar brand now.
- Pump-up music – your brain understands what it has to do when it hears certain songs. Play a new a new one and you risk confusing it.
- Superstitious routines – not that I believe in them, but if you do, don’t stop now
- Uniform accessories – “look good > play good” I get it. But you want to make sure that your attention is focused on the competition, not on what other people might think about how your new armband or shoelaces look.
- Warm-up routine (both physical and mental) – unless something really wasn’t working for you before, stick to the familiar.
Feel free to improve:
- Sleep – don’t adjust your sleep schedule too much, to the point where you are waking up at a time significantly closer to your competition than before. That may not give your body enough time to wake up and become fully alert. Also, keep in mind:
- The most important sleep is the night two nights beforehand (i.e. if competition is on Saturday, the sleep from Thursday night to Friday morning is the most important).
- Sleep deficit lasts 2 weeks, so don’t think you can make up for weeks’ worth of poor sleeping habits in 1-2 nights before a big competition. You should still aim to get a good sleep right before the competition, but know that your nights of sleep in the two weeks leading up to the big event are also important.
- Hydration – don’t overdo it, but if you know you typically don’t do a great job of hydrating, then try and do a little better. Just don’t drink to the point where all you’ll be able to think about during the competition is going to the washroom.
Overall, it’s important to not get paranoid about changing or not changing anything.
If they’re out of your favorite pasta at the restaurant, its ok I’m sure that you can find something else that will work just fine. If your hamstrings have felt tight in the week leading up to your competition, don’t ignore them in the warm-up. Talk to your trainer or coach about what adjustments you should make.
The guidelines above are simply that: guidelines.
They are designed to help you feel comfortable and confident. If you think that one of them will have the opposite effect, then work with your coach to make the necessary adjustments.