What You Should Know If You Perform Better in Practice vs Games

Many athletes shine during practice but don’t perform as well during games. We understand your frustration and that is common among many athletes. Sports psychologists explain that this experience may be due to the fact that athletes have both a “practice mindset” and “performance mindset.” The main difference between these two mindsets is what you focus on. In a practice situation, you tend to focus on the process of doing, whereas, in a performance situation, you tend to focus on the outcome. 

Practice Mindset

During practice, there is less pressure to perform perfectly. You are not concentrating on what could go wrong, and you know that if you make a poor shot, you can always try again since it “doesn’t really count.” For this reason, you can focus on the process rather than your performance, which relaxes your body and mind and allows you to react almost automatically, without thinking too much about what you are doing. In this way, your practice mindset enables you to do well when you practice. Unfortunately, when it’s game time, your mental approach changes and the focus is on the outcome (a win and or performing well) rather than just playing.

Performance Mindset

If you are an athlete that underperforms during games, the pressure in games feels more intense than in practice. You might tell yourself that you have to do well, or score 20 points, or be as good as your best teammate today. You lose faith in your abilities, worry about your technique, and focus on every mistake you make. All this thinking makes it hard for you to focus on the game, as your confidence drops and you start playing cautiously to avoid mistakes. It makes you doubt what to do next, and it drains your self-confidence. When you are focused on performance at all costs your nervousness increases, your movements are not smooth, and your skills regress. You overthink and your perfectionist mindset makes you tight. It stops you from performing freely and fearlessly. Specifically, you fear failure, lose trust in your abilities, worry about your technique, and play cautiously to avoid mistakes. Does this sound like you at times? In a performance situation, perfectionism can cause you to overthink, which can in turn distract you from the game and impair your performance.

So what can you do if you have this problem?  

  1. Do what you do during practice. Don’t pressure yourself. This is easier said than done, but do your best to stay focused on what you are doing. Relax and have fun. Just like in practice, don’t worry about messing up. This will help you to remain confident and focused even after making a mistake. Keep in mind: mistakes make you better for the future.

  2. Don’t put too much emphasis on the outcome. Don’t have expectations for yourself. Pressuring yourself for results will lead to poor performance because you’ll be thinking about a possible future result rather than what you can do now. Which leads us to, 

  3. Stop thinking and focus on the task at hand. Recognize when you start to focus on negative thoughts or demands. Stop thinking. Focus on what you can control and trust that your skills and preparation will lead your body to do the work. For example, in soccer, if you miss the goal, don’t just think that you need to score the next goal. See how the game plays out and maybe the best thing is to give your teammate an assist. Don’t think about compensating for your last mistake, or the next quarter, or the roaring fans. Just focus on what you need to do NOW. 

  4. Adopt a trusting mindset instead of a perfectionistic one. A trusting mindset knows that the repetition and preparation you have undertaken will help you to react quickly to the environment, play freely, and focus on each play. Successful players do not try to think about and manage every little thing they do. They keep the game simple and allow their trained physical skills to take over. Train your mind to play intuitively and confidently in order to be the best player you can be.

Dr. Pete Kadushin speaks in further detail about the two mindsets in our recent podcast with him.

Works Cited

Coffey, Delice. “Delice Coffey.” Basketball Psychology, 15 Mar. 2020, www.sportspsychologybasketball.com/category/basketball-psychology-articles/.

Cohn, Patrick. “Home.” Sports Psychology and Kids, 10 Aug. 2017, www.youthsportspsychology.com/youth_sports_psychology_blog/when-kids-play-better-in-practice-than-games/.

Goldberg, Alan. “Why Do I Do So Much Better In Practice Than Competitions?” Competitive Advantage: Mental Toughness, Competitive Advantage: Mental Toughness, 23 Apr. 2020, www.competitivedge.com/why-do-i-do-so-much-better-in-practice-than-competitions/.

“Why Do Some Players Perform Better in Practice Than in Games? Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FACSM.” Professional Baseball Strength & Conditioning Coaches Society, 14 Aug. 2019, baseballstrength.org/why-do-some-players-perform-better-in-practice-than-in-games-gene-coleman-ed-d-rscce-facsm/.

“Why Do Athletes Perform Better in Practice than in Competition!?” SportMindCoach, sportmindcoach.co.za/why-do-athletes-perform-better-in-practice-than-in-competition/.


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