How to best prepare for a competition
A question that regularly comes up among athletes is the question of preparing for a competition.
Competition is the culmination of training, the moment when they have to pass a test, comparing themselves to others or to a past performance.
Even when the competition is not the ultimate one of the season, it generates some expectations and therefore creates specific conditions which put the athletes into a specific mental state.
I would like to say upfront that there is no one-size-fit-all way that works for everyone, the most important is to develop a certain self-awareness, to experiment, to see what works and what that does not work, and develop YOUR best way to prepare for a competition, adapting over time if necessary.
Before going into the mental preparation suggestions, let’s first take a quick look at the other areas:
- Physical, technical, tactical preparation: this is the main part of a sport, and it is obvious that to perform in competition it is essential to prepare well in these areas with your coach (s). This is specific to each sport, and I won’t really say more here.
- Nutrition: this aspect is less often addressed but is also very important. This is not the subject of this article but I invite you to also educate yourself on nutrition in order to maximize your potential. My simple advice:
- Do not wait for a few days before the competition to have a healthy diet adapted to your training and your needs. Eating well is an everyday task.
- Know yourself and test during training the nutritional intake you envisage for competition, because you never know how your body will react.
- Hydrate regularly (this is something that is often overlooked).
- Sleep: it is absolutely essential to have adequate and regular sleep throughout the year. This allows the body to better assimilate the stress loads, to regenerate and it also allows to be less stressed. Yet many athletes hang around at night and don’t get enough sleep. This requires a real internal decision and a real commitment to go to bed every night at the same time to get regular and adequate sleep.
- Equipment: do not innovate and test new equipment in competition. Just like nutrition (and actually like everything), it’s best to test everything during training. Because beyond the impact that this innovation will have, the uncertainty associated with this innovation can create some anxiety and prevent a good focus.
Now let’s take a look at some suggestions on how to best prepare for a competition from a mental perspective:
- Intention: what do you want out of this competition? With what mindset do you want to show up? You can find 3 words that symbolize this state of mind, for example “confidence, toughness, resilience”, or “pleasure, relaxation, concentration”, or any other word that represents your intention for this competition. Then repeat these words regularly in the morning, just when you get up, before training, in the evening when you go to bed. Above all, do not limit yourself to thinking these words intellectually, but really feel these words with your whole body.
- Commitment: if you have not decided beforehand that you are ready to give everything and to surpass yourself to get the results you want, there is little chance that you will make this extra effort when it hurts. This is particularly true in sports where physical effort is the main element of performance and where the athlete primarily fights against him/herself before fighting against others (running, swimming, cycling), where it is easy to stay in a certain area of suffering that is already significant but below what one is capable of when motivation, commitment and the desire to give everything are at their maximum. But this applies to all sports, to fight on each and every ball in tennis, football or rugby, to remain aggressive in combat sports despite fatigue, or not to mentally give up in golf.
- Plans: The brain does not like uncertainty. Having a plan alleviates this uncertainty and therefore reduces anxiety.
- Understand and integrate the game plan or strategy defined by or with the coach. If necessary, clarify it.
- Prepare plans B, C and D according to what may happen (for instance: if you have a bad start, if your team is led, if you lose your rhythm or if the dynamics change in a match, etc…). What do you want to tell yourself and how do you react in these situations?
- Mental Imagery: we have detailed the benefits of mental imagery or visualization HERE.. This is a very interesting technique to practice in the 2 to 3 weeks before a competition: Visualize your race, your match, your competition, if possible using images of the venue of the competition (images or videos found on the internet for example). This will allow your brain to see this event as a familiar one and not as an uncertain new thing, and it will also anchor your plan, strategy, intention for this competition. Note: visualizing the event may create stress or nervousness and it may be necessary to adapt the script of the visualization with a professional.
- Perspective: when approaching a competition, it is easy to consider only 2 possible results: success or failure. And, as this competition will often take all the mental space, this can quickly become, symbolically, a life or death matter: if we fail or we perform poorly, it is as if our whole world falls apart. The event is given undue importance. The following three perspective changes can help:
- Extend the field of possible results by looking for what other options are available beyond success or failure, for instance: putting a specific element into practice, learning, gaining experience, pleasure, surpassing oneself, etc …
- “Success comes in many ways, one of which is winning.” This quote means that there are other ways of viewing a result as a success. For example: being able to stick to a game plan, be able to return to come back and not give up, taking a risk (even if he does not pay off) or getting out of one’s comfort zone, no matter what the result.
- Consider competition as a small dot in the overall picture of one’s sport life. In a year, and even more at the end of your career or experience, this competition will be just one point among many. This will put the stakes of the competition into perspective and enable you to see it as a tiny part of your sport life, which will bring its share of experience and contribute to your future performance, whatever the outcome.
- Letting go: this may seem counter intuitive, or even in opposition to the principle of preparing well for a competition. But the moment of competition is no longer the time to question yourself, to overthink, and to over-analyze. It’s time to trust: others (your coaches, your staff, your teammates), trust your preparation, and trust yourself, your qualities and your ability to perform. It requires you to let go of the need to control everything, the need for victory and performance. This requires being open to any result, in order to play / run as relaxed as possible. It requires to be free to fail, perhaps the most difficult mental skill to develop. It doesn’t mean that you give up on winning or performing and that you can’t use this desire as a motivator, but just that you focus on the process and let go of the attachment to the outcome.
As a conclusion, I would like to come back to the initial point which is that everyone is unique and will have different roadblocks in competition. To optimize one’s preparation even more, it is necessary to have a personal reflection facilitated by someone external. If you would like the support of a mental coach to help you find your unique way of preparing for competitions and fully exploiting your potential, contact us via the contact form.
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