5 Keys to Playing Your Best on Game Day

What you need to do to get your game on

Posted Feb 22, 2016

Mitchell Gunn, used with permission
Source: Mitchell Gunn, used with permission

What do you need to do to play your best on game day? If you ask the best athletes in the world in your sport, you will probably get 20 different answers. But, having asked this question of many world-class and professional athletes, I have found five themes that underlie their responses.

#1: Control Or Not To Control

The life of an athlete can be stressful. There are many things that you can worry about and that can make you distracted, stressed, frustrated, and just plain annoyed, all of which will hurt your performances in both practice and games. Unfortunately, many athletes worry about the wrong things. The big problem is that many athletes get stressed out about things over which they have absolutely no control. In your athletic life, there are some things you should think about and others you shouldn't. Things that you should pay attention to are those things over which you have control including your physical fitness, technical and tactical skills, effort, attitude, thoughts, emotions, behavior, equipment, and preparation. All of these are within your control, so by thinking about them, you can ensure that they are all working for you rather than against you.

At the same time, things in your athletic life that you have no control over, yet you still may worry about, include competitors, coaches, officials, parents, weather, and field, court, or course conditions (for outdoor sports). If you think about these, you're creating stress, wasting energy, and preventing yourself from focusing on aspects of your playing that will actually help you play well.

The next time you find that you are under stress, ask yourself one question: "Is the thing that I am worried about under my control?" If it's not, let it go and focus on things you can control. If it is within your control, instead of worrying about, do something about it!

#2: Trust Your Ability On Game Day

A disagreement I have gotten into with coaches over the years involves whether it is good for athletes to think about technique right before and during a game. They argue that if they don't think about technique they won't play well. But it's my belief that if you have to think about technique on game day, you haven't fully ingrained it and one of two things will happen. Either you will not be able to use the technique in a game and, by focusing on it instead of just playing well, you won’t play well. Or, you will be so focused on the technique that you may, in fact, play technically well, but you won’t play your best because you aren’t focused on playing hard. Yes, for some athletes, particularly young ones, a specific technique may allow them to play well. But good technique and great play aren't always connected. And on game day, they don’t give style points for good technique. All that matters is going all out to play your best!

There is a time and a place to think about technique. That time is during practice. It is here that you analyze your performance and focus on a particular part in order to develop it. With repetition in practice, the new technique becomes automatic and it will then help you to play well in games.

But when game day arrives, you shouldn't question, doubt, analyze, or focus on technique. If you do not have a technique down by the time the game starts, you probably won't be able to use it effectively in the game. Whatever capabilities you bring to the start, trust yourself, and play as well as you can with what you have on that day.

#3: Expect The Unexpected

A major source of stress for athletes is the unexpected things that can come up on game day. The natural reaction to unexpected events is to, well, freak out. You worry, lose confidence, become anxious, and get distracted. In that mental and physical state, you have little chance of playing your best.

During the course of a game, all kinds of things can wrong. On the way to games, cars get flat tires and you can get lost. At games, equipment can break. If you're not prepared, you're going to stress out and will probably play poorly.

There are two ways to deal with the unexpected. First, expect the unexpected. This can be accomplished easily. Take a sheet of paper and on the left side of the page, make a list of all the things that can go wrong at a game. Think travel, weather, gear, and game day schedule, for starters. Then, on the right side, list solutions to these events. Using this strategy, you prevent yourself from freaking out by preventing the unexpected event from being, well, unexpected.

Of course, you can't anticipate everything (s#*& happens in sports!), so the key then becomes how you react to that unexpected thing. You have two choices here. Either experience the aforementioned freak out, which I'm sure you would agree doesn't do you any good. Or stay positive and calm, look for a solution to the unexpected event, and stay focused on your goal for the day which is to play your best. I can assure you that you will feel and play a whole better if you can keep your cool and your mind in the game. And it's been my experience that, with 20/20 hindsight, that thing that caused you such stress wasn't really worth the reaction.

#4: Pre-competitive Preparation

The most critical period before your game is the hour or two before the game begins. What you do then will often dictate the success of your day. There are three things that must be done to ensure that you play your best. First, you must prepare your equipment (for sports that involve gear. The last thing you want to worry about before your game is your equipment, so you want to get it ready first.

Second, you must get physically ready and at your ideal level of intensity. This involves stretching, doing warm-up exercises, and revving your engine until it’s game ready.

Finally, you must get mentally prepared. This phase involves putting on your "game face," that is, narrowing your focus onto the game, using mental imagery to see and feel yourself playing your very best, thinking positively, and focusing on being totally on your game. This preparation will lead to a level of readiness in which, as you walk onto the field, court, or course, you are totally prepared to play your best and you only have one thing on your mind: playing as WELL as you can!

#5: Commit Yourself Fully

There’s only one way to find success on game day and that’s to being totally focused and completely committed to ‘bringing it.’ When you're playing, there is just no room for being tentative and cautious. If you let up or back off, you're either going to make a mistake or get beaten by your opponents. One of the most important things you must do when the game begins is to be totally committed to playing as aggressively and well as you can.

You have to be 100% committed to playing the very best you can. Unfortunately, as you develop as an athlete, you will often come upon game situations and conditions that you will see more as a threat than a challenge. You may be uncertain about going all out. You may worry about making a mistake. This uncertainty will produce doubt and anxiety. In this fearful state of mind, there’s no way you’re going to ‘throw one down.’

So before the game (in fact, in practice too), make sure that you are focused on playing as aggressively as possible. Make sure you are totally committed to doing it all the way. If you aren't totally committed, get refocused and fully determined, then GO FOR IT! By being committed, you will play better, make fewer mistakes, and have a whole lot more fun.

Bonus Tip #6: Avoid One Emotion and One Question

You only have one shot at life (there are no do-overs). Have you ever played it safe in a game and kicked yourself for not having played harder? It's a terrible feeling! You look back on the game and wish you hadn't played so timidly. Just going through the emotions doesn’t feel very good.

After every game, you want to look back and, whether you played poorly or lost, be able to say that you went for it and you left it all out there. If you lost, there's the frustration of failure, but there will still be the satisfaction that you gave it your all. And if you do put it all out there, you have a much better chance of playing well and emerging victorious.

There is one emotion you never want to feel and one question you never want to ask in your sport (or life). The emotion you don't want to feel is regret. What's regret? Wishing you had done something different. The one question you don't want to ask is "I wonder what could have been?" After your game, season, career, and even on your death bed, the statement you want to be able to make, whether you fully achieved your athletic goals or not, is "I gave it everything I had." And the emotion you want to experience is pride in knowing that you couldn’t have done anything more.