Match preparation by Juliette Lloyd Cpsychol

A first question athletes always ask me is: “How do I prepare for a REALLY IMPORTANT competition?”

It is the key issue on every athlete’s mind, whether you are competing in your club’s fencing competition, the regional tennis championships, run a marathon or the 100 meters. My answer to this question, without fail, is that in fact ‘you don’t’. And here is why.

Human beings are self-regulating mechanisms. This means that we have an idea or expectation in our minds of how we will behave or, in the context of sport, how we usually perform. We subsequently regulate our behaviour and performance around this standard.

‘Matching’ and ‘mismatching’ performance expectation

Let’s take the example of marathon runners, participating in a physically demanding and mentally challenging sport. Certain marathon runners might describe themselves – for example - as ‘a sub 3 hour marathoner’. When they go out and finish a marathon in less than 3 hours, their performance matches their own expectation, so all is ‘right’ with the world.

When, however, they run a marathon slower than they expected (mismatching), runners often distance themselves from that performance by stating that: “I don’t know what happened, I usually run this sub 3 hours”. The next marathon they participate in, it is likely that their overall time will be faster to compensate for their previous ‘poor’ performance.

The exact same thing happens in reverse; that if they perform better than expected, their comment could be something like: “I don’t know what happened, I flew around the course”. And the next time they will compensate this (ironically) by going slower again; bringing them back to match their own level of expectation, which was the sub 3 hour performance to start with.

Why do we do this matching? This type of self-regulation happens at the sub-conscious level in our brain. We don’t actively control it, but it is constantly happening to us with all our behaviours and performances.

So, what does this have to do with preparing for an important match?

The question of how to prepare for an important match is in effect flawed and is set up to cause a performance deficit. By defining one type of match as ‘important’, we automatically relegate other matches to the ‘not important’ category, and this changes the way we approach important and not important sports matches, how we perform in them and how we match our own subconscious expectations.

If we want consistency of performance, a way forward is to see all competitions as important. After all, all our matches are part of our sporting journey. When we take this approach, we set up an expectation of preparing for and performing at our best in every competition and we can self-regulate around this standard. The trick therefore is to see all matches as important, expect to do your best at each one and prepare for them accordingly.

With this attitude in mind, here are a few golden rules for match preparation:

  1. Decide on your own standard of behaviour and performance. Focus on the internal things that you can control, like how you think, act and feel before, during and after a competition. This could be your pre-match sleep pattern and what you eat before a match. Or how you travel to the match and what equipment you need and want with you. How you warm up physically and mentally. Do you have music that calms you down and helps you focus? These are things you can control.
  2. Think about where you are now in relation to the expectation you desire (visualise your preferred outcome).
  3. Think about what you need to target in order to move towards your desired outcome and set goals around this.
  4. Every time you perform, do a thorough post-match debrief in order to help you move forward and grow. What went well? What did not? What do you need to do next time in order to live up to your expectation?

Other than match preparation, do not forget to enjoy the moment. After all, we play a sport because we love it and the joy of doing it is helping us relax and this improves our performance too.

In the area of (sports) psychology we are all individuals and may have our individual idiosyncrasies. The information in this article is designed to serve as a general guide only. You may like a more individualised take on your own situation and a consultation with a sports psychologist is a good place to start.

Juliette Lloyd. CPsychol. Sports and Exercise Psychologist.

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