Differences in performance: Why athletes underperform in competition compared to training

Here we address one of the most common challenges that athletes struggle with. From reasons why this is the case, to what you can do to fix it.

Picture of Av: Tommy Davidovic | Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Tränare.
By: Tommy Davidovic | Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Trainer.

This is one of the most common reasons why athletes contact me for help, and in this article I will go through why athletes perform better in training than in competition. We will also go through some of the physiological and psychological factors that can be behind this and how to create the right conditions to be able to perform as well in competition as in training.

Athletes often have one thing in common - they often perform at a higher level in training than in competition. This phenomenon, well known in elite sport, affects athletes at all levels despite their routine and skill. Why does this happen, and how can mental training help? Here we explore the causes and offer concrete strategies, backed by our expertise and successful examples, to help athletes perform at their best when it counts.

Pressure and performance anxiety: The psychological game

Competition day is a charged experience for an athlete where expectations and demands increase and become more tangible than usual. Performance must be at its peak and mistakes must be minimized, while the joy and excitement that otherwise exists in our sport is forgotten. This creates a heightened sense of anxiety and performance anxiety, which can throw even the most skilled athletes off balance and often results in their performance not reflecting their true capabilities.

Physiological reactions: the body's response to stress

When faced with increased pressure to perform, the body's physiological responses are amplified as a result - the heart beats faster, muscles become more tense, breathing rates increase and adrenaline levels skyrocket. These bodily responses, although evolutionarily designed to enhance performance in combat, are often detrimental to athletic performance. The contrast with training is great and when the competition comes, you feel tense, stressed and have difficulty finding a natural flow in your movements. Which afterwards often leaves you with the feeling that you neither performed at your best nor had a particularly enjoyable experience. 

In addition, many athletes have high expectations of themselves and, in the context of disappointment, can behave quite ruthlessly towards themselves, thinking negative thoughts about themselves as an athlete, a person and how this affects their chances of future success.

Acceptance and learning: Success through failure

When athletes make errors, mistakes and failures during training, most people don't pay much attention to them. In most cases, they carry on without making too much of them, which means that mistakes and failures become building blocks for progress and development. Because there is little pressure or prestige on training, it is also easier to see (and feel) mistakes and failures as part of the process and a path to gradual improvement. 

But what happens when it's time to compete? Then the untroubled, encouraging and mostly positive inner voice is replaced by judgmental, limiting and negative thoughts that make competition a completely different experience. 

It doesn't take a degree in sports psychology to figure out that it will be many times more difficult to perform at your best if every little thing you do is under the magnifying glass to be harshly criticized, if it is anything less than perfect.

Therefore, it is incredibly important to start cleaning up your thoughts and make sure you choose which thoughts should be allowed in and which should be denied entry. It is incredibly important that your mental attitude is the same whether you are training or competing if you want to be able to maximize your performance.

Athletes leading the way: Alina Weidlich

We have helped athletes like Alina, a crossfit and functional fitness athlete who was performing far below her ability in competitions. For years she had been trying to get help, almost giving up because none of her previous mental coaches had been able to help her. But through my method The Flow Mindset and the techniques we work with, she was able to learn a new way of approaching both her sport and the rest of her life - resulting in a World Championship gold in the functional fitness Master category after only 4 months of working together.

Relaxation techniques: The key to peak performance

Here we come to my first concrete tip. And yes, I get it if this seems a bit basic - but that doesn't mean it's not one of the best things you can start with. There is a strong link between performance in sports and how tense/relaxed an athlete is. It's also much easier and you'll see a faster difference by working on relaxation than if you were to focus on changing your habitual thought patterns. 

Don't get me wrong, you will need to work on all parts but it is also important to start at the right end. An effective strategy to relieve the stress and psychological and physiological tension before a competition can be to introduce different methods of relaxation such as breathing exercises or meditation.

There is research showing that one of the reasons this helps so well is because meditation increases your emotional regulation, which is part of the brain's executive functions and plays a central role in your ability to perform. 

Improving your emotional regulation has many benefits, not only in sport. But it is basically about making you better at managing both emotions and stress. An interesting observation I've made in my own life is that when I do as little as 5 minutes of meditation per day, my patience increases and my own reactions decrease - resulting in about 95% less unnecessary conflict at home.

Free webinar!

4 beliefs that prevent you from performing and having fun in your sport. Learn how to overcome them in 3 simple steps.

Training and competition: different focus 

Let's look further at the aspects that influence an athlete's ability to perform in training and competition, and how they differ in the different situations.

Focus on the process: a mental shift

During training, people often focus on improving and developing their skills - it's all about taking steps forward and doing better every day. But when it's time to compete, it's showtime - all attention is focused solely on delivering. By shifting the focus to growing and learning, athletes can reduce pressure and increase performance. 

I'm not talking about turning what feels bad into something good. That won't work. However, you can train yourself to be better at seeing the learning by not trying to change how you feel about a failure, but at the same time asking yourself - What is the 1% learning that I can take away from this?

Next time you try to find 2%, then 5%, 10%, 20% and so on. Eventually, you'll be even more open to learning even in a competition context and what used to feel like crap will even become something you see value in.

The role of the environment: training meets competition

The training environment is usually a place with which the athlete is familiar and comfortable - allowing the athlete to develop and test the limits of their skills without fear of the potential consequences of failure. Of course, this can vary greatly depending on the training environment. I have worked with athletes whose coaches and training partners had a direct negative impact on the athlete by pointing out and criticizing every little movement that was not right, which then also led to the performance not working in training. Therefore, it is of course important that both the coach and any team understand the importance of an encouraging and positive environment.

Then, of course, there are those who have been led to believe that some (or all) athletes sometimes need a good scolding to improve themselves and their performance. There are many things I could say and research I could refer to to discuss the topic, but to keep it short, I'll just say one thing.

No, it is not. It will fail 99 times out of 100.

Moving on to the competition introduces a whole new dimension, where the arena turns into a stage and the focus is on performing as well as possible. The familiar surroundings and safe routines no longer feel normal and what used to be natural suddenly becomes a challenge.

When I work with athletes, we have a few different ways we work on both tricking the brain into "forgetting" these things and also creating greater security with the competition situation. One way to do this that is very accessible is to visualize a couple of different scenarios where you see yourself performing different steps in the upcoming competition. The cool thing about visualizations is that you activate basically the same areas of the brain as when it happens in real life, which means that you can use this tool both to train your muscle memory and level of confidence in future competitions.

Expectations: Taking you away from the present moment

The closer the athlete gets to competing, the more the thoughts, expectations and pressure begin to build. For some, this starts several days before competition and for others as little as the same day. I have worked with athletes who have been so affected that they have not been able to sleep properly for several days before competition, to athletes who become nauseous before competition. 

Of course, for most people it is not at these levels, but for many it becomes a spiral that leads to overthinking in a desperate attempt to sort out the situation so they can create a sense of control for the upcoming competition.

The problem with this strategy is that despite our valiant efforts to resolve the situation so we can feel calm, there is unfortunately no link between this and good performance. On the contrary, it only leads to more worry, stress and anxiety.

If you want to access your peak performance and sense of flow, you need to do the opposite. You need to stop yourself from going into the future and stay in the present. This is because we know that the state of flow means total presence. When a person is in flow, they are fully focused and react instinctively to what is happening in the moment. 

This can only be physiologically possible when we are in the moment because the brain's dopamine production is through the roof, and it is dopamine that is responsible for human motivation and the ability to focus.

Mental training: Importance for performance in competition

Putting time and energy into their mental training is crucial for athletes as it improves their mental stamina, improves focus, and boosts self-confidence which directly affects their performance.

Mental training equips athletes with the tools they need to cope with pressure, overcome adversity and stay motivated which is fundamental to success in competitive environments.

Anyone can Google tools and exercises such as breathing, visualization, goal setting and mindfulness, but mental training is so much more than just that - it's about your entire mindset and approach to any challenges you face in your sporting career, helping you realize your full potential.

In a world where most people have remarkably similar physical abilities and access to world-class technical training, mental strength often becomes the deciding factor that drives athletes to wins and long-term success.

Summary

Understanding and managing the factors that influence performance during competition is crucial to an athlete's success. With our expertise in sports psychology and mental training, we can help you bridge the gap between training and competition. Contact us today to explore how we can support you in achieving your sporting goals and performing your best when it really counts.

For those who want to know more

If you are an athlete who is curious about what mental training is and how it can help you in your sports career, you can read more about mental training here

If you want to read more about what we offer for mental training, you will find the programs here.

And if you have a question or want to get in touch directly, you can contact us here.

Share
Share
Enamel
PinIt
Pocket

About the author

Picture of Tommy Davidovic
Tommy Davidovic

Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Trainer who helps athletes get guaranteed change and results fast. Creator of the Flow Mindset method that has helped athletes around the world break their old records and made competition fun again.

The logbook

The 3-minute exercise to increase your mental strength
Scroll to Top

Download!

The logbook to help you build mental strength

...and so much more!