How often do you feel like your practice is not getting you anywhere? Do you feel like you are just spinning your wheels and not really improving? In fact, just how do you improve? How does an athlete reach the next level?
In the discipline of Kinesiology, one of the research findings most often cited is “specificity of practice”. This means that one of the most successful ways to practice is to practice under game conditions. For example, in golf the practice range is totally different from the playing field or course. In basketball, the basket is the same height, the court dimensions are usually the same, and the shot distances are generally the same length on all courts you play or practice on. In golf, when a golfer hits balls on the range, they have a perfect lie, they hit shot after shot with no penalty incurred, etc. Whereas, once they go on the course, the shot has all kinds of diverse distractions that weren’t there on the practice range. Considering then, “specificity of practice”, if we are to improve, we need to make the range like the playing field.
Here’s a little example that took place today on the practice range at my team’s practice. Each player collected 250 balls in a large basket. We set up a target at 75 yards with a circle of baskets making a target of 10 feet in circumference, giving us a small green to hit at. Within this circle, was an 8 foot, red and white pole which became our center target. Like playing on the course, we now had a focused target, a small green to hit to. I also had the players visualize that this was an island green and that any errant shots would land in the water — they had to hit the 10 foot circle with their wedge shot. With their 250 balls lieing next to them, they began banging away at the target. After a short time, I stopped them and reminded them that we were trying to make the practice area like the course and asked them to go through their pre-shot routing prior to every shot – to give each shot a purpose and act like they were on the course hitting to an actual green and playing for a score. The range became very quiet as the players now put a much more intense focus on the what they were doing. The shots did not immediately get any better, in fact, most of them became a little more erratic, since they now were hitting shots like they were on the course with some self imposed pressure doing a routine that they usually did not work on. Normally, the players would just bang away at balls feeling like they were working on their swings.
After about 50-75 shots, I stopped everyone and asked them get 10 balls to hit for a contest. Each player would get ten shots at the 10 foot target and for every shot that landed within the circle, he would get 3 points. This gave us a possible total of 30 points. To add a little more pressure to the practice, I offered two sleeves of balls to the winner and one to the second place finisher. On top of all this, only two players out of seven, would attempt the shots at a time with the rest of the team watching them. Now, we had our practice a little more like game conditions. The best that anyone was able to do was 4 out of 10 shots in the circle. At least three of the players could only get 1 or 2 shots on the green!!!!
Hopefully, some light bulbs went off and the players will set up even more sessions where they turn the practice range into the playing field. They had realized that they were terrible when they did this as opposed to their normal practice at just banging balls out into the range with no pressure and no consequences.
No matter what your sport, take this golf example, and devise your practice so it simulates as closely as possible game conditions. Work weekly on this type of mental game strategy and when combined with physical game practice this will move you to that next level.