(Originally published on The Athlete's Sports Experience on Jun 23, 2010)
For many a competitive athlete, just the idea of being able to compete is a motivating factor behind why they play sports; they just love the exhilaration of the competitive arena. It is not necessarily winning that drives them, even though competitive athletes hate to lose, but the enjoyment they get out of the challenge that competition brings to them.
Knowing this simple fact about competitors can bring great motivational rewards in training when this principle is applied to practice sessions. Whether initiated by the coach or created by the athlete themselves, the advantages cannot be denied.
On many an occasion I've seen athletes while training skills or strategies, working technique, or performing a drill, go blindly through the motions with limited to minimal focus. Quite a few don't even realize this behavior and, when asked, insist they are putting in 100% effort.
Normally, when a drill, technique, or skill is new to an athlete, they tend to bring more focus to bear on the task at hand; however, as time progresses and they begin to feel more accomplished, focus tends to wane.
Their effort might still seem high to them. They run, jump, dive, and cut hard, or do whatever (certainly putting forth sweat equity) in attempt to get the job done, but the tight focus - deeper concentration, is just not where it needs to be for marked improvements to take place.
They key to reaching that higher plane of one's potential is in finding a way to maintain that high level of focus throughout training.
What I might suggest is to find a way to bring that competitive aspect of sports (one of the motivating reasons why athletes play) into the training/practice gym. In fact, I am a firm believer that the more practice is like competition, the better.
Why? Because the competitive athlete will automatically be vested in whatever it is they are doing; thus, bringing their level of focus to a much higher level than without this aspect.
In addition, I would always have a "consequence" and/or "reward" system set up for any competition that occurred in training. This can be as simple as not leaving practice until the training goal, or goals, for the day have been met, a coach rewarding athletes a starting position in the next game, or being allowed to drop one piece of conditioning at the end of practice.
For me, the first option mentioned above had a big impact on my focus, something that magnified my level of improvement over time.
Whether as a team or an individual, this strategy can be used to motivate competitive athletes to much higher levels of focus during practice. All you have to do is:
- decide on a number of completions/repetitions for the skill or drill being performed, or score for the competitive game being played
- establish a set criterion of performance that must be achieved and/or maintained
- set up some type of consequence/reward system
- and let the athletes compete against each other in groups or teams (or against themselves having to better their previous score or level each time they work that particular skill, technique, or part of the game)
The increase in performance and athletic potential through the use of competitive training sessions as explained above is immeasurable.
Note: Division of team members into groups for competitive practice games or drills needs to be of equal ability, giving all a chance to succeed based on effort and focus.