Train hard to fight easy

At the time of writing this, athletes are preparing and training hard for the Rio Olympic Games. We’ll witness some astounding performances delivered in a massively high pressure environment.

To us mere mortals the ability to produce consistently extraordinary performances under pressure seems to defy belief. The secret? It’s all about practice.

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High performance headlines

  • If you want to perform in a demanding environment and under pressure, you need to practise doing just that.
  • Understand the environment and what it’ll take to deliver in it. Then practise with intensity and focus in environments that mirror the conditions you’ll be in.
  • Repeated practice of the performance you’ll need to deliver, in the conditions you’ll need to deliver it increases your sense of confidence, control and readiness to step up.
  • “Train hard to fight easy” – engineered practice where the demands exceed those you’ll face in competition. It requires you to draw from all your resources and helps you be ready to step up when needed.

The full viewpoint

We marvel at the ability of elite performers – athletes, actors, singers, dancers – to produce unerringly brilliant performances under the greatest of pressure. Under conditions that are often tough climatically (think smog and heat at the Beijing Olympics), demanding (think noisy Brazilian crowds in Rio), with the world’s eyes on them and the greatest prize (and cost of failure) at stake, the performances of Olympic athletes seem unbelievable.

To those watching, the ability of these athletes seems superhuman. The reality is that they’re no different to you. They’re able to deliver supreme performances under pressure because they’ve practised doing it. Focused, deliberate, strategic practice – using simple, logical principles that you can adopt too.

Here’s the top 4 steps to take.

1. Choose your mindset

Choose a challenge mindset. When it comes to thinking about the moment they need to deliver a performance under pressure at a Games or World Championships, Olympic athletes understand this as a welcome opportunity to rise to the occasion, test themselves and see how good they can be in the toughest of conditions. This mindset – for most great performers – is not something that comes naturally to them. Rather, they’ve realised the importance of this over time, and worked hard to choose to adopt this mindset.

With this mindset, you’ll start to see every day, every event, and every training session as an opportunity to practice, learn about yourself as a performer and then apply that learning to get better. All this is the essential foundation for quality, deliberate practice.

2. Know the environment and the demands

When it comes to preparing for a key event – like an Olympic final – you need to have a really clear understanding of the environment and its demands. That allows you to then identify what kind of performance you’re going to need to produce and that allows you to do focused deliberate practice to ensure you’re 100% ready to deliver that performance in that environment.

For athletes going to Rio, right now they’ll be getting a crystal clear picture of the environment they’ll be living and competing in – physical/climatic conditions, the village and venue environment, crowd and media behaviour, and any unique qualities of competition (which is sometimes quite different in structure). They’ll also be aiming to build an emotional and mental picture of what it’ll feel like to be there. An Olympic Games is unlike no other event – and given its importance, athletes and their support teams will go to great lengths to ensure that this picture is as complete as possible. Recces and training trips to the venue are happening now so that athletes fully understand the environment.

3. Train for the environment

With an understanding of the demands you’ll face and what’s required to deliver in that environment, you can start to set up some focused practice. In the build up to the Rio Olympics, athletes will increasingly be doing simulated competition practice. Simulated competition practice is an opportunity to deliver the performance required, at the intensity required, under as similar as possible environmental conditions.

They’ll practise in the same climatic conditions. They’ll practise with crowd noise (a live, real or ‘renta-crowd’, and/or with crowd noise recordings). They might practise giving media interviews before and after competing (a potentially intrusive demand they know they’ll face). They’ll practise their warm up and preparation (mental, physical and technical), following the same routine as they will at Games time, using the same timings and process.

Doing this helps them feel confident, in control and ready to deliver the exact performance needed and that they can do that in the conditions they’ll face. It also helps develop a performance ‘blueprint’ so that under pressure, they’ll be more likely to move into autopilot. When the inevitable nerves and butterflies arrive at the Games, there’s a sense of familiarity that they’ve been there before in practice and they ‘simply’ need to follow the routine.

4. Practice hard(er) than you need

“Train hard to fight easy”. The concept here – also known as “over-reaching” – is simple. Train at higher levels of intensity and in more demanding environments than you’ll be facing when you compete or perform . It stretches your capability (physically, technically and mentally) and builds your sense of confidence and readiness.

There’s two ways to do this:

1) Increase the demands – Olympic athletes might choose to train in more hostile and brutal conditions, with more information to deal with, or with some greater prize at stake.

2) Reduce your resource – Practice when you’re missing some key tool (presentation slides?), under fatigue or without support.

Winter training periods for athletes are typically prime ‘over-reaching’ times, where they’re building additional physical capacity and resource, and in so doing build a sense of readiness and confidence. As the Games approach, they’ll be doing some very specific Games simulation practice sessions aimed at extending them to be ready for their Olympic fight.

Your world

So how can you take away these principles and apply them in your world? If you’ve got an important performance moment coming up, follow the four steps. Understand the demands and environment, and what performance you’ll need to give. Do some focused and deliberate practice where you’re delivering that performance in a simulated environment. Look for opportunities to do some ‘overreaching’ like Olympic athletes do. While you may not have the luxury of months to prepare for your Olympic moment, you can start looking for opportunities in your everyday work (and home!) life to get yourself ready.

Deliberate, focused and strategic practice. It’ll deliver results.