As a national sporting representative, athletes get exposed to greater detail in their coaching, more often than not a higher level coach to player interaction, a higher level of training intensity, more advanced game sense, and higher level skill execution. This should not be a surprise to anyone.
Why can it then sometimes be a frustrating time for those athletes who return to their club systems? There is less intensity, it’s a more comfortable pace, not as much pressure to perform so it should in effect be an easier environment to work in. Many national reps find it a frustrating time and find it quite difficult to perform at their newly accustomed national level when they return to club. It takes a good deal of discipline to maintain higher levels of skill execution when athletes around them are struggling to even perform the basics. A common comment is that they drop to the level of the session they are involved in.
The discipline needed to perform at their expected level comes from controlling what they can control. I will use a rugby example that happened recently. Two players returned to Club training and as they progressed through the session I saw their skill execution become very inconsistent, which was a far different look from the previous few weeks where they were working by themselves away from the club environment. The difference was consistent purposeful practice. When it was myself and three national players we were able to create a high performance level that was consistent. At club however they found at times they were throwing passes that looked exactly the same as a player who had only played a handful of rugby matches.
To maintain consistent execution the players needed to understand they can only control what they can control such as how well they catch the ball and then how well they pass the ball. If the next player drops the ball because of poor skill execution then that is out of their control. If they make sure their execution is high then they have maintained their standards and can judge their effort and execution on a national level and not club level. This takes a lot of cognitive thought because we too easily get caught up in the standards around us. We get swept along seemingly without control and end up executing at the level of the majority around us. We are required to be very conscious of what is happening within the session and almost forcing ourselves to maintain our standards. The challenge is to become so consistent in high level performance that external forces have minimal impact on our own execution. It is like any skill it needs to be trained and relies, early on, upon deep conscious thought and focus. With time and purposeful practice it will become easier to maintain our expected level of performance.
What will also have a big impact is the number of players around us who have the ability to start to or continue to step up to that high level of performance. If we are the only one who has experienced high performance or capable of executing at that level then it will be a tougher job setting and maintaining those standards. If, however, there are a number of players who are at the same level or capable of executing at that level then they will help influence the performance of the whole group.
So, how to ensure we control what we can control to enable us to execute consistently and reliably.
PREPARATION. How we go into the session both physically and mentally will have a big impact on what we get out of it. There are two components to this. The first is understanding how we can control our own execution and creating a bubble of performance around us. We say to ourselves that whatever happens within our own bubble is the standard we are willing to accept. At the same time we set an example of what it is to be a National representative and we show the pride we have in our own personal performance regardless of surroundings. The other component is accepting that outside our bubble there will be lower standards and lower execution, and that is OK because that is where other players are at. It may help to create a picture of what elements of the session may look like such as a passing drill where we see ourselves executing well and others not so well. From a physical point of view we have to ensure we are ready to run fast, hit hard, and work hard to develop the skills we need to develop. So our warm up and physical prep must be top shelf, which may very well have a positive impact on the squad as players may learn habits of preparation that benefit them. This takes us to the next action to control what we can control.
EXECUTION. Players will respect the fact that we aren’t going to drop our standards and intent simply because it is a Club session, even if our actions challenge them and potentially put them in a tough position, such as being tackled hard. This may seem harsh because some Club players are well and truly not at our level of execution, however they may come up against an opposition that poses that very same scenario. We may be helping them as we could be exposing them to potential levels of competition which will in effect help to develop them as players.
Our execution should be at the level we set and not what others set so that we can continue to develop. Given that we don’t crush the confidence of other players we should also have a positive impact on those around us regarding their own development. If we are passing accurately then we will be helping them develop their catching skills. If they are struggling with their passing skills and it challenges our catching skills then that could be seen as a positive because we could be developing our ability to catch all kinds of passes and further improving our catching skills. Once again we control our own execution.
DECISION MAKING. This is where I believe we can get the most out of Club sessions. Our ability to decision make on our own execution given that those around us may not have the same level of game sense provides a great learning opportunity. Because some Club players won’t know or be able to get into positions we may expect, having to make quick and correct decisions based on that provides a great environment to sharpen our decision making skills. High level players sometimes see this as the most frustrating element of lower level sessions because they are used to players being in the right position. However, especially in team sports, it is not perfect at any level so even playing at National level might require us to make good decisions because a player isn’t where they should be. To practice this in a Club session is a bonus and should be looked at that way as opposed to a frustration. The mindset to sharpening our decision making in Club sessions should be a positive one, and can be reinforced through the first action mentioned above in our mental preparation.
It could be feasible that at some stage of a professional players career, especially in team sports, that we may need to return to a lower level of competition or training. How we see that challenge, and then how we behave within that environment will determine whether it is a constructive experience or a pain in the backside.