Dominate In Practice, But Freeze Up During Games? Read This

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Most of us are quite comfortable playing in practice, with friends or practicing on our own. It’s the games — under the lights, referees on the court, fans in the stands — that give us trouble.

Well, what is it that causes this, and how can we fix it?

For players having this problem, the source is nerves. Nerves are the messengers between our brains and bodies.  Nerves are the things that tell our brain that our hand is touching the hot stove, thus triggering our brains to send the message quickly back to move our hand from there. Some drugs decrease nerve activity, causing us to feel nothing (ie, “numb”).  The more nerve activity in our bodies, the more aware we are of our surroundings, and the more minutiae we pay attention to or focus on.

Basketball is a game of general & fine motor skills, coordination and reaction — not thinking. Thinking in basketball, or any type of performing art, is generally useless and unproductive.

Why is that? Because performing artists (dancers, drummers, football players, shooting guards) practice a lot more than they perform. In Montenegro we practiced 15 hours for every two hour game. Malcolm Gladwell made the 10,000 hour rule a measuring stick for greatness. Your team practices a lot compared to the time spent playing games, right? I’m sure you do.

What does practice have to do with it, you ask?

What all that practice means is this: You (and your body) already know what to do — you’ve spent hours practicing it. By the time the game comes along, the physical aspect of your performance is what it is gonna be. The pre-game layup line is not the time to add new skills.

What can be affected 15 minutes before tip-off, however, is your mental state. What you want to be is confident and focused. The moves, shots and dribbling are ready to go. They won’t get better now, but they can get worse.

When an Why Nerves Take Over

In practices with your team (or by yourself or playing with your friends or at the local pickup game

you’re known at), you are in familiar settings. You know most of the people and they know you. You know the facility. You’ve done well there before. You feel confident to do anything, try any move, trash talk a little bit, and just be relaxed in general. You’re at home. Even a bad game doesn’t seem so bad; you reputation there is stronger than one bad game. You’ll be star again next game, and everyone knows and expects it.

Have you ever been alone in an unfamiliar area, feeling very alert or a little nervous (or what we call “on-point”) for whatever reason? Wherever you are right now, imagine you were alone at night in the worst area of your city or town. You wouldn’t necessarily have to feel scared for your awareness and nerves to jump to attention, would you? You hear everything. You see anything that moves. In short, you are hyper-sensitive to everything around you because your basic human instincts know when an unfamiliar situation is occurring. It’s baked into our human DNA.

In basketball it’s the same way. For a nervous player that underperforms in games, as game time approaches and you think and contemplate more and more about the moment, your nerves start doing their job. Picking up on every surrounding. Noticing every face, word, and movement.


How your feet move for layups. Your hands when you dribble. How you’re doing that crossover. The turnover you just committed. The way the ball hits your hands and bounces out of bounds. Nerves have taken over your body and your mind, now you’ve crashed & burned under the lights. Again.

Instead, what we all need at game time is to turn off everything except the focus nerves. The fans don’t matter. Neither do the refs. The skills? They’ve been here, ready. You did all the practice hours. Don’t worry about the skills. They’re always ready. You don’t even need to tell then when or where the game is — wherever you go, the skills just seem to show up. Let your skills be.

Let’s look at a contemporary example of a player we all know: LeBron James. In games 4 and 5 of the 2011 NBA Finals (vs. Dallas) I remember seeing shots of LBJ on the Heat bench biting his nails. Nail biting is a hyper-sensitive action. In a setting like the NBA Finals, a super-focused player (I can’t help but to think of MJ) wouldn’t even notice if the numbers fell off his jersey. As great as LeBron is, his nerves were taking over, and it ended up costing him and his team.

Now fast forward to Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals on Boston (or game 4 vs. Chicago in 2010). The Celtics held a 3-2 lead and were looking to close the series at home. Flash to LBJ before and during that game. LeBron had a blank, cold look on his face. He wasn’t thinking about anything. He didn’t notice the refs. He couldn’t hear the Celtic fans. His teammates probably took one look at his expression and left him alone. The nerves were completely silenced. There was no nail-biting this night. And we all know what happened that game.

LeBron didn’t need to worry about how he’d get open vs. Paul Pierce. He didn’t need to think about if he could grab a rebound or make the correct pass or what his shooting form looked like. None of it mattered because he, the best player on the floor, was focused. And when skill meets focus, incredible things take place.

So. Here’s what you need to do before your next game or performance or tryout:

1. Find the one thing — a song, a phrase, a picture in your mind — to focus on that captures the way you want to remember your upcoming performance. Focus on it, over and over. Hold it in your mind. Don’t just think it — feel it.
2. Think about nothing else. You practiced already. Your body already knows what to do. Ask no questions of yourself. You’re ready.
3. Ignore everything around you not pertaining to the job you’re doing. Your friends, family and fans will understand and forgive you after the game. You have a job to do right now.
4. Share with me how great you performed and what you focused on to get into that state. And get ready — the tool from this game may not be what you need for the next game. Always be prepared.