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How to Win

Ready to Compete

“The best place to start is at the beginning.” — The good witch, Wizard of Oz

What would you think if you were getting on an airplane and you overheard the pilot remark, “It usually takes me a couple of hundred miles to warm up and get to the top of my game?” How would you react if you were going in for early-morning surgery and you heard the doctor say, “It usually takes me two or three patients to get in my groove?”

Those questions are so silly you needn’t even answer them. But some coaches and players think nothing of showing up not ready for practice or games.

Twice this winter our basketball team found itself down 8-0 before the official scorer had even sharpened his pencil. We fought back gamely in both contests, but that kind of start was tough to overcome.

Whether in scholastic sports or in the major leagues, athletes face a common challenge: being ready at the start. It sounds easy. It’s not. In 2005, USA Today ran a story headlined: “First inning woes a pitching fact of life”

The article quotes major-league pitcher Ben Sheets, then of the Milwaukee Brewers, discussing his problems at the start of games and how he tried to solve them:

“I have tried warming up longer, shorter, having a batter in there, acting like I’m trying to pitch to him. I don’t have a clue. I am not hurt, I am not sore. I just stink. In the second inning, my mechanics are smooth, I get comfortable on the mound, and I feel looser.”

Unfortunately for my team and for Sheets, what happens at the beginning matters as much as what happens later — maybe more because the beginning sets the tone.

So what can you do to make sure you’re ready when you have to be?

Try a pre-practice or a pre-game ritual. What’s a ritual? It’s a series of familiar actions repeated in the same order.

It’s easy to get started developing one. Just pick out a game or practice where you played well. Then recall the things you did leading up to the event. Now do these things all the time.

A 2007 news release by the New York Liberty of the WNBA detailed some of the rituals used by their players. And a 2008 article in the Boston Globe explores Ray Allen’s pre-game routine.  

Once you’ve started a routine, you can sharpen it with the method described by George Burns of the legendary comedy team Burns and Allen. Burns recalled the days decades ago when performers traveled from town to town, appearing one night in a theater and then moving on. If a joke got a laugh in one town, it would stay in the act. If the joke bombed, it was out. By trial and error, comedians developed a strong routine, one that enabled them to go out on stage with confidence.

You can do the same. You can use trial and error to develop a powerful pre-event ritual. When you find something that makes you feel ready to compete, stay with it!


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