This past March I had the pleasure of giving my perspective on what it takes to achieve excellence in sports, especially when facing tough adversity, to a high school boys' volleyball program (about 60+ athletes and coaches). That presentation comprised key inspirational concepts that I give to athletes, coaches, and parents in an effort to move athletes more toward the thought process of "it is what I make it" rather than "it is what it is."
One of the most important concepts I emphasized in my talk was the application of a deep sense of inner will and determination to the improvement of one's skill set, and how this plays a crucial role in an athlete's ability to "beat the odds." In short, I was telling them that working very hard, with high levels of focus, on mastering the skills of the game they play (in this case volleyball) is essential to gaining an edge over their competition - the kind of edge that few are able to gain because most just don't, or won't, spend the concentrated time and effort needed to reach this level of skill achievement or mastery.
About a week after my presentation, I did a follow-up with the team to see if they had actually put the principles I discussed into action. After posing several direct questions regarding what they accepted out of themselves at practice, I was not surprised to find that few had transferred what I taught to their practice efforts on the court.
This prompted a discussion where I detailed more specifically what they needed to do during training so as to apply this idea of mastery covered in my original presentation: basically, how to break down volleyball into its principal parts (skills), train each skill separately and completely based on the position the person plays and the needs of the team, what acceptable execution of a skill was and what it was not, and how - when all is put together - this process positively impacts the game as a whole.
In order to clarify this idea of mastery training, let me give an outline of how it might work for any given sport. Keep in mind that this is a general outline that would, in all probability, need to be adapted to fit an athlete's, and/or team's, specific needs.
I. Breakdown #1:
Priority one is to, figuratively, step back from the sport itself and determine the skills necessary to master in order to play the game well.
For example, we might list serving, setting, passing, hitting, blocking, and digging as the skills needed to play volleyball, while the game of softball might include hitting, fielding (catching & throwing), and pitching, whereas a sport like basketball might include dribbling and ball handling, passing, and different types of shooting. No matter what sport or activity you play or participate in, all have important skills that are necessary to perform at high levels in order to be successful.
For the purpose of this example, we will assume that aspects of the game like court or field positioning and movement, transitioning, "reading" (as in figuring out what is about to happen), and all other strategic areas of a sport (things that an athlete should also try and master) are efficiently dealt with at other times during practice.
II. Breakdown #2:
Now, take the skills most necessary for the position you play and break them down to their principal parts. For example, the skill of underhand passing in volleyball might include your platform (arm position), proper footwork, where best to contact the ball, and reading an oncoming ball early, while shooting in basketball could include proper balance, body and leg position, where to focus your vision, arm and hand position, and follow-through. Just as with each sport, any specific skill an athlete performs can be broken down into its basic fundamental movements.
All of this is necessary in order to train each skill to peak levels of performance.
Using the breakdowns above, you will practice each skill necessary for you to efficiently and effectively play your position. The goal will be to bring a high level of focus on the exact form and correct techniques needed to perform each skill at its highest level. You will want to figure out and concentrate on the cues (body movements) that enhance the skill, disregarding all others.
For example, I learned through practice like this that when I did a handstand on the still rings in gymnastics, I had to focus on keeping my whole body straight and very tight (from my hands and head down to my toes), and to "feel" for that exact balance point in the center of my hands - something I did by using very slight movements of my hand at my wrist. I knew that when I was able to do this that I was in a "perfect" handstand.
This same level of focus can be brought to any skill (in any sport) that an athlete practices, with the objective being to figure out the one or two most important things that enhance your ability to perform that skill "perfectly." It is something that, with proper focus brought to training on a daily basis, you start to "feel" as you become more proficient, and it is what allows athletes to move toward performance of their skill set more instinctively.
As you move along the learning curve toward better skill execution, you will want to bring those positive cues into game simulations, scrimmages, and into the competitive arena itself. At some point, these queues will be the only things you need to think about in order to execute your game skills, as each skill you train in this manner becomes a stronger part of your skill set.
It is this type of "mastery" training that separates the good, and even very good, athletes and teams from the very best. However, I do need to warn you that this type of training can be frustrating.
Most who train this way expect to perform a certain number of repetitions (a number they choose), of each skill they practice, at a very high level of execution, and they don't leave practice until they accomplish this objective - daily. In addition, they tend to increase their expectation of how well, and/or how many times, they execute each skill in their skill set as their original expectation becomes easier to reach. Thus, they continue a steady climb up the ladder toward "perfection," knowing full well that absolute perfection is not possible.
Basically, in this way, athletes continue to increase their expectation of themselves and how they perform, by either doing more or making their skill set more difficult to execute, competing against only themselves and leaving much of their competition in the dust - as their improvements are only governed by the potential they themselves have within.
As the title of this article infers, striving toward mastery of one's skill set as the ultimate goal puts athletes, and teams, in a more controlling position over "winning" by placing it in its proper perspective - as an outcome of the training efforts one is willing to put in. Make no mistake, if you want to win more consistently, and more often, then it's time to place mastery at the top of your priority list, as described here, and watch what happens.