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Bridge the gap between practice and match

To everyone who ever played darts in any competitive level, this will probably sound familiar:

You arrive to the venue well ahead of the match starts, to warm up and get into the zone. Everything feels fine, you hit big scores and hit the doubles for fun and you really feel that you’re playing your best darts. ”Today, I’ll show them” you say to yourself.
It’s time for your game and you shake your opponents hand with great confidence and maybe a little smile. When you hear ”Game On” it all changes and you can’t hit anything. Your arm feels stiff and you can’t get the feeling you had just minutes ago.

The reason for this can vary and can be very personal, but many just call it Performance anxiety.

Most dart players realises soon that playing darts at a competitive level differs a lot from the training done at home. Playing darts at a competitive level is more a matter of mind over just pure skill.
So what’s the secret sauce to avoid the stress and performance anxiety?
Unfortunately there’s not a single easy answer but comfortingly, many players feel it’s getting easier and easier with experience. That’s why it is so important to get out and play as much as you can, even though you feel you’re not as good or prepared as you want to.

Here are a few things you can focus on in the meantime to bring your practice game to the match.

Practise and prepare

When you’ve practised structured and dedicated for months or years, you will not only build up your different skills (throwing, calculating etc) you will also build up your confidence. When you’re standing at the oche against a an opponent and you’ve three darts to finish a leg or a game, this extra boost of confidence and knowing you’ve prepared for this really makes a difference. You know you can hit the finishing double since you’ve done it hundreds or thousands of times in practice. Make sure you use your training time wisely to give you the extra boost when it really matters.
Get a few targets – BULL, D20 or D16 for example, and do extra dedicated training with these targets. Use the Dedication game and set your desired target and length for your session (for example to play until 50 hits or 20 minutes) and practise regularly this way to finally feel that you own your target. In a game situation when you’re facing this target to win the leg, you know it is yours and you can do it! You will do it!

At practice – simulate game situation

I highly recommend you to use a big part of your training time to work on specific things, such as doubles, power-scoring and your grouping skills. When you practise finishing or different 501-situations (like Master 501, Solo-01, Checkpoint-501 etc) it is important to play these games in a way, as close to match-situation as you can.

When you play these games, imagine you’re up against a specific opponent (a friend, someone you lost a recent game against, Luke Littler, Gerwyn Price or anyone you’d like to win a game against) and take your time. No need to rush. You own the oche when it’s your time to throw. Take a deep breath before you go to the oche. Don’t rush the throw. Make sure you’re 100% focused before you release the darts. After the throw when you have picked up the darts, walk to the side as you would do in a real game to avoid the player that is ready at the oche and take a pause a meter or two from the oche ”until it is your time to throw”. Then you’ll get the correct match tempo during your training session and imagining you’re opponent will also give you some extra adrenaline or pulse when you’re at the oche. A different tempo at practice can really mess up your game when you have to wait for the opponent to throw.

At match – simulate practice situation

When you’re playing a real game and your darts aren’t hitting what you’re aiming and your confidence is running low, close your eyes a few seconds away from the oche, imagine you’re at home or your favourite training place throwing darts for fun. Imagine you’re playing your favourite game or nailing your targets time and time again. Imagine you’re listening to your favourite music and try to get into the mood that you’re in charge and you’re in control. Is your hand shaky? Close your hand really hard for a few seconds a few times, and it will feel better before you’re ready to prepare your throw.
If a thrown dart is completely off, take a step back and refocus. Take a deep breath and step up to the oche again and slowly get ready for your next throw.
It is so common to see players missing the target completely stresses to the next dart which either will overcompensate or follow the first dart, instead of trying to recompose and give the next dart full attention.
Remember that every dart counts!

Focus on the things you can control

Focus on the thing you can do something about. Focus on your rhythm, your throw and your next throw. Don’t pay too much attention to what the other player hits or don’t hit because that is out of your control. You can’t do anything about it. It’s just you and the board. When the other player is throwing, figure out what you’ll be aiming for and try to visualize that your throw is perfect and you hit the target.

Keep calm

This is easier said than done. But if you just did a bad throw, missed the double or got a bad bounce out, keep calm and don’t show your opponent what you’re feeling. Wait until you get behind the opponent to reveal any body language what you’re feeling inside. If you show your opponents you’re frustrated or angry, it will fuel their confidence by knowing you’re not in balance nor in the zone.

Just lost a leg or your opponent has only one leg to win the match?
Take the pressure off yourself and reframe the situation as a fun challenge to win the next leg, and the next…
Find your own ways to stay calm and focused. Having a Pre Shot Routine can help removing the memory of the last throw and instead promote focus on the next one.

Have fun

People who are having fun are more relaxed. If you show your opponent that you are having fun and that you’re relaxed you’re also sending the signals that you’re in control and that you’ve got confidence. I rather play against a person who looks stressed and nervous than one who looks focused and in control. By understanding and adopting different mental strategies, dart players at all levels can improve their game.

Summary

All these things are of course easier said than done, but if you know a few things how to prepare before a game, and you know how to get in the right mood during the game, it will help you forward. Reflect on how you respond to different situations during practice and during a match against a real opponent. What gets you calm and what gets you stressed? Be smart and use the tools available to prepare, practise and perform to make you the best darts player you can be at the moment.

Enjoy your darts and make it count!

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