Imagine you’re about to compete against a team you’ve played before. It was last season, and in the first few minutes you were up by so many points the game was already over. What a win that was.
Skip to this year: the same team but they have some new athletes. Though their stats aren’t as good as yours, they aren’t bad. On your worst day, they might have trouble beating you. Still… it could happen.
After all, that is why we play the game.
You look at your team. You’re worried. You get the feeling they’re not as focused as they should be, that they’re going to take winning for granted. You scan your athletes’ faces, their body language. You wonder if they aren’t taking this opponent as seriously as they should.
And you’d be right.
I recently spoke with a coach who’d just lost three games in a row. That’s bad enough, but then he told me one was against an inferior opponent. Or, one he thought was inferior.
“The first half,” they said, “my team was performing at 60% of our full potential. The second half, they woke up a little and played better. But by that time, the other team believed they could beat us. If we’d come out strong in the beginning we could have buried them in the first few minutes.“
The coach went on to explain how the opposition took them by surprise. “We had better players but only half of them were in the right mindset,” the coach lamented. “The first half, most of my athletes were half asleep, expecting a blowout. By halftime my team was so shook up it woke them up; they played their hearts out the second half, but it wasn’t enough. Being against a less-skilled team, it was a harder loss than usual: hard on morale and hard on our stats, and hard to get that confidence back.”
We’ve all been there, up against a seemingly inferior team. The game starts and suddenly we’re behind. The other team is on fire; we’re unfocused. We overcompensate, try too hard, get anxious because it’s close (too close); it scatters our minds, sends us into a panic. By the end of the game, what should have been an easy W is now a loss…
As common as this scenario is, this doesn’t need to happen.
Most athletes can be dropped into one of two buckets:
Notice there’s no “zero pressure” category. That’s because very rarely does anyone perform at their best without pressure to shove them along. Not only in sports, but in life: in business, in school, even in matters of the heart. Our need for pressure is that little voice in the back of our minds that it’s “survival of the fittest”. If we don’t get up and get moving we’re bound to lose out to the guy who does. Rarely is a best performance achieved when the threat of a challenge is altogether missing
. Most athletes will face a zero pressure situation (like when up against a supposedly inferior team) a number of times. During those times, the athlete may expect to win just by showing up to the game! Unfortunately (or fortunately?), wins aren’t so easy to come by.
[Tweet "If it doesn't challenge you, it won't change you." Fred DeVito"]
When humans face challenges the fear part in our brains (the amygdala) is activated. This activation releases cortisol and adrenaline into our blood stream, hormones which jumpstart a series of physiological reactions intended to assist survival: heightened focus, increased muscular blood flow, and the temporary shutdown of digestive and repairing processes so our bodies can put that energy toward the task at hand.
Altogether, this activation is more commonly known as the Fight-or-Flight response.
But, users beware: it’s a tricky balance between too much and not enough pressure. When Fight-or-Flight is overactivated, like during Navy SEAL-type training, performance suffers because instinct takes over and rational thinking goes out the window. But when Fight-or-Flight isn’t activated at all or not enough, performance suffers yet again.
"When I come out I have supreme confidence. But I'm scared to death. I'm afraid. I'm afraid of everything... I'm afraid of losing... of being humiliated. but I'm confident. The closer I get to the ring the more confident I get." - Mike Tyson
As an athlete, I was Type 1, the type who did better with lots of pressure. I found it nearly impossible to ‘get up’ for games I thought were going to be blowouts. And if we got up by 20 early on it was difficult for me to stay focused.
Never was this so evident than when I played professionally overseas in Lithuania. We played two games per week, one was in EuroLeague, where we’d play against the top WNBA players in the world. Sometimes we’d win, sometimes we’d lose, but we always had close competitive games.
The other game was in the Lithuanian league, against teams made up of local players, many of whom wouldn’t have made my high school team roster. We literally won games by 70 points . Though I found those games dull, I had to learn to take them as opportunities for my self-improvement, lest I risk losing my competitive edge.
I know how difficult performing without pressure can be. And today, as a mental training coach, I often see similar improvement opportunities lost because athletes are so focused on the win that they think winning is the only goal. When that challenge is taken away—when the win is all but guaranteed—athletes aren’t really sure what they’re playing for.
As coaches, we need to remind them.
They say Michael Jordan did this. He would find one little thing against one particular opponent to work on to challenge himself. Maybe it would be on defense: keeping his offensive player going left every single time. Maybe it was on offense: coming off a screen and shooting the millisecond he saw an opening. Whatever his strategy, we all know it kept him engaged and improving, even when he was the best player in the world.
Though my preference is for individuals to challenge themselves, you can assign “hidden” challenges to a particular player or to the entire team. The key is in knowing WHEN to implement these strategies. There is no blanket scheme for improving your athletes’ play. Starting any game assuming to use the competition as practice players is foolhardy—the competition might actually be good enough to beat you!
"Individual commitment to a group effort - That is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work." - Vince Lombardi
Often times it’s the coach who determines what the team’s success looks like. Going into a game, the goal might be derived from x-y-z statistics. But why not let your team decide what objectives they want to hold themselves to? Being a part of the decision will instill a sense of ownership, driving them even harder to achieve success.
(Depending on the situation, this group decision making effort might best be implemented at halftime or during a break. Again, you don’t want to send the message in the beginning that the competition is there to serve as practice players for you.)
The best way to prepare for any competition is to work through it, one play at a time. When the focus is on a single play, your mind doesn’t need to evaluate how the competition is doing. Focus on the now—the play you’re currently in—not the scoreboard.
Back to Lithuania: on those long bus rides to games, I’d sit and obsess over how the most difficult competition I’d see that day would be during warm up. How disappointing! I forced myself to focus on individual plays instead, reminding myself, “Stay low on defense; move without the ball.” If I didn’t have those smaller tasks to keep me honed in, I would have been bored out of my mind.
In doing this, my challenge shifted from winning to staying in the moment as often as I could. When the game ended, I didn’t judged myself on if we won, but on those challenges I’d set up in my mind. In essence, I had competed against myself. Similarly, your team’s performance should be determined, not by the win, but by how often and how well they worked every single play.
As a coach, when you first get your team’s schedule you might go through it and check off the games you expect to win. Being able to count on a certain number of wins is great reassurance… until you do a reality check and realize there is a chance at losing those cornerstone games.
Did you know that people are two to three times more motivated to prevent losing something they have than they are to gain something new? This theory, called Loss Aversion, can create a helpful amount of pressure for you and your staff. (Read a Harvard study on Loss Aversion and teachers’ incentives here).
Tap into the benefits of Loss Aversion by using negative visualization to essentially frighten you, your staff, and your athletes into action. Let me give an example:
Let’s say you point out the “expected wins” to your team, reminding them that the opposition is still capable of beating you even though you’re counting the game as a win in advance. They nod their heads but you know it didn’t really sink in. They don’t grasp the possibility of losing to this team the way you have. There is no fear.
Athletes need to FEEL and SEE losing in order for it to be real to them. When it’s real they’ll prepare and focus on the task at hand instead of counting the game as an ace in the hole.
Again, be warned: use negative visualization sparingly. Overuse can eat away at confidence. But, in situations where athletes are overconfident going into a game, it can be a great way to activate their Fight-or-Flight response.
Everyone feels a different level of pressure from the same situation. One player may be anxious about going up against a specific team, while another isn’t batting an eye. It’s not always easy to predict how people are going to feel.
But, while we may not all experience the same level of pressure, we all feel embarrassment.
Have your athletes explain to you how they would feel trudging into the locker room after LOSING to a team they thought was inferior. Angry? Sad? Frustrated? Disappointed? Embarrassed? Once those negative emotions are identified and fear is instilled, you can encourage and rev your team up to avoid such blunders.
There are so many ways to stay mentally sharp during games, even during boring ones. While this short list isn’t all-encompassing, it’s great for when you need a quick remedy for those occasional blowouts you did or didn’t see coming. These five pointers have proved helpful for me when dealing with a lack of challenge during games, and I hope you will find them equally helpful.
I invite you to share your own experiences with blowout boredom below so that we, as a community of coaches and athletes, can learn to be better together.
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