Every coach, every season - regardless of how talented the program - has at least one game in which they barely recognize their own team.
Sometimes you escape with an ugly win. Sometimes the result is a lopsided loss to a “weaker” opponent. Other times one anomaly of a game brings with it the end of a season.
Regardless of when it happens, time seems to slow down while the wheels are coming off; uncharacteristic play, flatlining energy, and mistake after compounding mistake resulting in head shaking defeat.
During these games I always look for the medics. The ones vocally attempting to apply defibrillators to the squad by yelling, “Come on, guys! Let’s GO! Pick it up.”
But, where are we going? And, what are we picking up?
I recently discussed this occurrence with my colleague, Petra Kowalski. Drawing from an extensive background in sport, Kowalski serves others as a Human Performance Coach specializing in applied sport psychology and resilience training.
As we chatted about what to do when the wheels come off Kowalski said, “Coaches and athletes often seek my help in the moment they need it most. My answer is always, "Yes, I can help you. Right here. Right now." But more than anything I want people to understand what it is that they're asking. It's like turning to your strength and conditioning coach when your team is running out of gas and saying, "Help us get fitter NOW!" You train strength and fitness from day one so that you have it in the moments you need it most. We want (and need) to train the mental game the same way; from day one. That way when things break down the coaching and communication in the moment is a reminder of a skill that has been practiced, not a new concept in a high stress situation.”
While advanced preparation is ideal, here are three steps you can take when it all goes to hell.
“Where are we going?”
Kowalski and I began by discussing the truth behind energy following attention. Specifically, how to redirect an athlete’s attention through intentional language. As coaches our habitual language in moments of chaos tends to point athletes to an outcome for which they have very little proof. “Everyone relax. We’re fine. We can still win.” As coaches we know this to be true, yet nothing about the immediate past supports our athlete’s perceived outcome of success.
So, let’s change their success indicator.
Turning the ship around involves redefining our team’s individual and collective measure of success. The first step is to get their attention OFF of the scoreboard. Each nervous glance at the scoreboard signals an internal hailstorm of questions: “How much damage has been done?”; “What will it take to come back?” and “Is it still possible to win?”
Changing the success indicator doesn’t mean that winning is no longer important. It simply means that we refocus our athlete’s measure of success to smaller, more immediately achievable outcomes. While coaching soccer one such phrase Kowalski used to help change her athlete’s success indicator was, “Let’s regain our first touch.”Whatever your sport, the goal is to give simple reminders of concrete, highly executable behaviors that directly support a positive outcome.
“And, what are we picking up?”
When things go south, the two things most often in need of “picking up” are a team’s energy level and ability to execute. Step two in turning the ship around is to change an athlete’s body language. When an individual is performing poorly, their attention tends to go inward - the phrase “a quiet gym is a losing gym” points directly to this behavior. Once a poor performer’s attention is turned inward, their body language typically reflects negative internal self-talk. Shoulders slump, heads drop, eyes roll or are downcast, hands cover faces or rub foreheads or clap together when a mistake is made.
Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey has a fun video about working with his player’s body language in practice. Similarly, writer and researcher Amy Cuddy popularized the benefits of “power posing” and it’s immediate effect on high stress situations. Helping athletes become aware of their body language and inviting them to adjust it during chaos can help your team embody then reclaim the positive energy that contributes to success.
The third step towards turning the ship around is to help players get out of their heads so they can execute the skills they’ve practiced. As coaches we often tell struggling athletes, “Don’t think, just play.” This is an invitation to release the efforting of thought and move towards a flow state - an experience best understood through psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”. If you’ve ever been “in the zone” you’ve experienced flow; seemingly effortless execution where peak performance is its own reward. During flow states the brain reflects a meditative state – thoughts are minimal and the mind focuses solely on what is occurring in the present moment.
Kowalski explains, “In pressure situations we revert to our training. A typical training session for an athlete involves a lot of skill repetition, and often a lot of thought. It’s no wonder then that when an athlete is under stress, he or she reverts to thinking instead of just playing”.
One strategy for helping an athlete get out of their head so they can return to peak performance involves reminding them of facts and previous success. Affirming what they know to be true and offering a simple phrase such as, “Trust yourself. Do what you know how to do.” can help move an athlete out of their head and into a state where it's once again possible to “just play”.
Bonus: Ask players to recall a time when they were most successful or had their best game. While remembering that time, ask them to then write down words or phrases they associate with that experience. Keep these reminders visible and use them selectively during times of adversity to remind athletes of their most skilled and successful selves.
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