Winning the Mental Match

I know this is a blog that is supposed to talk about the X's and O's, but I don't think as a coach you can ever dismiss the fact that games are won and lost mentally just as much as they are physically.

The team that I coach is 3-1 so far and this past weekend we went up against the #3 ranked team. We were inconsistent most of the first half but managed to even up the score at halftime. We came out flat to start the 3rd and couldn't execute down the stretch when it mattered the most. In other words, our team choked and couldn't close out the game.

I recently read a terrific book the other day that talks about sports psychology from the perspective of performance anxiety. I usually don't read these kinds of books, because I find them mostly to be pretentious and written by people who call themselves doctors but have no real world experience working with athletes. This book is different. It is called "Tennis: Winning the Mental Match" and it is written by Dr. Allen Fox. Although it is written specifically with Tennis in mind, many of it's tenets and arguments can be directly applied to just about any sport where high competition is involved.

There are 14 chapters, but the 3 main points of emphasis that I took away from it are:

1. Sport matches are inherently emotional affairs. And how you manage your emotions will largely determine your success in the game.
2. You must accept the fact that there are things that are out of your control. Stress comes largely from the attempt to control the uncontrollable.
3. Never do anything that doesn't help you win. Eliminate all the unnecessary elements of your game which cloud your objective and maintain an efficiency of purpose.

I'd say right now that our team is having the hardest time with the first point. We are an emotional group, and we wear our emotions on our sleeves. It's good to be emotionally involved, because it means that our players really care about the team, about what we are doing, and about where we want to go. But we are susceptible to wild swings in our play as a result. We are too high with the highs, and too low with the lows. We have to get to a place where we can just "play ball".

"Control is an illusion you infantile egomaniac" as so famously quoted from the movie Days of Thunder. As players, and as coaches, it's sometimes hard to accept that there are things that you can't control. That even if you played a perfect game, you may still lose. You can't control the refs, you can't control the slippery floors, and you can't control the heckler in row 2 who keeps taunting you. As mentioned, you just have to "play ball".

Finally, there is something to be said for being able to concentrate on the task at hand. Teams that are easily distracted by a bad call, or something said by an opponent will have a have a hard time when "the game is on the line" because they are no longer focused on the goal -- to win the game. Everything is a distraction unless it has a hand in the singular goal of winning the game.

With most of you still early in your seasons, it is a good time to sit back and think about the mental state of your players, and of yourself. Do they have all of their emotions in check? How have your players reacted in certain situations so far this season? Are they stressed before/during big games? What distractions can you eliminate from their game to help them have better clarity?