It’s championship season and there are final four tournaments being played in many major sports. In particular, I think about college and university sports where there is no luxury of a best of seven series and only a one game, winner take all format. It’s a time when underdogs can come up to bite top seeds and gain the momentum it takes to go on a run through important games with lots at stake.
NCAA basketball’s March Madness always has its share of upset games. Two days ago, a number 12 seed Middle Tennessee State University beat the number 5 seed University of Minnesota by nine points. This comes a year after the same Middle Tennessee, ranked 15th in their bracket, knocked off number 2 Michigan State in the first round in 2016.
But when teams get down to the final eight in the country, or the final four, typically there is not much separating the teams with regards to skill level and team play. What often separates winners from losers in these high pressure games is mental preparation. As much as I hear “we just couldn’t put the puck in the net” from coaches, I also hear “we just were a little tight”, or “we just didn’t come to play today”.
Here are a few things I always keep in mind going into playoffs and before big games:
1) There will be no lack of understanding on the players’ part that these are big games. They don’t have to be reminded all week in practice how crucial it is to play well, what a great opportunity it is, how much they have worked this season, etc. They will be excited and they will not need prompting from the coach.
2) I try not to do anything different with regards to routine for the team. We eat at the same time, at the same restaurant, travel to the rink the same amount of time before the game, have the same pre-game routine - nothing out of the ordinary. As coaches, we can easily fall into the trap of trying to over prepare a team for a big game. Things like an extra video session, team or player meetings, dragging the team to the rink to watch the teams you might be playing next. All these things, although well intentioned, take your players out of routine and create a heightened stress level because it suggests that what we usually do isn’t good enough anymore..
3) How you are acting as a coach, in the dressing room and on the bench, will directly affect your athletes at game time. If you seem nervous before the game, they will be too. If you are loose, smiling, focused, they will be too. I always say, “don’t let your players think ‘what the heck is coach doing?’”. This is a classic time where coaches often feel like they have to change something that might make sense but will not sit well with players. Switching line combinations, matching lines for the first time all season, changing systems, are all little things that can throw off a team before and during a big game. Consistency is key to success in big games.
4) I take my team to a tournament about a month before the playoff tournaments start and simulate what the championship tournament will look like. We place a premium on winning (sometimes unlike a pre-season tournament or Christmas tournament where you want to play everyone). Everything we do around the tournament is what we would do at the championship, and this is clearly communicated to the players in week before.
5) As with all games, momentum is key and a good start to the game is crucial. Monitor during the season what factors contribute to good starts and what contribute to bad starts to games. Make sure you are going to school on those things and incorporate them into your pre-game routine.
6) Finally, make sure players are mentally prepared for some adversity in the game: tough calls by the referee, a couple quick goals against, even the dreaded three goal lead. Visualizing those situations in the days prior to big games will undoubtedly help your team overcome any difficulty.
Any team that is making to a championship tournament has been successful already. Often keeping a team on track is really the battle for coaches. And…a little bit of luck doesn’t hurt as well.
For more on mental skills and preparation, check out Coach Traugott's book "Creating a Culture of Confidence"