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Coaches are never more cliché in their descriptions than when talking about their competition schedule. Some of the common ways coaches approach competition include the standard “We must play them one game at a time,” (as if there was any other option), to a slight variation of same theme “We can’t get caught looking ahead,” (nor, as the late Satchell Paige warned, should we look behind), to the old standby “Every game is a big game.”
But we all know that while such assertions are well-intended, they are also untrue. Some games do matter more.
Every season coaches must prepare for such special games, whether they are the annual rivalry game, an elimination playoff match, or a championship final. Anyone who has played or coached knows that emotions run higher than normal for big games. Some coaches will admit to preparing more intently and being a little more jacked up for such competitions, because almost certainly their athletes are. Yet others will attempt to deny the reality and claim that “we’ll treat it like any other game.” And among those, on the extreme high end of the scale, are the coaches who treat – and insist that their athletes treat – every contest like it’s the most important they’ve ever played.
Count U.S. Women’s National Volleyball Team head coach Karch Kiraly among that latter group. I vividly recall Karch insisting that his team, which had just won their first ever world championship, approached every match like it was the ultimate match. So when it came time to actually play in the biggest game, he said “We had already played over 100 world championship finals leading up to that game.” This is the same approach used by coaches of the world’s most successful sports team, the New Zealand All Blacks. For them, every game is a big game.
Some big games do require special treatment by coaches simply because the circumstance – and the potential pressure associated with it – is so unique. When legendary high school football coach, Bob Ladouceur, prepared his squad for what would be a national record 73rd consecutive win for De La Salle, he and his coaching staff discussed the streak in terms never spoke of in the 72 games leading up to the potential record breaking game. There was no denying that the 73rd game brought a different level of pressure and arousal. Leading up to the big game the coaching staff discussed the streak in terms of a collective accomplishment, not only by the current athletes, but of all those who contributed to it before them. In that way, he diffused the pressure on any individual player and shone the light on the De La Salle football legacy rather than any athletes on the team who might be seeking personal glory. By the way, Ladouceur’s Spartans would go on to win many more big games, running the record winning streak to an amazing 151 games from 1992-2004.
Treat every game the same or prepare and coach a little different for special games? Which approach works best? The answer lies in understanding what your athletes need to help them perform at their peak on any given day. How athletes approach a big game is largely influenced by three factors: their belief in their ability to meet the challenge, how well they have been taught skills for coping with big game pressures, and their trust in the game-plan.
There is much truth in the old saying ‘success breeds success.’ With the right preparation, athletes should play like they expect to win every competition. For coaches this means making sure athletes experience ‘wins’ in practices even when the wins aren’t coming in games. Every practice should include competitive challenges that are just beyond athletes’ current ability but are realistically attainable with full effort and focus. Successfully completing these challenges builds confidence and resilience, particularly if it takes the athletes a few practices to meet the challenge. This approach works as long as the coach provides support and encouragement along the way, otherwise athletes may get discouraged and come to accept failure.
It also means setting a variety of achievement goals for competitions, such as number of shots on net in soccer, yards of offense in football, or free-throw shooting percentage in basketball. Win or lose, athletes can still experience success when they achieve some of their competition goals. These small ‘wins’ keep athletes focused and builds the self-confidence needed to believe they can succeed when the big game arrives.
Successful coaches put their athletes in a position to win big games by using other proven strategies such as:
- Sharing stories of past success and athletes’ proven ability to overcome tough challenges, either that the athletes themselves have experienced or examples from others who have faced similar big competition moments. Hearing stories from others who have embraced and passed their big game test helps calm nerves and builds confidence that achieving big game success is possible.
- Reminding athletes about strategies they have been taught for finding their pre-game individual zone of optimal functioning, such as deep-belly breathing, imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and positive self-talk (see resources listed at the end of this commentary for detailed guidance on how to teach these competition readiness strategies). Successful coaches don’t wait for big games to try or teach these valuable pre-competition readiness skills to their athletes.
- Preparing detailed game-plans based on deep knowledge of your opponent and what it will take to win the event. Knowledge of all the little details that are crucial for winning the big game builds athlete confidence because it equips them with a trusted plan for beating a tough opponent. Attention to the smallest of details leads to what is often referred to as ‘marginal gains’ or the 1% difference. Detailed game-plans that include strategies for gaining a collection of 1% differences give your athletes and teams the competitive edge they need to pull-off big game wins.
- Successful coaches also prepare contingency plans for responding to critical moments that may occur in big games, such as what to do if your team comes out flat, how to finish a close game or race when leading, or what tactical adjustments to make if losing late in the game so you can make a final push to overcome the deficit. A coach’s ability to make the right tactical adjustments in big games also depends on the coach’s knowledge of potential momentum triggers. The more a coach studies the tendencies of their own team – and those of their big game opponent – the better they will be at noticing and quickly responding to momentum triggers.
One of most memorable examples of how a coach used these types of strategies to help lead teams to big game success is three-time Super Bowl winning coach Tom Coughlan and his 2007 championship team. Heading into Super Bowl XLII against the record-setting 18-0 New England Patriots, coach Coughlan relied heavily on lessons learned from a close defeat to the Patriots just a few week earlier in the regular season. He used that game as an example to show his athletes that the Patriots were indeed beatable if they executed the meticulously prepared game-plan and trusted the pre-competition routines they used all season long.
The ability to coach athletes to perform at their peak in big games will be determined by how well you teach your athletes to cope with the inevitable self-doubts and momentum swings that occur in tough competitions. Success in big games has much to do with building athletes’ skills and confidence prior to when they are played, along with detailed game-plans based on the team’s strengths and the scout of your opponent. Championship coaches know that this approach is the surest way to earn the right to win when the big game arrives.
Burton, D., & Raedeke, T. D. (2008). Sport psychology for coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Coughlin, T., & Fisher, D. (2013). Earn the right to win: How success in any field starts with superior preparation. New York: Penguin.
Gilbert, W. (2015, October 1). Coaching athletes to perform at their mental peak. [Webinar]. Retrieved from http://www.humankinetics.com/human-kinetics-coach-education-webinars/human-kinetics-coach-education-webinars/helping-athletes-perform-at-their-mental-peak.
Hayes, N. (2005). When the game stands tall: The story of the De La Salle Spartans and football’s longest winning streak. Berkeley, CA: Frog.
Kerr, J. (2013). Legacy: 15 lessons in leadership, what the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life. London: Constable.
McCann, S. (2008). Routines, rituals and performing under pressure. Olympic Coach Magazine, 20(2), 14-15. Retrieved from: http://www.teamusa.org/About-the-USOC/Athlete-Development/Coaching-Education/Coach-E-Magazine.aspx.
Taylor, J. (2012, July 16). Sports: Why the world’s best athletes use routines: Consistent routines lead to consistently high sports performance. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/201207/sports-why-the-worlds-best-athletes-use-routines.