Winning after Winning: How to Approach the Season after a Championship

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The long hours, countless sacrifices and dedication to intense training has paid off – your athletes have finally secured that elusive championship. As much as you try to avoid it, almost immediately talk turns to securing back-to-back titles.

Chasing a title keeps athletes hungry and focused. But when a team becomes champion the chase is over, and suddenly it is now being chased. That can make the season following a championship very stressful for athletes and coaches alike. And, as a result, title-winning teams find it very hard to regain anything resembling championship form.

To you and to the many coaches who have sought my advice after winning a title, I offer these informed suggestions.

1. Don’t try to repeat or defend a title.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for a coach in the season following a championship is to keep athletes in a ‘hunter, not hunted’ mindset. When describing how he was able to coach teams to four consecutive national championships, legendary American college volleyball coach Russ Rose shared that each season he told his athletes “We are not defending; rather, we are pursuing a new championship.”

After taking some time to celebrate the accomplishment, coaches should meet with their athletes to talk about how they will deal with new expectations. Instead of focusing on repeating, the emphasis should be on refocusing and regrouping for a new chase.

Some teams I have worked with ban athletes and staff from using words such as ‘repeat’, ‘defend’ or ‘back-to-back’ following a championship season. The language we use shapes our attitudes and behaviors. Coaches can help athletes stay focused and humble by creating team language guidelines that reinforce continuous improvement, focused training, and humility. The type of language that should pervade team talk must keep athletes aggressive, confident and in constant attack mode. In the pre-season hold a team meeting and have the athletes brainstorm new phrases that capture the unique quest for the upcoming season. The phrases should retain the basic language that contributed to the program’s success while placing an emphasis on chasing a new championship. The statements can then be posted in team facilities, used in team rituals and meetings, and for giving feedback to athletes.

2. Focus on strengths first, weaknesses and gaps second.
End of season reviews typically include an examination of weaknesses, the things players and coaches need to improve, sometimes referred to as a gap analysis. Although it is important to work on closing gaps between our current and desired performance, we must also invest time in recognizing and maximizing our strengths. An emphasis on weaknesses keeps the focus on what we failed to do. A focus on strengths shifts our attention to what we have shown we can do well.

Noticing and valuing what we do well first, before we ask questions about what we need to do better, allows us to amplify the strengths that contributed to winning the championship. This is particularly valuable following a championship season because there likely will be many strengths that can be identified. Sometimes referred to as appreciative inquiry, or strengths-based coaching, this approach is founded on the principle that “what we dwell upon expands”.

To help athletes and coaches think more about the moments in which they were at their best, at an end-of-season meeting ask each member of the team and staff to respond to the following prompts:

• Share a story about when you personally were at your best this past season.
• Share a story about when we were at our best as a team this past season.

Strengths-based storytelling is empowering and builds momentum for continued success. It has the added benefit of building individual and collective confidence because everyone – from starters to non-starters, rookies to veterans – is required to share strengths. Coaches should listen carefully to the stories and note the common success factors that enable people to perform at their best. These common success factors reveal the group’s ‘positive core’ or ‘DNA for success’. In the off-season coaches can then reflect on how to create strategies for the upcoming season that will build on this positive core.

3. Maintain a consistent approach to improving, not proving, ability.
In a landmark study on ‘winning after winning’ world champion athletes were separated into three groups – continued success, immediate decline but eventual return to success, and inability to succeed again after the championship. A key difference between the three groups was that the continued success athletes adhered to the same routines and approach to training and competition used to propel them to their first championship. They trusted the approach that got them to the title and stayed the course. Conversely, athletes in the two other non-success groups reported trying too hard, focusing on results (winning), and succumbing to pressure and heightened expectations. This resulted in a focus on constantly trying to prove they deserved to be a champion, instead of approaching training and competition with a clear mind-set and a focus on improving the skills that put them in a position to win the initial title.

Coaches can reinforce and support an ‘improve over prove’ approach by working with athletes to set short-term improvement targets and process goals. For example, at the start of each week, or even each practice, athletes could identify one thing they want to improve at that moment. Improvement targets could range from technical and tactical skills to physical conditioning to mental toughness or being a better teammate. Coaches can then focus on noticing and supporting athlete progress toward improvement goals.

4. Focus on the experience, not the title, you are seeking.
A two-time world champion once shared with me that although his team was able to win consecutive championships, the second championship season was a miserable experience. There was no joy in winning another title, just relief that the season was over. He regretted he and his teammates focused so much on winning that they lost much of the initial passion that inspired them to play the sport in the first place.

When the focus is predominantly on the outcome (winning), the ability to become fully immersed in the moment and achieve a ‘flow’ (optimal experience) state is greatly diminished. In addition to having athletes set continuous improvement and process goals, at a pre-season meeting coaches can have the athletes complete an ‘envisioned future’ activity. Ask each athlete to imagine waking up the day after the end of the upcoming season, a championship season in which all their dreams and aspirations were achieved. Then have each athlete answer the following questions:

• What happened to allow us to have this kind of success?
• What kinds of team routines, rituals, and events were key to this experience?
• What types of things did we do to stay excited and energized throughout the season?

It may be helpful to give this activity to athletes in advance of the meeting so they have time to reflect and prepare more thoughtful responses. At the meeting each athlete should share their answers while other athletes are instructed to listen carefully for common themes. The dream stories create a shared vision for the type of experience athletes need and want in order to propel them to a championship season. Equally important, the stories become a source of team synergy and give direction to the team’s efforts while building team spirit and connection.

Winning a championship is a crowning moment in sport, something all athletes and coaches strive to achieve. Even if you have yet to lead athletes to a title, all coaches can benefit from using strategies to keep their athletes focused and hungry for victory.

Having a clear vision for success and designing quality training and competition plans often is not enough. Those who have been to the top of the mountain, and stayed there, know that sustained excellence requires attention to how we speak about success, a focus on continuous improvement, recognition and expansion of our strengths, and storytelling that illuminates experiences that propel us toward championship seasons.


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