It’s that time of year again when spring sports in both high school and college approach post season tournament play. Now the games get “really important” and the pressure to win and play your best is turned way up high! Now it’s even more critical for you to perform without making unforced errors or costly mistakes! The pressure may be in the form of “if you don’t win the next two games, then you’ll fail to qualify for the Conference play-offs.” Or the stress may reside in needing to upset the league leader in next week’s last regularly scheduled game “or else.”
This is also that very special time of the season when coaches get even more anxious about their won-loss record and how well their athletes perform. In fact, many can’t help but generously share their anxiety with you, the athlete. This means that coaches might yell more in practice, may have “shorter fuses” and may say really helpful things like, “if you play that way we’re going to lose!”
What can you do to make sure that you’re ready for crunch time and increase the chances that you’ll be at your best when it counts the most? You have to both recognize and avoid the common mental traps that many athletes stumble into at this time of the year.
These traps in their various forms ALL REVOLVE AROUND GETTING TOO CAUGHT UP IN THE OUTCOME of the game, match or meet. Because it’s a given that your team might need to win or play flawless ball in order to advance into post season play, it’s very easy to start to over-focus on the “needing to win.” When you do this, the importance of the game gets instantly magnified. Suddenly there’s much more at stake for you, your coaches and teammates. This extra pressure quickly can lead you into over-thinking about the “what if’s,” i.e. “What if I mess up?” “What if we lose?” “What if I cost my team the game?” etc.
When you start to over-think in this way, your level of pre-game nervousness goes straight through the roof, tightening your muscles and filling your head with enough self-doubts to cripple the entire team. The results of this will be that you will either go into your competition “over-amped” and trying much too hard. You will force the action and muscle your performance, guaranteeing that you’ll play like garbage. Or, if you crank up the importance of this game in your mind and freak yourself out about all that’s at stake, then you will literally paralyze yourself into playing scared, tentatively and trying “not to make mistakes.”
What you have to do in crunch time in order to play to your potential and perform like a champion is keep everything the same. That is, don’t make any game more important than any other. Follow my little, “the bigger the game, the more everything should stay the same” rule. This means that you need to keep your focus of concentration in the process of the game, on one play/point/pitch at a time. Keep your focus of concentration before and during the game AWAY FROM THE OUTCOME! If you stay calm and focused before and during the competition, then the outcome that you really want will take care of itself.
What I’m asking you to do is very difficult. Your teammates and coaches are going to get too caught up with the importance of winning this game. They’ll talk about it continuously. The coaches might freak out in the practices leading up to the big game whenever anyone messes up. They’ll probably warn you and your teammates that if you do that in the big game, then you guys won’t have a chance to win. Through all of this garbage, your job is to keep your focus in the NOW, on the PROCESS of the game and away from the outcome.
Another way for you to think about this is that in order for you to have any chance of playing like a champion when it counts the most, then you need to be able to stay calm and relaxed. You will never be able to play to your potential if you allow yourself to get too nervous. Focusing on the hype and winning and losing will instantly get you too nervous. Therefore your primary goal at crunch time is to stay calm and loose. By deliberately keeping your focus of concentration away from the outcome of the game, away from what’s at stake, then you will be able to successfully keep yourself calm and composed and therefore give yourself the best shot at playing well during championships.