Webster’s dictionary defines the word “paradox” as a “statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable or absurd, but that may be actually true in fact.” In the field of Sports Performance Enhancement, there is no more important paradox that you must learn than the paradox of winning and losing. What is it? Is winning important to you? Do you truly, desperately need to win? The more a winning outcome is important to you, then the further winning must be from your consciousness and focus of concentration when it’s competition time. Want to beat that perennially tough rival of yours? Then, the further thoughts of him/her must be from your mind as the competition begins. When you think about or concentrate on winning, that is, when you keep winning close to you, the reality of it ever happening goes further and further away from you. Paradoxically concentrating on winning makes it more likely that you’ll lose. Similarly, when you dwell on beating that opponent of yours, you significantly increase the chances that he/she will beat you. Far too many athletes, coaches and parents do NOT understand how the paradox of winning works. If you fail to grasp its significance, then you will continue to choke under pressure and consistently steal defeat from the closing jaws of victory.
Today we will address this all-important “paradox of winning” as it is related to THE COACH.
“To scout or not to scout? That is the question.”
As a coach there’s a fine line that you must learn to walk between getting your team adequately prepared for their upcoming contest against this tough opponent, and completely psyching them out. How well you walk this line will determine whether your coaching efforts pay huge dividends or end up as a big bust. So let’s start with a very basic question:
How important is it for you to scout your opponent?
Is it really necessary to determine your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and take them back to your team? The answers to this question vary across coaches and sports. Some of your colleagues believe that scouting is a totally unnecessary waste of time. These coaches argue that the most important thing is to play your own game and if you do that, the outcome will take care of itself. Other coaches feel that it is completely foolhardy NOT to scout your opponent. These coaches argue that going into a game being unprepared in this way is irresponsible and a total set up for failure. What do you believe?
Last year I met with a very talented college team who was in the process of running up a string of very impressive upsets. Unfortunately for them, these guys were at the wrong end of these upsets. This squad had developed the nasty habit of stealing defeat from the closing jaws of victory against seemingly weaker opponents. What was the problem? One thing the players consistently complained about was a lack of confidence.
Interesting enough, when they played well and dominated the game, they had no problem with their confidence. It was only an issue when the games got close and their opponents stepped up the intensity of the game. When this happened, cracks began to appear in the team’s confidence. As a result they began to play tight and tentatively. Of course, the minute the opposing team got a whiff of this, their own confidence increased and so did their level of play. Instead of being able to withstand and match their opponent’s intensity, this team appeared to crumble under the onslaught.
To the outside observer, this made no sense. The individual athletes on this team were quite experienced, very talented players. The team itself had had some decent success in past years in their Conference as well as in the NCAA tournament. Why, then, did they continue to wilt under pressure to essentially less skilled, weaker teams? The answer came out in this athletes only team meeting.
One of the captains began bitterly complaining about the coach. Before I share with you what he said, let me be frank here. Most teams, when given half a chance, will complain about you. Most of the time when I hear these complaints I don’t take them very seriously. As a coach you are often in a no-win position with your athletes. No matter what decisions you make, one or more of your athletes are going to be unhappy with you. That’s just life on the team and life being the coach. However, I try to remind athletes that as much as they may not like you and your methods, their job as a member of your team is to play the game to the best of their ability, NOT to evaluate your coaching. However, having said that, it sometimes pays for you to listen very carefully to your athletes’ complaints before dismissing them as just “athletes being athletes.” So the captain began, “I don’t know, but the way I see the problem is coach is always telling us before our games how good these guys are, and how if we’re not careful they’re going to kick our butts. I mean, even when they suck he says this and after a while you start believing him. We spend too much damn time thinking about our opponents and how f’en wonderful they’re supposed to be. He never tells us how good we are. He never builds us up. All he seems to do is beat us down. You know, ‘if we don’t watch out, they’ll beat us.’ I have to be honest here. I’m a senior on this team and some of these games I’ve gone into feeling completely intimidated, like I was a bloody freshman!”
When he was finished speaking a number of his teammates loudly agreed with him.
Herein lies the biggest problem with spending too much time and energy on your opponent during your scouting/planning sessions. If you do it the wrong way you risk completely psyching out and distracting your own team. Why?
Focusing too much on your opponent takes your concentration as an athlete away from YOU and your on-field job where it belongs. If your opponent’s skills, strengths and reputation are your primary focus going into and during a game, then you will go into that contest physically and mentally tight. Since being loose and relaxed are necessary prerequisites for peak performance, you will greatly increase the chances that you’ll choke and under perform.
Furthermore, let’s not forget the basic paradox of beating an opponent. IF YOU TRULY WANT TO COME OUT ON TOP, THEN THOUGHTS ABOUT YOUR OPPONENT MUST BE THE FARTHEST THING FROM YOUR MIND ON GAME DAY.
Now I know a lot of football coaches would not agree with me on this one. They spend all week viewing films and preparing and effective defense and offense to shut down and overrun the competition. However, I’ve worked with enough football players in every position over the years to know that what I’m saying is true. If you make the outcome of this game too important, if you make beating this opponent too important, if you spend too much time building up your opponent’s strengths, then you actually decrease the chances that your team will be successful.
The “Wizard of Westwood,” legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was at the other extreme of this argument. He was said to have NEVER scouted UCLA’s opponents. His attitude was very simple. He believed that if his team executed the way that they had been trained, it wouldn’t really matter what the opposing team did. In this way the focus always stayed on the players and their job, not on the opponent. Given UCLA’s 10 national championships, a lot can be said for Wooden’s strategy.
I’m not so sure that there are many coaches today who would go into a game completely “unprepared” like Coach Wooden. However, when you do present information on strengths and weaknesses to your athletes, it is imperative that you remember not to overdo it. Keep the information concise and simple. Spend more time focusing your players on their jobs. Emphasize your team’s strengths and abilities. Communicate your belief in their ability to effectively execute against this opponent. Go easy on how great the other guys are. The fact of the matter is that if you build the opposition up too much, your athletes’ fears and negative expectations will run away with them and when that happens you can kiss a good performance “goodbye.”