Picture this: your team is playing superbly for the first quarter of the game. Your players are moving the ball around smoothly, executing your offense flawlessly, clamping down on defense, and completely dominating your opponents. You even hit a basket at the buzzer ending the first quarter. Your team is cruising… until the second quarter starts.
For some unknown reason, your players start clanging their shots, throwing the ball away, and just flat-out playing poorly. What was a fifteen point lead for your team is now a one-point game. The cheering and jeering of the fans only compound matters. You quickly call timeout but have no idea what to tell your players especially since they’ve been following all your instructions to the letter.
Probably one of the greatest challenges coaches face is how to regain their team’s collective focus when their team starts playing badly. In the 2006 NBA Final, game 3 saw the Dallas Mavericks blowing a 13-point lead with 6:34 minutes left in the game to lose by 2. In the men’s semifinals in the recently concluded 2011 US Open tennis championships, world number one Novak Djocovic staved off two match points to beat former number one, Roger Federer.
The question here is, what can you do to avoid all these heartbreaking meltdowns? How do you plug that hole when the dam breaks?
Below are some simple mental strategies that you can use with your team when things start going south:
1. Inhale and exhale… deeply!
In one of our home games against our cross-town rivals when I still coached girls’ basketball in Texas, my players seemed tense and very nervous. Perhaps the pressure of beating our hated rivals in front of the home crowd was overwhelming for them. After ten minutes of listless play and a looming blowout, I huddled my players and did deep breathing exercises. I instructed the whole team to inhale together as deeply and slowly as they could. I then had them hold their breaths for 2 seconds, and then slowly exhale (again as deeply and slowly as they could) with another 2-count breath hold. I had them repeat this process four more times. When I saw that they had calmed down and were looking me in the eyes clearly, I started mapping out specific game instructions. What followed was a relaxed execution of plays and better all-around play.
Breathing is one of the most taken for granted natural abilities in sports. Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, is a crucial technique that coaches can use to relax their players quickly. How do you know your breathing the right way? Try this with your team: have your players lie down on the floor with one hand on their chest and the other on their stomach (a few centimeters above the navel). Have them breathe naturally and ask them which hand is moving. If the hand on the chest is the moving hand, then that means the player is breathing through the chest– not a good way to relax at all. It’s the hand on the stomach (the diaphragm!) that should move to ensure that deep breathing is taking place. Once your players master this lying down, they can try it standing up. Incorporate this breathing exercise in when your players stretch and warm up so that deep breathing becomes second nature to them.
2. Chunk your coaching
There are times when your team starts faltering because of a strong charge from your opponents that leaves your players dumbfounded. This is the time when it would be good to “chunk your coaching” when giving instructions during timeouts. Instead of focusing on what your players “generally” have to do to win the game, have them focus on a specific chunk of instructions for a specific time period. Instead of saying, “Let’s just tighten our defense and play harder,” you can say, “Ok, for the next five minutes of the game, do not let them score a single field goal.” This way, you make the task-at-hand more manageable and real for your players. This also makes them zero in on a singular aspect of the game thereby lessening the confusion caused by your opponent’s onslaught.
3. Imagine your play.
Imagery is always an effective strategy in performance enhancement. Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player to ever play basketball, used a lot of imagery during his playing days. On recounting his visions before hitting the winning shot in the 1982 NCAA championship game, he said:
“I’m daydreaming about hitting a winning shot. I remember I was so calm, so relaxed… I envisioned being a hero in a game. I saw myself hitting the game-winning shot…”
While you may never have a player of his caliber on your team, you can take advantage of the same technique MJ used as a player.
During timeouts, calm your players with a few breathing exercises (see tip #1), and then have them close their eyes (don’t worry, you’re all huddled so your players won’t feel so silly in front of the fans) and imagine that special quick-hitting play you’ve been practicing for a month. You can even guide them by describing the specific play you want while they imagine it quietly (of course this will work with a play that your players already know). For example, you can say, “On Jasmine’s ball slap at the inbounds, Karen runs to the ball as a decoy. Cristina flashes to the elbow while Elena sets a screen on the block for Arianna who pops out of the baseline to catch and shoot the game-winner after Jasmine’s pass.”
This technique allows your players to map out predetermined bodily moves in their brain, thereby making the execution more efficient.
4. Make them laugh, and then rein them in
Sometimes, all you need is a good laugh to break the tension and start playing well. In one of our district games against a team that was highly-touted as a surefire title-contender, I noticed how intimidated my players were and how this was causing them to make a lot of silly mistakes. Instead of ripping them in the ensuing timeout, I decided to make fun of their mistakes in a good-natured way. The unexpected ribbing from me led to laughter from the team. I saw them loosen up and get more settled. That’s when I drew their attention back to what they had to do. Remember, the danger about breaking tension with laughter is that if you don’t redirect it to what you want them to execute, it can backfire and lead to players just messing around with the game. So as soon as humor has served its purpose, redirect your players quickly to your game instructions so that you are able to take advantage of the relaxed atmosphere and renewed focus of your players.
All these techniques may sound like common sense. And they really are commonsensical tips simply because we want to utilize the most common (and most powerful) resource our players have– their minds.
Next time, when things start going badly and you see your huge lead evaporate, let your players breathe deeply, listen to chunked coaching, imagine their success, and have a healthy laugh. Regaining your players’ game-time focus has never been this easy and effective.