Every coach, manager, teacher, trainer, parent and player wants the same thing: To rise to the occasion and play their best when it matters most.
What is the biggest challenge? …NERVES. With teaching and training done, how do we prevent the wheels from coming off when they take the field?
I used to battle this in my college classroom. Every time I gave an exam, I’d hand out the test blanks and watch the same kids fall apart. They were diligent kids, hard-working and smart, but they totally got in their own way on test day. Sleeplessness, exhaustion, anxiety and fear took their toll.
The thing is… life is full of tests: opportunities to prove what you know, how good you are, and how much you’re worth. What a pressure-cooker we live in! But the second you let in that negative thought, you’ve had it. All your preparation goes out the window. Brain circuitry ignites the fear center, the failure reminder, and the fault-meter. Anxiety overwhelms reason and regular brain processing stands down. Under these circumstances, retrieving what you’ve learned or performing in the way you’ve been trained is nearly impossible.
High performers have mastered this; even when the stake are high, high-performers consistently bring all they’ve got, with a laser focus and a honed edge. How can we facilitate this?
Short Answer: not with extra hype, enthusiasm and cheerleading.
This occurred to me during the first game of the National League Division Series playoffs between the Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals. Nats Park was electrified with fanfare, music, and hype. Pre-game introductions were greeted with roars, and blazing red fireworks flared in the western sky as the home team took the field. The sellout crowd was armed with cardboard K’s and nearly 44,000 were on their feet for every two-strike count.
This felt exciting and it allowed them (whoever they are) to charge higher prices… for tickets, concessions, food, beverage and parking. But this does not make for better baseball. Instead, turning up the volume resulted in over-doing, over-throws and errors. Their usually aggressive hitting was replaced by cautious takes which ended in strikeouts.
We want to send our kids up there swinging for the seats, not worried about making a mistake on the big stage. We know what they can do, but how do we help them do it?!
Well, as for the Nats — whose season is now over — trying harder, pushing further, and wanting more has left them short of success. I am partially to blame, standing here with my K sign, urging them to stomp on the accelerator! These guys have had a terrific season, with prodigious run production, league-leading pitching, exciting speed, power and talent. What we really want isn’t better post season play, we want them to play the way they’ve played all year, tuned in, turned up and released as lightning in a bottle.
To do this they need to be, as Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell put it, “better masters of themselves.”
Pre-game hype is not better for the performance of players, protégés or prodigies. When I see those players on the field, cogs in the cauldron of sports fans’ frenzy, I wonder if I could EVER perform my best under such circumstances? NEVER!
Acknowledging that, I put down my “K” sign and tried – amid a roaring crowd of 43,898 – to send the same calming vibes to my Nats that I sent to those college students who were trying so hard but having little success on exam day.
Here is what is needed on BIG game day:
- Focus – shut out the distractions, cast off the doubts and tune into the work at hand. Have a mantra. “You can do this.” “There’s plenty of time.” “Right here. Right now.” “See it hit it.” “Ball ball ball.”
- Trust your practice – the preparation you’ve done to get you here is enough to get you through. Remember it. Key into it. Rehearse it. Envision it. Activate it. Let your body do what it knows how to do.
- Play your game – you are in command of this performance/at-bat/exam. Expand this moment. Slow it down. Decide on your game plan. Commit to it completely. This is your game to win. Pull up your socks like a champion, even before you are one. “Fake it till you make it” is a full-on success strategy. #TonyDiCicco
THE KEY: The mental capacity to be a competitor must be practiced to be enhanced.
That’s the rub with post season. It’s very hard to anticipate, articulate, pretend or presume what it will feel like to perform in the biggest game of our lives. But preparation for this moment comes with all the pressure moments — when coaches, parents and people who care about our being our best demand that we perform:
- under time pressure,
- when the score is tight,
- when the conditions are unfavorable,
- when the chips are down,
- when we are pushed to call on all our resources,
- without a safety net or the promise of a test retake or a consolation game.
That’s when we become our most competent selves, and when we prove to ourselves what we know, how good we are, and what we’re worth. It becomes a part of us that no one can take away.
The irony of sport is: the best team — the most skilled and talented team — doesn’t always win.
Here’s some encouragement for coaches, managers, teachers, trainers, and parents who refuse to give up on performing during the post season. Tell your players and yourself:
- to keep doing what you did that got you here. Remember who you are. Do what works. Trust that it will be enough.
- that becoming “better masters of ourselves” is a tall order and a life-long project. Worry, doubt, and uncertainty will surely try to derail us. Master that. Switch off that channel. You may not win, but that’s the only way to be a winner.
- that today’s post season is a process, not an endgame, and it will apply to everything we do. Life is full of tests which are all about rising to the occasion.
It’s been a great season, Washington Nationals! Sorry to see you go down. There is always next post season. Let’s see if we can re-invent the rules so that Good Guys Finish First. #SameSeats #OnePursuit