by Jeff Smith
The first high school tournament I coached started promisingly. Our team finished in second place in our pool to earn a spot in the playoffs. In the quarterfinals we faced the No. 1 seed, which featured the most imposing player in the tournament, a 6-foot dynamo who dominated the net with her hitting and blocking and possessed the most dangerous jump serve in the field. No one expected our team to have a chance against the tournament favorites.
With no pressure on our shoulders and nothing to lose, our team played loose and free early, building a 19-13 lead in a single-elimination set to 25 points. But, standing just six points from a huge upset and a berth in the semifinals, our mood turned from fun to fearful. We began focusing on the scoreboard and took our eyes off the process of playing solid volleyball. Our performance suffered as a result. Our six-point advantage quickly disappeared. Trailing 24-23, one of our team's most reliable servers fittingly ended the loss by shanking a serve into the net.
Afterwards, we went home kicking ourselves for letting our mood suddenly change from footloose to foot in the mouth in a matter of seconds.
Have you or your team experienced this kind of defeat? You're not alone. Most teams from the professional ranks down to recreational leagues go through this same thing at some point. It's commonly referred to as choking or "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." Even the world's greatest athletes have had infamous moments where they've tightened up and lost a game or match they probably should have won.
The age-old question is how do you avoid the so-called "gag reflex"? Here are five lessons I've learned, and re-learned, while coaching -- and occasionally choking -- over the last 20 years.
See each game as an opportunity, not an obstacle.
Whether you're playing in the finals of a tournament or against a higher-seeded opponent or in a single-elimination match, your perspective influences your performance more than anything. If you think of what you could lose out on if your team is defeated -- losing the championship trophy, getting ousted from the tournament, squandering a shot at the playoffs -- you're more likely to experience a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But if you focus instead on the possibilities in front of you -- winning the championship trophy, advancing in the tournament, earning a shot at the playoffs -- your whole mindset changes.
- When we play a tougher opponent it's an opportunity to see what we're made of, learn how much we've progressed as a team and test our skills against a strong foe.
- When we compete in a single-elimination tournament, it's an opportunity to experience the thrill of winning elimination games and display the heart, character, talent and unity that we know we have as a team in an exciting format that brings out the best in teams like ours.
- When we participate in the finals of a tournament, it's an opportunity to show our stuff, experience the highest of highs and support and celebrate with each other on club volleyball's biggest and brightest stage.
Embrace the moment.
I used to dread close games as a high school basketball player. It showed in my play. My last game in high school I bricked a wide-open jump shot from the foul line with 10 seconds left in regulation that would have tied the score.
As a coach, though, with more maturity under my belt and a perspective seasoned by lots of last-second losses as a player, I learned to love and relish the excitement of a closely contested game.
When you go into a playoff match or the deciding set of a match with the mindset that what you're doing is fun and thrilling to be part of, it drowns out your fears and changes your whole point of view. You then control your emotions instead of your emotions controlling you, and the moment at hand brings out the best in you. You revel in these moments instead of fearing them.
As a coach, I tell my players often during huddles and between sets of a "big" match that "This is so much fun. I love these moments. Enjoy every point of this." It makes a significant difference to your players when they see and hear you embracing the moment.
Focus on the process, not on the outcome.
It takes a conscious effort to ignore the scoreboard and set your attention on the process of doing the best you can with your serving, passing, setting, hitting, blocking, digging and supporting one another. And it never seems to carry over from match to match. Once one game is over, you have to consciously tell yourself to focus on the process and not the outcome in the next game, too. It takes discipline and intentionality.
But it is very much worth it.
The more you do this, the more it becomes a trained habit. You'll find yourself so absorbed in a game that the scoreboard doesn't seem to exist or matter. My school team was playing in the conference tournament finals last fall. The match was hard fought for three sets before we made a huge run and won the championship. Funny thing is, my reaction to winning was different than my players. I didn't realize it was match point until seeing my players run to the middle of the court to celebrate. I was so immersed in the process that I hadn't been looking at the scoreboard.
This is more than ironic since, as a player, the scoreboard dominated my attention sometimes to my detriment. It took years of practice to develop this new habit.
Be relentlessly optimistic.
Due to my own insecurities as a player, I learned as a coach to establish a positive environment for my own players during high-pressure games. I knew from my own experience that some of them would be nervous heading into a championship match or important game. They didn't need me making matters worse by being too tough on them or berating them. They needed support.
As a teammate or coach, the more positive you can be with your words, your tone of voice and your body language (all three are crucial), the better off your team will be. If your teammate botches a key serve, be the first player to give her a fist bump or a word of encouragement. If your players start struggling in serve receive, give them a quick tip of what to do ("Remember: quiet platform") and, more importantly, a reminder that they'll be fine. ("We've got this.") If you shank a pass out of bounds, maintain a positive "I'll get the next one" posture; your teammates are watching you.
"We'll get it right back. Next one's ours" is one of my pet phrases; it communicates belief in our team and tells everyone to forget the last point and focus solely on the next one.
Sometimes you'll have to be creative with your optimism when your team is especially uptight about a game. For his team's biggest matches, a coaching colleague of mine gives his team a "term of the day." It's a silly term that he makes up and uses during the match to help keep his players loose.
I started using his strategy in recent years. Last spring at Diggin' in the Dells our team was missing our starting outside hitters but had won our pool and reached the crossover gold medal bracket match. I knew some of the kids would be nervous about the match, particularly the players who were playing new positions in the lineup, so I came up with the term "fuzzy noodles" as our motto for the match. Yes, fuzzy noodles is a dorky term. That was the point. When we broke from a team huddle, we chanted 1-2-3 fuzzy noodles. If a player was looking fearful, I just called out "fuzzy noodles" and it seemed to break the tension with laughter.
The girls ended up winning the match to reach the gold bracket in part because we played loose, focused, hungry and confident. I wish I'd known this lesson back in my playing days.
Remind yourself and your teammates that this is a game.
If all else fails, as a coach or player you can tell your players or teammates the bottom-line truth: This is only a game. It's not World War III or a final exam. It's fun. Let's smile, celebrate each point like crazy and enjoy the moment. We've got this.
That simple reminder can deflate the pressure of a close match and put your team in the proper mindset to play loose, focused, hungry and free.
What do you do to be at your best in a big game?
Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.