What is the difference between the fourth game of the regular season and a Championship game?
Is the football field 10 yards longer, the basket 1 foot taller or the bases 10 feet further? Of course not. But, in the heat of competition, where the loser goes home and the winner gets to practice tomorrow, the game can speed up and fall apart very quickly.
Playoff time is better than any reality TV show. The intensity that arises from unscripted competition is palpable, as every San Francisco Giants fan can bear witness to the torture that accompanies a World Series victory.
In the 2010 World Series, the Texas Rangers seemed loose, relaxed and having fun, even though they were down 0-2. They claimed that they were not approaching the games any differently. In the other clubhouse, there were reports that Tim Lincecum was dancing and joking around before his start in Game 5, and we all know the outcome.
Both teams appeared loose, yet when pressure situations arose, the Rangers fell apart very quickly. The suddenness of events in playoff games often expose mental and physical weaknesses, as It does not matter how one acts before a game, it matters how they react during critical moments in the heat of competition.
Over the next few weeks, many high school athletes and teams will begin embarking on their own championship quest and will endure their own forms of torture along the way. Knowing what is at stake, athletes often place more importance on every play because it may be the last.
We practice our sport for moments like these. Yet, it is very difficult to recreate the intensity of a game, let alone a playoff game. Since we cannot truly replicate pressure situations in practice, it becomes imperative that we train for pressure situations in other ways.
This brings us back to the fourth game of the season. How one prepares and performs in this game is very indicative of how they will perform in playoff competition. It is not easy to treat all games the same and there is no magic fairy dust that will allow you to tune out the magnitude of what is at stake.
When athletes “think too much” in critical situations, they are not really thinking too much, they are usually thinking about the wrong things at the wrong time. The “wrong things” involve both the hope for positive plays and the fear of what will happen when mistakes, especially mistakes executing routine plays, are made.
Since we know that more is at stake in playoff games, athletes become vulnerable of falling into the “either/or” mindset. This mindset is influenced by emotional reactions to events during competition that are both within and beyond their control. These mood swings create mental fatigue because athletes start expending too much mental energy reacting to events during a game instead of staying strategic and focusing on what is under their immediate control.
In preparing athletes and teams for the realities of playoff competition, I often ask each individual to consider the most basic requirements of their given position, execution of routine plays and the responsibilities of the given roles each athlete has within the team or sport.
I believe that many athletes get too far ahead of themselves in playoff games and mentally fast-forward to the possible end result of critical plays, instead of thinking about the most basic, fundamental elements or “little things” that are required of them to perform correctly.
Thinking about the “little things” is defined as focusing on the aspects of your performance you control, right here, in the moment. This translates into what your responsibilities are in the execution of this play. Focusing on your responsibilities, instead of focusing on wanting to make the big play or not wanting to make a mistake, allows athletes to stay mentally under control through the highs and lows in a game.
Athletes and teams who learn to treat Game Four of the season the same way as the Championship Game are successful in focusing on aspects within a competition they can control. This is an acquired skill that needs to be practiced, yet too often, there is an exclusive focus on physical and fundamental skills, at the expense of integrating mental purpose into physical preparation.
Purposeful preparation instills confidence by helping athletes develop competencies that need to be utilized in critical performance situations. The more consistent this preparation is, throughout a season, the less likely athletes and teams will become victims of playoff pressure.
In the end, the game does not change because you are playing for a championship. What changes, is our perceptions, because as we get so close to the prize, it becomes too easy to think about the prize, itself, instead of focusing on the “little things” that will give you the best chance to realize your dream and win your last game.