John Becker at Vermont talked about how long it took to get over last year’s loss in the America East Championship game before taking on UMBC again in this year’s title game. “I’ve been trying to find ways to make that game as loose as possible for us for a long time.”
It struck me as a very transparent quote, one that revealed the tension involved with being an elite team expected to win. It also underlined the pressure felt at the low and mid-major levels of college basketball, where 40 minutes often defines your season.
Come conference and NCAA Tournament time, everyone is looking for the best way to handle the pressure. We are all striving to get our teams to play their best in the biggest moments.
So how do you do it? What are the best ways to keep your team (and yourself) loose in the middle of one-and-done, NCAA Tournament pressure?
Playmakers mentality. I always emphasized with my team that I wanted playmakers in the post-season. Scared goes home this time of year. I want guys going out there willing to take a risk, to take a chance, to make a play. Everything is magnified in the post-season, especially the mistakes. Telling our guys we need playmakers to win set our mentality heading into the post-season and gave them confidence. Coach wants me making plays, he isn’t worried about making mistakes.
Make the first mistake. Speaking of mistakes, I’d tell my teams before games I wanted to make the first mistake of the game. Because I knew that mean we were ready to make plays, and we weren’t concerned with the result. It’s okay to make mistakes, as long as you are trying to make plays. If you are making mistakes because you are scared to make a mistake, we aren’t winning. Let’s make the first mistake so I know we are ready to make plays.
Find your own “next play” trigger as a head coach. This is really important, and something you can control as the boss. Everyone likes to preach the next play mentality, but it’s more than simply saying “next play.” When somebody screws up and they fell awful about it, you should have some sort of trigger that makes it clear to them that you have moved past what happened and there is a new task at hand. For me it was always “Get a stop.” Most of the physical mistakes took place when you were on offense, so my way of getting past it was to get the attention of the player who just screwed up, make sure they saw me, and say “We need a stop.” I didn’t address the bad decision, the turnover or the missed lay-up. They may think I’m still concerned about it, but I’m not. Right now, we need a stop. “Next play” tells them get over it, but “We need a stop” focuses them on the next most important thing. It gives them a task to think about, which hopefully gets them past the mistake they just made.
React unemotionally. Easier said than done, sure. But your team is always looking at you for cues, and when you react with heightened emotion they are going to do the same. Composure is such an effective weapon for a coach, and it’s even more important in the post-season. Even if you are heated at the officials, and not your team, your players are still feeling that emotion. A make, a miss, a turnover, a blown assignment, a great pass, a blown call – it’s all the same. If you want your team to be poised and composed down the stretch to be able to win the game, they need to see the same from you.
Embrace the difference. I’ve always been struck by how everything is different in the post-season. When you go to the NCAA Tournament, the structure of the game is even different – there are more time outs, the time outs last longer, half-time is different. Plus they limit your amount of practice time. It’s impossible not to see and feel the difference.
I hear Coach K talk about how “We try and treat every game the same.” I get that approach, and at Duke every game is probably like a rock concert anyway. The structure, the emotion, the hype, the consequences – they are all very different in the post-season. I’d rather recognize this with my players and actually talk about it then try and just shut it out by saying “Hey, this is just another game.” It’s not another game, and they know it. They feel it. So talk to them about that. Ask them what they are feeling. Tell them what you are feeling. Discuss the emotion of it and how to handle it.
When they show up for the game it is going to feel different. I’d rather talk about how we are going to handle that than act like it isn’t going to happen.
Talk about losing. That might sound odd, but I think it can help loosen your team up. Especially if your team is the favorite and has high expectations.
Villanova was a #2 seed one year playing #15 American and they were losing by 7 at halftime. Nova came back and won big in the second half. They asked Jay Wright what he said at halftime to his team, and his response was great. He said, “I told them, you know what guys? We might lose. We might lose today. And that’s okay. American is a good team. But it’s not okay if we lose because we are scared, or nervous, or tight. That’s not who we are. We are going to go out and play Villanova basketball, and as long as we compete the way we are capable of, if we lose, that’s okay.”
I’ve lost games in the post-season where our guys were extremely tight, expected to win, and couldn’t believe what was happening when things started to go wrong. And I wish at some point I had taken Jay Wright’s approach and talked to them about losing.
Laugh. Make sure they see you laugh in practice. And in games. And make sure they laugh as well. There can be so much tension when it comes to preparation for big games. Everyone has to be laser-focused and locked-in, that it’s easy to forget to have fun.
When someone makes an awful pass, or misses a shot by a mile, or trips over the free throw line when they are running back on defense, laugh about it. Stop practice and make sure the kids see you smile. Splice some different clips into a film session. Make fun of someone. And make fun of yourself.
Everyone knows the importance of the game. You don’t have to keep reinforcing it. Make sure they see you laugh, and make sure they laugh themselves. It sends the message that we are not taking ourselves too seriously, and that this is supposed to be fun. Let them be themselves and make sure the tension doesn’t take over.
Long-term focus on the process. It sounds cliche’ these days with all the “process over results” talk, but so much of your ability to handle the pressure of March comes from the foundation you build starting in September. Focus on what you are doing every day – the way you compete, the mentality you bring to practice, your willingness to sacrifice for each other. Do not let your kids get caught up in the results, or the things you can’t control. In a results-based business it isn’t that easy, but it’s crucial. And when you get to the post-season, it’s natural for your focus to remain the same – on what you do and who you are, not on winning and losing. That takes a lot of pressure off.
Long-term focus on competitive excellence. Competitive excellence involves not only competing, but handling the emotion of competing. It’s more than just playing hard. When your kids overreact emotionally throughout the year, hold them accountable. If a kid spikes the ball after a play, make the team run. If two guys are talking trash and it gets out of hand, put them on the line. Make it very clear that losing control of your emotions is unacceptable throughout the year. Instill in your team the importance of handling the emotional side day after day, so when the emotions are heightened in the post-season it’s not something you have to adjust to.