A re-post from a few years ago by request of a few coaches…
I don’t think there is a specific formula that helps you win in the post-season. Billy Beane always said the MLB playoffs are a “crapshoot,” and there is a lot of truth to that. So much goes into winning and losing a game, and in college we are dealing with 18 year old kids. So many results in the post-season come down to the bounce of the ball, a freak injury or an unlucky whistle. And every team has a different personality. What works for one team might not connect with another team – even year after year in the same program.
Still, as coaches we have to do as much as we can to get our teams ready to win in a do-or-die situation. The post-season usually offers a little bit of time to rest, adequate time to prepare and a one game season that only continues if you win. A great year can take place in the space of one weekend tournament, but a major disappointing failure is right in front of you as well. So what are the things you think about when trying to get your team ready to win in the post-season?
In my 9 years at RIC we had a lot of success in the post-season, posting a 21-3 record in our conference tournament and winning 6 titles in 8 years. Overall we were 34-12 including the NCAA Tournament. We are working had to establish the same mentality at the University of Maine. It’s helpful for me to look back on the approach we used that helped lead to our post-season success.
Recognize desperation. There is a different emotion in the conference tournament – desperation. It’s not the same as the regular season. Most teams are in a one-and-done situation and desperation brings a different level of energy to each game. Talk about it and be prepared for it.
Expect the unexpected. During the regular season most teams want to establish their own style of play. They want to play their way. But in a one-game playoff teams are more likely – especially the bad teams – to do whatever it takes to beat you in that game. You might see something different than you’ve seen all year. Tell your team to expect the unexpected. You might see something you haven’t prepared for, don’t let it affect the way you play.
Scared goes home. We tell our kids to take a chance. To take risks. To make plays. We want playmakers in the post-season. If you are tentative and thinking about the result, you are going home. Sometimes this goes against what you are feeling as a coach – you are nervous about all of the things that might go wrong. But it’s important to get your team to play without fear. Give them the license to go out and make mistakes, so they won’t be afraid to make plays.
Take more time off. We always took an extra day off before the NCAA tournament. We wanted to take 2 days off per week. We still practiced hard, but our practices were a little bit shorter – generally between 90 minutes and 1:45. It’s important to resist the urge to over coach and manage every detail of the scouting report. I never wanted to cripple my guys with too much information. Keep their minds clear, stay rested and let them play.
Eliminate winning from the conversation. The result is final, and could mean the end. So I never wanted my guys thinking about the results. We talked about who we were, our culture, being ourselves despite the importance of the game. And it was OK to talk about losing. We’d talk about it matter-of-factly, to also eliminate the fear of the result. We may lose, but that’s fine if we go out and compete without fear. Keep the emphasis off the results.
Don’t add new stuff. I never liked putting new stuff in to prepare for a post-season game. The pressure and intensity will be great, you don’t want to give your guys more to think about. Trust what you do, and fine-tune it. I don’t think we’re going to be successful trying to run new stuff in a post-season game.
Lighten the mood. Find ways to keep practice light. Cut the intensity by laughing at something funny that happens. Don’t get me wrong, have the same intense practices you have all year. But it’s OK to find a way to laugh every now and then in the middle of it, so your kids understand – this is a big deal, but it’s not the end of the world.
Don’t be afraid to sub. I’ve never been a big believer in tightening the rotation down the stretch. Play the guys that have allowed you to be successful. Stay with your rotation. The nerves that force you to keep your key guys on the floor for big minutes can end up costing you in the end. Stick with the rotation and trust your subs. Staying fresh is a big key to winning tough, close games in the post-season.
Don’t react. Stay on an even keel and try not to react to anything that happens. A quick emotional reaction to stuff that takes place – either good or bad – will get your guys on edge. That’s not what you want. Keep it all inside and stay composed, and your tea will too.
Have fun with it. You’ve trained all year to be ready to play in this environment. Loud, energetic crowds are great to play in front of. Enjoy the atmosphere and feed off the energy. Address it with your team and prepare them to enjoy it. Whatever the atmosphere you are going to play in, talk to your team about it so they’ll be ready for it.
Prepare the same way all year. These games are won in October and November, not March. Your long-term approach should prepare your team to win big games in tough environments. Think about post-season games all year. You should be prepared to win these games with what you do all year long. When you do that, all you have to do in the post-season is be yourself.