Stick to Your Strengths…Do them Well

Analyzing Virginia Tech’s Comeback from a 17-0 Deficit Against Boise State

by Noah Gentner, PhD, CC-AASP

On Monday night Virginia Tech and Boise State played the biggest game of college football’s opening weekend.  They were both top 10 teams with national championship hopes.  Adding to the intrigue was the belief that, with a win, Boise St. could punch their ticket to the National Championship game (mainly because the rest of their schedule is as weak and watered-down as the drinks in a Vegas casino).  In the end, Boise St. walked away with a 33-30 win and now we can spend the next 4 months arguing about their national championship resume.

While the result of the game was certainly interesting and I am excited to hear everyone’s arguments for and against Boise St. in the coming months, something happened earlier in the game which I found much more fascinating.  In fact, it was something that can help us all improve our performance in sport and life.

Due to some good plays by Boise St. and some of their own errors in judgment, Virginia Tech found themselves down 17-0 early in the game.  Boise St. was in complete control of the game and I was preparing myself for a blowout.  It looked like I wasn’t the only one too because the Tech fans in the stands looked shell-shocked and miserable.  Trailing by 17 points to a top 5 team is certainly not an enviable position and it wouldn’t have been surprising if the Tech players gave up and accepted defeat.  In fact, facing a similar situation most teams respond in one of two ways:

  1. Give up and accept defeat.

Teams who choose this option typically turn a 17-0 score into a 42-3 defeat.  They quit trying, start blaming eachother, make excuses, and make a bad situation even worse.  (Sulking note of the day: As a Chicago Bears fan I saw this option a few times last year).

  1. Pull out all the stops in an attempt to make a miraculous comeback.

This option is certainly preferable to the former but often ends up with the same result.  Of course it is nice that the team refuses to quit but they often try things which are so out of character that the game spirals out of control.  This response is very common in basketball.  When teams find themselves down by 20 points in the first half they often resort to extreme measures to get back in the game.  The 7-foot center who can’t even make a free-throw starts shooting 3-pointers and the team abandons their normal offense for a “one pass and chuck” philosophy (make one pass and then shoot a 3-pointer).  Football teams who are down big early often abandon their running game for a risky downfield passing game.  In baseball every player starts trying to hit a homerun.  In the end, this response leads teams to play outside of their comfort zone and, with few exceptions, results in a big loss.

Faced with those two options, Virginia Tech chose “none of the above.”  Actually, they chose the third, and best, option.

  1. Stick to your strengths and do them to the best of your ability.  Or as I call it: DO LESS…REALLY WELL.

Rather than giving up or pulling out all the stops, Virginia Tech stuck to their game plan, played to their strengths, and tried to do that to the best of their ability.  They allowed their playmakers, QB Tyrod Taylor and RB Ryan Williams (who despite only rushing for 44 yard looked like an absolute beast), to make plays.  They very easily could have started throwing the ball downfield (which is not their strength) and tried to score a touchdown on every play.  Instead they did less…really well by focusing on their strengths and execution and they quickly were back in the game.  In fact, with 6:34 left in the 3rd quarter they took the lead 21-20 on a Williams’ touchdown run.

What Virginia Tech demonstrated was the importance and art of recovery.  One characteristic of all great athletes and teams is that they have the ability to recover.  We are all good on our best days, when things are going our way.  However, not all of us have the ability to perform well on our bad days or when the deck is stacked against us.  Great athletes and teams aren’t just good on their best days; they find a way to be good on their bad days as well.  Baseball pitchers often talk about the importance of pitching well despite not having their “best stuff”.  Tiger Woods (in his better days) would often win tournaments despite saying he didn’t have his “A game”.  Great athletes and teams have the ability to recover.

Unfortunately, athletes and coaches spend so much time trying to make things perfect that they fail to address what they will do if things aren’t ideal.  If things go well they are fine, but once things go downhill they often don’t know how to respond.  Ken Ravizza, who is one of the most well-known Sport Psychology Consultants in the world, likes to use the phrase, “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”  His point is that things aren’t always going to go your way so you might as well prepare for that.  The most successful athletes and teams are those who can deal with difficult circumstances and recover.  How do they do it?  Just as Virginia Tech did on Monday; it’s actually a very simple process:

  • Stick to your strengths
  • Focus on doing them to the best of your ability

Of course this doesn’t guarantee that you will win (Virginia Tech DID lose the game on Monday) but it gives you the best chance to be victorious.  When things don’t go well our initial reaction is to panic and do something to fix it.  In essence, we try to do more.  People often refer to this as trying to hit an 8-run homerun or make a 10-point basket.  Of course, both of those things are impossible and often lead to more problems.  When we try to do more we end up getting ourselves into more trouble.  What we really need to do is act like Virginia Tech and DO LESS…REALLY WELL.  Resist the urge to get it all back with one play, stick to your strengths, and focus on performing them to the best of your ability.  You might not win but, more often than not, you’ll give yourself the chance.

Noah Gentner, Ph.D., CC-AASP is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Sport Psychology graduate program at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA.  He received his Ph.D. in Sport Psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2004.  Gentner served as an Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College.  During his four years at IC he helped coordinate the undergraduate and graduate programs in Sport Psychology.  In 2009 he began his current position at GSU where in addition to coordinating the graduate program he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Sport Psychology and Coaching Education.  He has published his research in several journals and has given presentations on Sport Psychology at worldwide and regional Sport Psychology, Coaching, and Athletic Training Conferences.  Currently he is completing a book on Sport Psychology Consulting techniques.  He is an Association for Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant and since 2000 he has worked with individual athletes, teams, and coaches ranging from youth sport to professional levels.  For further inquiries or information about Dr. Gentner’s services or the graduate program at Georgia Southern he can be reached at [email protected] or 912-478-7900.

One thought on “Stick to Your Strengths…Do them Well

  • September 10, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Nice point about sticking with your plan regardless of outcome. Certainly there is always room for change and adaption, yet I receive your point that one must not try to do something that is not their strength to overcome adversity. Thanks.


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