Four Tips for Coaching Championship Games

From the editor:  In light of the USA Women’s Soccer Team and its unfortunate loss yesterday to Japan in the World Cup – this article is particularly timely.  Not only did the US team fail to hold leads on two different occasions, they were out-hustled by a Japanese team that kept on coming. Coming back at the end of regulation, performing marvelously in overtime, the Japanese women clearly outclassed the USA in the shootout with 3 goals to 1, proving that goal keeper Hope Solo is truly human after all. Perhaps the brightest performance on the US team came from the bench as Alex Morgan wowed the standing-room-only crowd with breakaway speed and explosive offense, serving notice that she is a force to be dealt with in the years to come.

by Noah Gentner, PhD, CC-AASP, USOC Registry

Stop Lying to Yourself: All Games are NOT Created Equal

The coach said, “We’re just going to treat this like any other game.”  It’s a refrain we hear over and over again from athletes and coaches before big competitions.  In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, World Series, World Cup, Master’s, or Wimbledon we are inundated with athletes claiming that “it’s just another game.”  There’s one big problem with that:  Coaches need to clarify for their athletes that NOT all games are created equal.

Several years ago I was speaking with a college lacrosse coach who was remembering his team’s first trip to the NCAA Final Four.  The Final Four was being played in Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium (the Baltimore Raven’s stadium) in front of a crowd of thousands.  He remembered seeing his players, who were accustomed to playing in small venues with minimal crowds, in awe of the enormous stadium and crowd.  He felt that his team was unprepared to deal with all of the emotions involved with playing in the Final Four and in such a big stadium.  Ultimately, they succumbed to the moment and ended up losing their game.

What I found most interesting was that the coach said that in the week leading up to the game they kept repeating the mantra “It’s just like any other game.”  They felt like that was the best way to prepare.  You can’t really blame them considering it’s what we regularly see and hear from collegiate and professional athletes.  Unfortunately, what this coach came to realize was that it wasn’t just like any other game.  It was the Final Four and it was being played in an NFL stadium.  As much as they tried to convince themselves otherwise it wasn’t just another game.

So why do athletes and coaches continue to lie to themselves?  Some of it is out of habit and modeling what they see on TV.  However, much of it comes from the belief that the best way to control their emotions before a big game is to pretend that all games are the same.  If they imagine that the championship game is no different than a regular season game then, in their minds, they are less likely to get nervous.  The problem is not all games are created equal and we know it.  There’s an old saying that you can lie to other people but you can’t lie to yourself.  When we truly believe something it can be very difficult to change our minds.  No matter how many times we try to convince ourselves otherwise, deep down we know the truth.  With very few exceptions, athletes know that certain games are more important than others.  Deep down inside they know that not all opponents or games are created equal.  So, no matter how much coaches ask them to say, “It’s just another game,” their minds (and in turn their bodies) know better.

What is the end result of all this lying?  Most team’s experiences are similar to those of the lacrosse team mentioned above.  While players spend weeks trying to convince themselves that it’s just another game, deep down inside they know it’s much more important than that.  Therefore, they experience all the anxiety and emotions one would expect before a big game.  Unfortunately, they are often unable to regulate those emotions because they didn’t prepare for them.  On the contrary they tried to prepare as if they wouldn’t have those emotions.  Ultimately, coaches are left with players who are not only anxious but also do not have the ability to control that anxiety.

I think we should stop the lying.  What’s wrong with being honest?  We all know that championship games, rivalry games, and big tournaments are more important than other games.  Why do we keep trying to convince ourselves otherwise?  Let’s start being honest with ourselves and our players.  Once we accept that different games will bring out different emotions then we can prepare for those feelings and how to deal with them.  Big games often bring about greater anxiety.  Why not prepare yourself and your team for that?  Coaches spend hours preparing for the challenges that different teams present.  They wouldn’t dare enter a game without first scouting their opponent and assessing their strengths and weaknesses.  Why can’t they prepare their team equally as well for the challenges that different games and venues present?

The fact is that not all games are created equal.  You can’t prepare exactly the same for each game.  Each game presents unique challenges.  In order to conquer those challenges we need to be prepared for them and have strategies for overcoming them.  The best way we can do that is to be honest with ourselves, understand and accept the challenges ahead of us, and do everything we can to defeat them.  So, stop lying because we all know it’s NOT just another game.

Ultimately the question is:  As a coach what can I do to best prepare my team for a big game?  Here are four tips for coaching teams that are vying for Championships:

  • Be honest about the upcoming game and the emotions your players are likely to feel.  Before big games they are more likely to be anxious and over-aroused whereas “less important” games might bring about boredom, lack of focus, or a business-as-usual attitude.
  • Help your players develop strategies to deal with those emotions.  Before a big game you might use one of Coach John Gagliardi’s methods of having players practice relaxation techniques such as breathing and imagery during practice.  (He must be doing something right as he has more wins than any coach in college football history.)  Usually coaches work to keep players energized and focused by reminding them to concentrate on the process (i.e., playing the “right” way or playing a “perfect” game) and presenting them with small goals or challenges (e.g., limit turnovers, increase time of possession, shoot above 50%, etc.).  These are not neglected in Championship preparation – but the stress factors can limit a player’s ability to remember the things that got them there.  So remind them of those challenges and keeping their focus sharp while practicing the methods to keep their arousal manageable.
  • Assess your players’ emotional state in the days leading up to the game.  As you prepare for the game it is important to identify what your players need from you.  As Ben Freakley, Assistant Men’s Soccer Coach at Georgia Southern University, once told me sometimes they need you to yell and scream to get them excited and other times they need you to be a calming influence.
  • Practice what you’ve preached.  You have now spent the days leading up to the game reminding your players to use their relaxation techniques or focus on the process and the small challenges you have given them.  Now, as the game is about to begin, you should remind them to utilize those techniques during the game.  This should be part of your “game plan” and that additional preparation will enable your team to brings its best in an especially challenging arena.





Noah Gentner, Ph.D., CC-AASP is a Professor in the Fitness and Health Promotion, Exercise Science and Lifestyle Management program at Humber College in Toronto, Canada.  He received his Ph.D. in Sport Psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2004 and has served as a Department Chair/Assistant Professor at Tennessee Wesleyan College and later  he accepted a position 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 took a position at Georgia Southern University where he coordinated the Master’s program in Sport Psychology and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in Sport Psychology and Coaching Education.  Dr. Gentner has published 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 programs at Humber College he can be reached at [email protected] or 416-675-6622 ext. 4406.




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