June 26, 2013 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Coaching athletes to keep calm under pressure

Does your team have a tendency to self-destruct during late-game, high-pressure situations?

Do you have athletes who mentally short-circuit under pressure?

Does your game plan and the things you worked on all week in practice go out the window when your players are under stress?

Teach players to react under pressure

As humans, stress and pressure can cause us to do some strange and unusual things. Just about everyone remembers former University of Michigan basketball player Chris Webber’s infamous timeout call in the closing seconds of the 1993 national championship game. Even though his coach, Steve Fisher, had just reminded the team  members they were out of timeouts, Webber ended up caught in a trap and signaled timeout. The ill-timed decision helped seal a national championship for North Carolina.

Too much stress hurts your athletes physically with tight muscles, a loss of coordination, shallow breathing, rapid heart rates and excessive sweating, and it also scrambles your players’ brains.

Athletes under stress have a hard time tuning into your coaching, processing what you ask them to do and executing their roles and responsibilities. They have trouble focusing on the task at hand, making smart decisions and feel overwhelmed, confused and harried. It’s no wonder the breakdowns during crunch-time often are the result of mental breakdowns and not physical ones.

As a coach, you play a huge role in helping your athletes manage stressful situations. Many of your athletes take their cues from you, so it is critical you learn how to manage stressful situations.

Seven tips to keep calm

1. Show the face your team needs to see. One of the best lines from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s book, “’Leading with the Heart,’” is, “”A leader must show the face his teams needs to see.””

As one of the top coaches during March, Coach K reminds you to manage your own emotions under pressure if you expect your players to do the same. Regardless of how you actually feel internally, externally you must show your players confidence when they are doubtful, composure when they are panicked and optimism when they have given up.

2. Reframe pressure as a fun challenge. Not to be outdone by Duke, former North Carolina men’s basketball coach Dean Smith also has a great book called, “’The Carolina Way.’” One of the interesting points in the book was that Smith’s former players were always amazed by how calm he was in late-game scenarios.

Even though North Carolina was down in several situations, the players remembered that Smith always conveyed that the team was right where they wanted to be. He often remarked in the pressure-packed situation, “Isn’’t this fun?” or ““Wouldn’t it be great to come back and win this one?”” Take the pressure off your players and reframe the situation as a fun challenge.

3. The eyes have it. Pay particular attention to your athletes’ eyes in pressure situations. Checking their eyes is one of the best ways to tell if a player is focused and hearing what you are saying. A player’s eyes give you a good indication of what is going on in his/her head. If you see the dreaded “deer in headlights” look, do your best to refocus them quickly or consider getting a sub in the game if possible.

4. Know who thrives in pressure situations. Know which of your players want to step up in pressure situations and which ones are afraid. As Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt says, “”When we are trying to decide who should take our last-second shot, we need to know who wants the ball.”” Be sure that you put those players who want to step up in pressure situations in a position to make the plays as much as possible.

5. Go with what they know. Take the advice of the late, legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach on this one. Auerbach said, “”With my teams, when we’’d be down to the end of a game and we’d have a timeout, I wouldn’t make my players nervous. I wouldn’t pull out a clipboard and give them a new play. To me that makes them nervous. Why can’t you come down with 20 seconds to go and say, ‘Hey, run the four play. Execute it right.’””

Auerbach understood that players need to go with what they know in pressure-packed situations. Avoid the temptation of throwing something new at your players because odds are it will confuse them and not your opponents. Simulate late-game situations regularly in practice so your players can develop the confidence necessary to trust themselves and each other in the crunch time.

6. Focus your players on what you want them to do. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a coach unwittingly say, “”Whatever you do, don’t foul,” ““Don’’t fumble,” “No wild pitches or passed balls,” or “No service errors.”

Mentioning and focusing your players solely on the negative things you want them to avoid only plants the seed of doubt in their minds. Instead, talk more in terms of what you want your players to do—“. “We need to play smart defense,” “Take care of the ball,” or “Trust yourself.”” Focusing on the positive skills you want them to execute plants seeds of success in their minds.

7. Keep it simple, and be careful not to over-coach. Be careful not to over-coach in crunch time. Focus your players on the two to three key things you want them to execute and leave it at that. Too much information only overwhelms and confuses them. Remember that most of your coaching should be done in practice, not in the closing seconds or late innings of the game.

Keep in mind a psychological principle called the “primacy and recency effect,” which means that athletes are most likely to remember the first and last things you tell them in a huddle or timeout. All the other stuff in between is more likely to be forgotten. Thus, make sure you sequence your most important messages to be first or last in your communication with your players.

Keep these suggestions in mind as you prepare your team to thrive in pressure-packed, late-game situations. The plans and plays you draw up are important, but having players who are confident and composed enough to execute them successfully is just as critical.

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