March 18, 2016 • Coaching

Preparing top teams for the postseason

13 strategies to get your team ready when you’re the odds-on favorite to win it all

Photo: Sphilbrick, Wikimedia Commons

Being a “top dog” heading into the postseason means you have a great chance to win it all. You have the talent and one of the top regular season records going for you. Your team should believe it can be a champion, and your strong performance during the season could be a mental advantage for you in striking some fear into your opponents, especially in the early rounds.

However, expectations are high, and most of your opponents are gunning for you. You must guard against overconfidence but also watch out for the pressure of being too perfect. Your supreme talent gives you a great chance to win, but it will likely come down to managing the psyches of your athletes so they perform at their best when it’s needed most.

Here are 13 strategies to support your quest for a championship.

1. Spin your position as the underdog.

With 22 national championships under his belt, University of North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance would much rather be in the “underdog” position. Despite his program’s dominance and consistent high-level success, Dorrance tries to spin his team’s seemingly enviable role as a favorite into one of an underdog.

Dorrance believes underdogs typically have a lot more to prove, and he loves to try to play up his opponent’s chances to rile up his team. So when facing strong teams in the later rounds, see if you can make your team the underdog in motivating them to beat other top contenders.

2. Cherish your role.

The opposite side of the coin is to simply embrace the role of the tournament favorite.

Appreciate the fact that you have one of the best teams going into the tournament. This is your team’s opportunity to prove that the regular season was no fluke; that you are here to win it. If your team is the clear frontrunner and you can’t spin any of your competitors as an underdog, just go with it.

UConn women’s basketball players know they are the best most seasons, and they love the chance to prove it, often beating teams by double digits.

3. Beat teams like they’ve never been beaten.

Speaking of UConn women’s hoops, they basically raise the bar and up the ante as the top team. Because their talent is often so superior, they can raise the goal from merely winning games to beating teams like they had never been beaten before. It challenges the team to raise its level of play and gives it a whole new level to shoot for.

4. Build the strengths of opponents.

To guard your team against overconfidence, talk about your opponent’s strengths with your team. Help them understand that your opponent does have legitimate strengths that could take down your team. You might even show them scores or video of games where the opponent might have beaten other notable teams during the season or tournament.

You want your athletes to be a little bit nervous heading into the game so that they prepare properly, focus intensely and do not take the win for granted. Especially when facing a clear underdog.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

5. Avenge a previous loss.

If you scheduled strong throughout the regular season like Pat Summitt did at the University of Tennessee and Anson Dorrance does at North Carolina, you might have the “advantage” of being beaten by another top dog during the season.

Use this regular season loss as a chance to motivate your team to get revenge. Tell them the playoffs are your time to enact the payback from the loss during the season. It provides your team with an extra incentive of something to prove.

6. Win the warm-up.

Emphasize the importance of winning the pregame warm-up with your team. This helps to accomplish two things. First, it gets your team into an early aggressive mindset. Your athletes should want to be sharp and crisp in preparing themselves to be fully ready for the competition. If you can get their physical and mental juices flowing early, you have a much better chance of starting strong.

Second, winning the warm-up can intimidate your opponents before the game starts. When playing against the University of Arizona softball team in Hillenbrand Stadium, many opposing coaches take their teams into the far corner of the stadium and face them away from the field during Arizona’s pregame warm-up. They don’t want their athletes to get psyched out by the precise and spirited pregame regimen displayed by the Wildcats. They know the game could be mentally lost before it’s even started.

Get your top contender in the habit of winning the warm-up.

7. Play a ‘two-game tournament.’

Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski breaks down the potential six-game NCAA tournament into a smaller, more manageable two-game weekend “tournament.” This way, he keeps his players focused on the more immediate battles ahead of them, rather than the long-term goal of winning the national title.

The goal for the weekend is to win the two-game tournament. If they do this three consecutive weekends, they’ve won a national championship. The Blue Devils even schedule some games during the regular season to mimic a two-day tournament against non-conference teams. It gives them the chance to practice this kind of focus during the regular season.

You too can break your playoffs down in to smaller, more manageable tournaments.

8. Weather the first 10 minutes.

As the favorite, you realize you are probably going to receive your opponent’s best shot early. They are going to come out all fired up and determined to ruin your season. Remind your players that your opponents will naturally come out strong, and they must be prepared to match their intensity.

Most opposing teams have a hard time sustaining a high level of focus and intensity throughout the competition. So remind your team to be ready to weather the first 10 minutes of your opponent’s best effort. Tell them not to be worried if the game is close or the other team is ahead. By working your plan and unleashing your talent over time, you will often wear down your less talented opponent and win the war.

9. Win the battles that win the war.

In an effort to make the pressure and expectations more manageable for your team, break down your competition into three to five of the most important battles you need to win.

In basketball, focus on outrebounding your opponent, holding them to less than 40 percent shooting, shooting more than 40 percent yourself, limiting your turnovers to single digits or making more free throws than your opponents even attempt.

If you win all five of these battles within the war, you will likely come out ahead. Even winning only three or four of them gives your team a realistic shot. Focus on winning these battles in your practices, in your pregame speech, during timeouts, in the locker room at halftime and afterwards in evaluating the game.

10. Superstars must come to play.

To win a championship, you usually must have your superstars perform. They need to have their “A” game and make plays for you when the game is on the line.

Invest the time to monitor their psyche throughout the week and let them know that you believe in them. If they love the pressure, let them know this is their time to shine. If they are feeling the pressure of the moment, just tell them to be themselves like they have all season and everything will be fine. Your superstars will need to play well to carry you across the finish line.

11. X-factor must step up.

Not only do you need your superstars to show up to win a championship, you’ll often need an X-factor athlete to step up and make some key plays as well.

The X-factor is usually one of those middle-of-the-road or even lower-tier athletes whose performance could go either way. You often need to get a solid effort from one of them to win a championship. It’s hard to tell who your X-factor is going to be, so prepare each of your athletes to fill the role.

Former University of Arizona football coach Dick Tomey used to prophesize, “Some Wildcat is going to make a key play that is going to be the margin of victory today! Will it be you?” And every guy in that locker room, from the quarterback to the third string kicker, wanted to be the X-factor in the game. Prepare your athletes to be an X-factor for your team.

12. Use motivational themes.

Developing a motivational theme for your team is a great way to prepare your contender heading into the playoffs. Motivational themes help teams be inspired, confident, focused and loose going into key tournament games. The key to creating an effective theme is to find an analogy or story which best fits your particular situation.

With the Arizona softball team, a consistent frontrunner, I once created the analogy of a cross country road race. Even though the team had the best car going into the race, they still needed to be gassed and tuned up, driving with focus, intensity and intelligence, ready to handle the bumps and detours while taking on all challengers. We even got little Matchbox cars to symbolize our team and the opponent’s team.

After we won each tournament game, the players crushed the car of the opponents with their bats and we created a junk pile of beaten little cars. The team hit on all cylinders and zoomed ahead of its competition to go on and win the national championship.

You too can create a theme for your team. Then come up with little reminders to motivate your team before games and keep them inspired.

13. Watch for disrespect.

Be on the lookout for any signs of disrespect from an opponent. For crowd control and security reasons, the front office and city police of NBA teams on the verge of winning a championship at home often have to plan ahead for the party afterwards. If word leaks out that the team has planned and set up for celebrating a championship it has yet to clinch, it is a great motivational insult the opposing coach can share with his team.

Similarly, one up-and-coming team once painted its vans with brash No. 1 slogans as if it had already won the championship. The team arrived to the field with the music blaring and the team acting as if it were the nation’s best team.

The team I was working with took one look at this spectacle and had all the motivation it needed to put the cocky challenger in its rightful place.

One top dog coach used the fact that their opponent had specially flown in the college’s president for the championship game, in hopes the president could congratulate their winning team afterwards. The enterprising coach used the occurrence to motivate his team that their opponent assumed they would win by doing this. Great pleasure was taken in ruining the president’s special trip and contributed more than sufficient motivation to win the national championship.

Being a top team has its pluses. However, you’ve got to make sure your team is playing up the advantages of your role without being swallowed by the expectations and potential disadvantages of the situation. Know your team and use the strategies above that best fit your situation to have your athletes ready to play to their potential.

Enjoy the moment, and may the best team win.

For more info on helping your team win championships, visit

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