Now that is it playoff time for many teams, it is important to talk about success in the post season. Often teams have successful seasons but when it comes to the post season and the added pressures of must win situations results in below average performances. Whether your team is starting the first round of a playoff series or heading to a regional, provincial, or national Championship, being successful in the post season is tough.
Athletes often refer to the playoffs as ‘the real season’ or ‘a new season’, and I think this is important to think about, because the playoffs are exactly that; a new season. Everything that your team has done up to this point has been in preparation for the playoffs, and now it is time to put the preparation to good use. This article touches on a few key concepts that I believe all athletes and coaches should apply in these pressure situations.
STICK TO THE PLAN
A common mistake a lot of teams make when they enter the post season is that they try to do too much. All of a sudden, the principles that were utilized during the season are not good enough, or too basic. Teams try to make things more difficult thinking that this might trick the opponent when in fact, complicating things often results in mistakes and backfires. Coaches should use the term ‘Stick to the Plan’ to help remind players to keep doing what they did all year. Whatever the game plan is, it was good enough to help the team make the playoffs so why change things? It is critical that players stick to the game plan and reinforce the systems that have been run all season. Players should say to themselves ‘stick to the plan’ to remind them to keep it simple, to move the puck the way they always have and shoot the puck when given the opportunity. Don’t get to individual and don’t narrow the focus. Remember, even though the fancy play might look really good, it often doesn’t work and causes a turnover and loss of possession. In the playoffs, one mistake is sometimes all an opponent needs to win the game.
The playoffs produce stress, anxiety, and a feeling of pressure on all athletes. These feelings can make it hard to play to ones potential. Elite athletes have learned how to cope with this stress and are able to demonstrate peak performances when pressure arises but some athletes are seen to crumble under the pressure. These (often less experienced) players lose track of the plan. These times are wonderful opportunities for athletes to re-focus and say to themselves key phrases such as; ‘stick to the plan’, ‘keep it simple’ and ‘shoot the puck’. I believe that the teams who can stick to the plan have more of a chance to succeed in pressure situations when compared to teams who aren’t able to stick to the plan.
STAY IN THE PRESENT
In the playoffs, anything can happen! Any team can win at any given time; any team can have an amazing scoring run, or an amazing comeback. Any team can score a beautiful goal and any team can score a lucky goal. In other words: ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN!
Given that anything can happen, it is important that players stay in the moment and focus on the present. You can’t change the past; all you can control is your performance at that particular point in time. If players are constantly worried about what happened during the last shift, the last period or in the last game, their performance will suffer. Players should always repeat to themselves ‘Be in the moment’, or ‘focus on the now’. These key phrases will help athletes play to their potential. The best players are able to play one shift at a time and focus on each individual shift.
On a team, every player has a role. Whether you’re the top team in the Country or the team that wasn’t supposed to make the playoffs, your team is composed of a group of players who all have a responsibility. Essential for success is the ability to have every player fill their role and contribute to the overall success. Coaches should make sure that their players know and understand their role. Players must understand what they need to do to make the team successful and do whatever it takes to fulfill their role.
CONTROL THE CONTROLLABLE
I often find that teams get caught up in the passion of the playoffs and over react when there is a bad call made by the refs or if their opponent comes out and scores an early goal. Unfortunately, these are situations that are out of our control. If athletes spend too much time worrying about what they can’t control, they lose their focus on what they can control; their own performance. “Control the controllable”.
Players, only you can control the way that you play, and that should be your focus. Don’t spend time worrying about the referee’s, or the opponent. Peter Smith, Head Coach of the McGill Martlet Hockey team is quick to remind his athletes that referee’s are like the weather. You wake up in the morning, look out side and prepare for whatever mother nature brings that day, if it rains, you put on a rain coat and grab an umbrella, if it’s sunny you wear a t-shirt and shorts. If a referee makes a bad call, you have to live with it and you adapt to it. Coaches, yelling at the referee will not change their call, in fact, usually getting on the wrong side of the referee usually ends up working against you. A coach that loses control on the bench often loses the control of their players. The game plan should include how you want YOUR team to play, and not focus on what the opponent can do. Control the controllable!
EXPECT TO WIN
At the beginning of each year, many teams come up with a slogan or a team objective for the season. One of my favorite slogans is EXPECT TO WIN and I think this applies more in the playoffs then at any other time of the season. Teams need to have the confidence in themselves, in their teammates and in their coaches that they expect to win each game. For me, this expectation starts in the warm-up. It is important to show your opponent that you’re a confident team. Intimidate the opponent in the warm-up. This is done by having an organized, structured and intense plan for the warm-up. Get yourself prepared for competition in the warm-up both mentally and physically so that you have confidence when the game begins. Confidence in yourself, your teammates and your coaches reflects an ‘Expect to Win’ philosophy.
Players need to have fun to play well. When players are frustrated, upset or grumpy when they play, top performances are often not seen. There is a fine line between playing focused, and playing frustrated and it is important that athletes figure out the balance between being focused, serious and in the zone but still being able to have fun when they are out on the ice. Players make sure you smile, take the time to enjoy the moment and laugh with your teammates. You will find that when you’re able to do this consistently, you will play better. Coaches make sure to keep the environment fun and upbeat! If you are a stressed coach, you will have stressed out players. Keep your cool, and enjoy the time with your players.