There are many situations where athletes encounter having their backs are against the wall, being on the brink of elimination from tournament play. Coaches have varying philosophies on what to do in these situations in order to swing momentum into their team’s favor. Some coaches attempt trick plays to catch the opponents off-guard, other coaches stay the course and trust the preparation that their team has put in up to this point, there are even coaches that resort to being brutally honest and telling the players that they are choking and playing terribly. Comeback performances are obviously versed with more adversity than when circumstances are going as planned, but when put in these situations, what is the best way to deal with things and create a turn of events?
In this past baseball post season, there was the case of the Toronto Blue Jays playing against the Kansas City Royals for the American League Championship Series, in which the Blue Jays found themselves down in the series and on the verge of elimination. The article that specifically pertains to this situation references three controllable factors to focus on in order to make an attempt at mounting a comeback including:
- Stick to your usual routine
- Narrow focus
- Confidence is key
These areas seem to be generally agreed upon by sport psychologists (CBC Sports, 2015). The article uses the example of doing activities that will put each individual athlete in their comfort zone such as listening to their preferred style of music before a game. The article by CBC Sports emphasizes that the best thought process to use in approaching situations such as this 3-1 deficit previously mention is blocking out the big picture. Many coaches follow this technique by using cues such as “win one game at a time” and “give 100% right now”. If the Blue Jays tried to get ahead of themselves and thought about the fact that they had to win three games in a row, they would be focused on that and not able to shift their attention towards things that mattered in the present such as hitting the pitch or catching and throwing a ball. It is not possible to win three games at once, therefore it is futile to worry about future events, rather than control things that are currently happening.
The aspect of mental performance that confidence is key states that many times when teams find themselves in a choking situation, they are “playing timid”, and continue to do so, thus failing to dig themselves out of the hole. These teams and players got in the hole by using this negative thinking in the first place. In order to achieve better results than currently being experienced, athletes must shift their mind frame into a positive thought process. The example used in the article talks about the confidence level of Michael Jordan in crunch time of important playoff games, and that fact the he approached these situations the same way he approached shots in practice (CBC Sports, 2015). Just one year prior to the Blue Jays situation, There was a similar occurrence with the Washington Nationals during the playoffs. In the Nationals case, they had the best regular season record in baseball, and then ended up losing to the Kansas City Royals in the first round of the playoffs. There is the possibility that the Kansas City Royals have figured something out and caused both of these teams to choke in consecutive years, but odds are that choking is becoming more and more common as a result of poor mental skills training or just lack of knowledge. Regardless, this form of faltering in sports has to be addressed and improved in order to improve sports performance.
One situation in professional athletics where a head coach deliberately went against the suggestions of the team sport psychologist is head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, Terry Murray, blatantly telling his players that they have been in a ‘choking situation’ (Bowen, 1997). Perhaps this was a circumstance of the time period because sport coaches in 1997 may not have had as complete of an understanding of the world of sport psychology as they do now, but it is certain that there is still plenty of room for growth in this department. Regardless of the most recent game outcome, this is a poor way to handle a team that played well enough to make the playoffs and has been experiencing some difficulties in the offseason. Looking back at it, this stunt backfired and caused the players on the Flyers to play even worse. This technique seems to be used less and less by head coaches in present day, but in order to optimize overall performance, coaches must be receptive to using strategies that have been proven to be effective.
Bowen, L. (1997). What a choke facing elimination Murray doesn’t exactly fire up Flyers by saying they have been in ‘choking situation’ Murray pours salt in wounds. Daily News Sports, Retrieved from: http://articles.philly.com/1997-06-07/sports/25524962_1_terry-murray-flyers-coach-eric-Desjardins
CBC Sports. (2015). What the Toronto Blue Jays can do mentally as they face elimination: some players thrive on the stress, but for most it’s best not to think about big picture. CBC News, Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/sports/baseball/blue-jays-mental-preparation-facing-elimination-1.3278680