By Dr. Peter C. Scales
We’ve all been there, as coaches and as athletes ourselves—feeling the gap between how our players (or we) do in practice, and how they (or we) do on game day. For most folks, it’s easier to do well in practice than it is in a “real” game or competition.
It doesn’t take a sports psychologist to know that the reason is we feel more pressure to perform well and win a game that “counts” than we do in one that doesn’t “count.”
And why is that? Because suddenly we have everything to lose. We metaphorically, and literally in contact sports, have “skin in the game.”
So how do we help players lessen that everything to lose feeling?
Of course, players have to be taught that practice counts, even more than matches. They have to know that how they practice will be how they play—if they practice with low energy and commitment—or you prepare low energy practices that don’t engage, challenge, and stretch them—well then it’s tough to flip the switch to being a ferocious but smart and honorable competitor or coach on game day. They have to do the work and think during practice, so they can feel and play more instinctively during the match! But I’m talking here about getting at the deeper psychology of it. First notice I said help them “lessen” the “everything to lose” feeling, not “get rid of” it.
The “everything to lose” feeling comes from our most primitive lizard brain taking over our sports bus. Lizard jumps into the driver’s seat when we feel we have no control, when we feel unloved or rejected, and when we feel unskilled, or some combination of those. Sports is the perfect storm to get ALL those feelings popping at once, especially when you’re losing or afraid of losing, and suddenly the lizard has taken over the wheel. But we don’t want our players to get rid of the lizard brain entirely. Just get lizard back into the passenger seat.
The “everything to lose” feeling shows we care. It can energize us and focus us. Properly managed, the lizard brain can play a positive role.
But the secret sauce to players feeling more in the driver’s seat, more like they have nothing to lose, is for you as a coach to make sure you stress winning at least no more and preferably less than competing with full effort, focusing on learning, and being a sportsperson of high character through the inevitable ups and downs of competition.
Your players have to know through your repeated, consistent words and actions that you love them regardless of whether they win or lose. They have to hear and see that you truly believe that winning does not make you a better person and losing does not make you a worse person. You are training them to compete, learn and honor, and yes, your hope is to win, but they have to internalize that your goal is for them to compete, learn, and honor, as well as be safe and have fun. In interscholastic tennis matches—the ones that “count”—I sometimes don’t coach strategy at all, but instead call players over to the fence and literally remind them I love them whether they win or lose. They visibly relax after that! This past season, my code phrase for that, when my top team was not being effective, was simply to say to them, “it’s a beautiful day to play, isn’t it?!” They smiled and went back out and played more like they had nothing to lose.
If you can achieve that kind of balance in what you say, what you emphasize and what you reward, and show them you value the team climate you create, here’s what will happen:
You will lessen your students being judgmental about their worth based on the game’s outcome. And you’ll increase the energy and focus they give, and they will have fun improving, growing, and problem solving in the “right now” of game day.
Two other steps can help. At the beginning of the season, have them say what it is they love about playing (your sport). In all the seasons I’ve done this with my tennis teams, almost no one says winning is why they play. It’s always about learning about themselves, growing, making new friends or spending sports time with existing friends, liking the physicality of it all when exerting themselves, the fun of competing, the challenge of trying hard things, etc. These are the reasons why they play. Have them say out loud those things they love about playing (for younger kids) or write or record them (for older). You can participate, too, and without names attached share the team’s answers. Then in tough moments, remind them why THEY love to play, in their own words. It’s a powerful way of putting the lizard brain back in the passenger seat!
And throughout the season, reward the values of compete, learn, and honor in what you notice and bring to players’ attention.
Very concretely, I basically use the awards we give at the end of the season to guide my praise during the season: Most Positive Attitude, Best Sportspersonship, Hardest Working Player, Most Mentally Tough Player (all awards the players vote on), and Most Improved Player (awards I select as a coach, based on compete, learn, honor—not on won-loss record).
None of these things by themselves will lessen the practice-game day gap and get the lizard out of the driver’s seat, and nothing will work instantly, just like you don’t develop a technical skill instantly. And winning is not ever guaranteed. But if you as a coach consistently use these approaches over your season they can, over time, help you and your players more often have that “nothing to lose” feeling that allows all of you to more often have more fun and play and coach at your personal best level.
Dr. Peter C. Scales is a developmental psychologist, internationally known scholar of positive youth development, and Senior Fellow for the research nonprofit, Search Institute. He is a U.S. Professional Tennis Association-certified tennis teaching pro, long-time JV tennis coach for boys and girls at Parkway South High School in Manchester, Missouri, and regular mental game columnist for Racquet Sports Industry Magazine. His new book—The Compete-Learn-Honor™ Playbook: Simple Steps to Take Your Mental & Emotional Tennis & Pickleball Game to a New Level (Coaches Choice) has been called a “masterclass in the mental side” of the game and is available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Compete-Learn-HonorTM-Playbook-Peter-C-Scales/dp/1606795724. See www.competelearnhonor.com for more.