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When You Are The Underdog

By Fundamentals eNewsletter from Responsible Sports, 04/21/13, 5:15PM CDT


If you’ve watched the NCAA Basketball Tournaments like we have, you’ve heard the stories of the Cinderella teams, the long-shots and the underdogs. The teams who enter the game with the pundits thinking they don’t have a chance to win. But when players and coaches alike believe in themselves, sometimes the improbable can happen. And while it’s fun as a fan to cheer for the underdog from the comfort of your couch, this month we wondered: how do Responsible Coaches and Responsible Sport Parents mentally prepare their youth athletes for games where they are the underdog?

One of the toughest situations Responsible Coaches and Responsible Sport Parents face is a situation where young athletes are preparing to play in a game where they are considered the underdog and many fans – and maybe the athletes themselves – believe they will lose.

As Jim Thompson, Founder and CEO of Positive Coaching Alliance frequently tells athletes and coaches alike, success begins with preparation – both mentally and physically. And while athletes and coaches embrace a Mastery Approach and work on skills and techniques, Responsible Coaches also help athletes prepare for the big game with a mental approach and emotional outlook.

In his latest book, Elevating Your Game, Jim notes “Athletes without mental games do well if things go well. If not, they can’t adjust to adversity and fail to perform to their ability. But some athletes develop a mental game they can rely on when things go bad so they are not at the mercy of events. They can give their best effort when everything seems to be going wrong.”

So how do you help athletes get this mental approach? It starts with a reminder about some of the key elements of Responsible Sports:

  • Control The Controlables. Michele Smith, the USA Softball Olympic Gold Medalist, used to remind her teammates to control the elements of the game that they could control. She couldn’t control how the umpire called her pitches, and she couldn’t control whether the batter saw the ball well or not. But she could control her placement and her pitch strategy. She could create a plan for each batter and work to execute her plan. Youth athletes need to be reminded before the big game that they too need to focus on what they can control.
  • Commitment to a Mastery Approach. Coaches and parents alike need to remind youth athletes that they will be proud of them, regardless of the score, if they give 100% effort. But then adults need to back-up that statement with their behavior. That comes with setting effort goals for each player before the game and rewarding players who reach those goals. That comes with cheering in the stands for effort, not just results, such as scoring plays. That comes with 5:1 Magic Ratio kid-friendly criticism after the game acknowledging effort and any mastery achievement demonstrated during the game. It comes with a post-game car-coaching session that talks not about what went wrong, but what went right.
  • Reframe The Situation. The experts at PCA encourage athletes to ‘reframe to increase reliance.’ “When something disrupts your plans and you experience negative emotions, like disappointment, discouragement or sadness, athletes should not allow that initial emotion to stick, but instead reframe it and ask how you can make something good come from it,” Thompson writes. Some of that starts with practicing a Mistake Ritual, where from the sidelines you can encourage your players to ‘brush it off’ or ‘flush it.’ Coaches and parents then help athletes move beyond the moment by reminding them that, while they might have missed the shot, they are the kind of athlete who rethinks the situation and and learns from the mistake.
  • Separate Identity From Performance. Nationally recognized coaches and athletes who serve as National Advisory Board Members for PCA oftentimes share with the experts at PCA and Responsible Sports their stories of disappointment and loss. Yet all of them bounced back and achieved greatly. They are able to see the bigger picture, know that losing made them better, and recognize the value of strong opponents to push them to be even better at the sport that they love. They don’t allow themselves to be defined by a single performance. And neither should youth athletes. Responsible Sport Parents help kids see the forest through the trees and help build healthy complete self-identity that isn’t defined by a single game (state championship loss) or a single dimension (being a goalie).

Lastly, maybe being the underdog is actually a great position to be in for athletes and coaches. It provides an important rallying point for a group of teammates to come together. When no one believes you can, but you and your teammates believe you can, you share an emotional bond that brings you closer together and helps inspire and focus. You seek to prove “them” wrong – together. And so win or lose, the underdog team actually takes away a potent life lesson: when we trust and believe in ourselves, in our teammates, and in our preparation, great things can – and sometimes do – happen.

So to all the underdogs out there – good luck!

Do you have a powerful story of an underdog youth team rallying to beat the odds? Share it with us on Facebook. Or tell us about how you as a Responsible Coach help your athletes prepare for a tough game ahead. Or as parent, share your secrets for helping your kids separate their identity from the sport performance. We always enjoy hearing from you. And thank you for being an important part of the Responsible Sports Movement!