Wanting It

Relax. This post is not about sex. Nor is it about the political race, which has become tiresome. It’s about sports psychology, which is something I find most perplexing and even at times interesting.

Recently the Minnesota Vikings travelled to Philadelphia, city of Brotherly Love, to play the Eagles in football. The Eagles had lost two games in a row on the road whereas the Vikings were 5 and 0 and had just had a bye-week. I suspected going into the game that Philadelphia would have the edge and indeed they did, winning 24-10 — and the game wasn’t even that close. I watched the first few minutes of the game and then turned off the television: the Eagles clearly wanted the game more than did the Vikings. It was that simple. And yet, none of the talking heads I watch on Mondays even mentioned the psychological dimension of the game. They talked about how Minneota’s young offensive line couldn’t handle Philadelphia’s excellent pass rush, their weak running game without Adrian Peterson, and other elements of the game that were supposed to explain the embarrassing loss the Vikings suffered (coach Zimmer’s words).

I have been around sports for years and have coached football, basketball, and (mostly) tennis for years. I have always thought about the psychological problems my players might have going into a game or a match and I attempted to head off any jitters or loss of nerves the players might face. In tennis, especially, I always told my players that as long as they played their best that was all anyone could ask. I looked for effort. Period. I never talked about winning or losing. I figured if they played their best they would probably win and if they lost their opponent was simply better than they were on that day. It happens. By not criticizing them after a loss and getting them to focus on their own games my teams had pretty good success. It helped raise their self-confidence, which is essential to good performance.

The psychological element in sports is fundamental and a key to how a player performs on the field or the court. If two players, or teams, are facing each other and they are of equal, or nearly equal, ability levels, the team that wants the win will win. It is the power of positive thinking. The golfer who knows he will sink the 6 foot putt will almost always do so. The basketball player who knows he could make the free-throw will almost ceretainly make it. It is all about wanting something and having the confidence that one will attain it. But beware cockiness! A coach must keep an eye on that possibility. Confidence is a good thing; over-confidence is not. In golf a bogey often follows a birdie; in tennis a double-fault frequently comes on the heels of an ace. Watch out for P.B.F. —  post-birdie-foul-up.

I suspect the Vikings went into the game in Philadelphia a bit cocky. After all, they were 5-0 and their opponent was 3-2 with two losses in a row. The media had hyped up the Vikings and the players doubtless watch ESPN and may even read the newspapers — who knows? They came in figuring all they had to do was show up. But that sort of cockiness, an over-abundance of confidence, is a danger to a good performance. P.B.F. Balance is the key: knowing that one can win if he or she performs well but not taking it for granted. After all is said and done the mental aspect must translate into excellence of performance.

I suspected that Mike Zimmer would have a difficult time getting his players ready for that game, getting them into the mindset that would prime their engines and make them want to win more than their opponents. It was apparent form the start that this had not happened. The Eagles players were “pumped.” They wanted the game more than their opponents. And wanting it, once again, gained the upper hand.

Coaching is an art more than an science. And getting players motivated, keeping up their confidence, and convincing them that a game somehow matters in the grand scheme of things is something very few men or women seem to be able to do. (On the other hand, if a player is too keyed up, the coach must convince them that the game really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. After all, it’s only a game. The key is to know the players and to know which “buttons to push.”) But in the end the one who wants it more, given more or less equal skill levels, will win.

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5 thoughts on “Wanting It

  1. Over-confidence has beaten many a team. You are a wise coach. I remember the game that Miami played against Alabama for the National Championship before the latter returned to fame and glory and while Miami was in a ten year stretch of very good teams. Miami was hugely favored and scored on the first drive easily. The announcers said it was going to be a long night for ‘Bama. The final score was Alabama 35, Miami 7. The losing team was already over-confident and became even more so after the easy first score.

    • In tennis it’s always easier to play from behind. When one gets ahead they become tentative. The underdog always has an easier road: the favorite plays under much greater pressure. This is assuming that the teams or players are of relatively equal ability. Over-confidence is the death-knell of many a good player. (These are generalizations, of course).

  2. Your post highlights some things that disturb me about youth sports, also. I have frequently attended high school games that my grandsons played in, and I am dismayed at how competitive some of the parents and coaches are! These are children and my thoughts are that they are playing sports in order to a) have fun, and b) learn the value of teamwork. But parents screaming epithets at kids 13-14 years old … that takes all the fun away and makes for hurt feelings and anger all around. I even have one friend who is paying several thousand dollars a year that he cannot afford, just to get his son on an ‘exclusive’ team that wins more games, in hopes it will help his chances for an athletic scholarship down the road. Even though I’m not much of a sports enthusiast, I really enjoyed this post!

    • You are right, of course. The “tennis Mom,” or “hockey Mom” are just the beginning. Fathers live vicariously through their sons in many cases and can be very hard on them. I have seen this with both Moms and Dads a number of times. In the end, it really is just a game, after all!!

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