Knowing how to win close games is one of the biggest challenges that athletes and teams face. Even when a more veteran team enters the 4th quarter in a close game, their prior experience will only help them if they are approaching the situation with the most successful frame of mind. Experienced teams don’t necessarily know how to turn their knowledge into success. Consistent teams with a strong unified foundation of trust and confidence in one another do.
It’s important to understand that what got you to the fourth quarter will help you through the fourth quarter. Teams and athletes who think they need to change the way they play in order to protect a lead become too cautious and lose an aggressive nature of their game that kept their opponent on their heels up to that point. Teams struggling to finish games may also think they need to rise to the occasion that the pressure they feel manifests. That shift in mindset usually creates the “what if” questions that focus too much on the final score and outcome of the game rather than the next play.
One way to understand the mindset it takes to convert close 4th quarter games into wins is to look at the mentality of a “closer” pitcher in baseball. The role of the closer is to shut the other team down and out. They usually enter the game in the final 9th inning when their team is leading by 3 runs or less. Their job is to shut down the hitters they face in an efficient and dominant way. When you see a closer enter the game and walk to take the mound from the bull pen, they approach with a certain intimidating factor exuding a very high level of confidence through their posture and body language. They act in a very aggressive manner owning their space. Their beliefs and energy are at all time highs and you can see it because they are spending every ounce of energy they have in order to strike out the batters in a 1-2-3 manner. This is the mentality needed in the 4th quarter of games when closing out games.
How does one train to develop the”closer’s” mentality? Here are some ideas that will help you and your team:
Process oriented focus – between quarters or during key moments in the game coaches, captains, and other leaders can remind the team to stay focused on the play in the present moment. Channel the teams focus to the process of executing the fundamentals and tactics well rather than focusing on how much game time is left and the score.
Mindfulness based awareness – developing and maintaining full awareness to the play as it unfolds in front of you is the key to becoming consumed with process oriented cues. Over thinking often leads to limited action and delay in physical response. Find the present moment and consume yourself with trusting that your training will pay off rather than trying to think about the right move or decision to make.
Depleting the energy tank – use it all, spend it all, and sacrifice it all. We often underestimate how much fuel we have left in our energy tank. The more you think about how tired you may be, the more tired you will become. Instead focus on giving every last ounce of energy you can find through your effort on every play. Turn your focus outwardly to the play around you rather than inwardly on how you feel.
Team cue word – a word that represents something meaningful is often a great tool for a team if they come together to determine it at some point outside of games. The cue word serves as a reminder of what’s most important now and is usually applied after goals or before key defensive stops. It is most effective when everyone in the water and on the bench can say it in unison or around the same time. Cohesion and trust increase and uncertainty and doubt decrease.
There isn’t much that changes from the first three quarters to the last quarter in order to close out a game in terms of what’s most important to focus on. The number one indicator of success is a team’s ability to sacrifice their comfort level by pushing through discomfort toward a shared ultimate goal. They will have to override the brain’s warning signs that indicate reaching physical fatigue and remember that the pain will be temporary. A team that is perceived as more experienced usually knows how to dictate pace of play with which they are most comfortable.
About the author: Brian Alexander is an athlete mental skills coach who helps athletes learn to train mental aspects related to their sport by implementing sport psychology techniques. Contact Brian for mental skills coaching via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.athletementalskillscoach.com.Also follow him on Twitter @BA_POS_MIND and on Facebook (Athlete Mental Skills Coach).