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The Emotional Side of Falling Behind In a Competition

This past weekend I watched the last number one seed in the NCAA tournament, the Kansas Jayhawks, lose to VCU in the Elite Eight. Just a couple of days earlier, two other number one seeds, Duke and Ohio State fell in the Sweet 16. After watching these losses, I read a statistic that only 40% of number one seeds, make it to the Final Four. So why do so many favorites lose before making it to the championship game or series. It happens every year in every sport. Obviously, there are a lot reasons why teams lose. In the end, the other team or competitor outplayed the favorite. But, why does this happen as frequently as it does? I believe one of the major reasons has to do with the emotional component associated with falling behind in a game or competition. Most good coaches will have strategies and game plans for their teams or individual athletes regarding what to do when they fall behind. Changing defensive or offensive techniques or substituting different players can often succeed in helping the team from falling farther behind. However, what strategies are discussed or used to deal with the emotional and psychological component? Frequently, many coaches are experts at planning for the technical adjustments, but often fail at assisting their athletes at dealing with the emotional frustrations they feel when they fall behind. When a team starts to struggle, one of the first signs of emotional frustration will be their body language and eye contact. When a team starts to get frustrated, athletes will start slumping their shoulders and often look at the ground instead of at their coach or teammates. This usually happens when a team is a heavy favorite or is expected to win easily. The shock of not being ahead in the game and the frustration and hopeless feeling can consume even the most confident athletes and teams. Typically, the underdog doesn’t have the same pressure on themselves to win in the same way as the favorite does. The thoughts about the pressure and expectations to win can consume an athlete’s thought process when they fall behind, instead of thinking about what they need to do to make the next play. Consequently, they can then get so caught up with the frustration of being behind, that they can’t readjust their emotions and refocus their thoughts on how to execute the next play. Instead, they get so consumed on the fact that they are losing, that they do indeed lose. My suggestion to coaches is that just as they have a plan for technical adjustments, they should have a plan for the psychological and emotional shifts that occur during a competition. I ask the athletes I work with to write out a “What If” list. This is a list of the situations that could occur during a game. We then discuss these situations and how they can catch themselves emotionally, so that they don’t emotionally collapse. I always make sure they substitute positive self talk statements to attack the negatives. Having a positive mental game plan for the emotional roller coasters that could occur, can prevent them from falling too far, and get you moving in the positive direction.

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