Part of what makes college basketball so fun to watch is the difficulty in choosing winners. Inevitably, top 10 teams lose to teams with mediocre records at best. March Madness structure feeds this excitement. There are arguably many factors:
- PLAYER INCONSISTENCY: most college players' games vary widely in quality.
- NATIONAL ATTENTION: it's difficult not to allow the lights to affect your play at this age.
- HOME COURT ADVANTAGE: some courts are very difficult to play in on any given night.
- FAULTY GAME PLANS GO UNALTERED: coaches sometimes make plans that don't work; even fewer of them alter them during the game.
- TEAM CULTURE AND PRE-GAME PREPARATION: some teams perennially have less confidence than others, and under-perform in pressure situations.
There are undoubtedly others.
The interesting thing is that there are mainly two categories of issues in the above list; player psychology, and the coach's affect on the team. At this level of play, rarely do we see that a lack of physical preparedness hurts a team. Most have training, nutrition, and even tutors to ensure physical fitness.
What is interesting is that the most important muscle, the brain, still gets relatively little attention. Two quick stories; our high school basketball team ran an experiment; half our players shot 100 foul shots a night, while half of us visualized foul shots for 15 minutes every night before practice. Guess who's foul shot percentage was best during the games. This experiment mirrors a much more famous one that showed mental visualization as important as physical practice in determining FS and FG percentages.
Team and self-visualization has the potential to make a hugely significant difference in affecting numbers 1, 2, 3 and to some extent 5 above. Why is it not given more attention?
My favorite example comes from my alma mater: the UNC Tarheels. Wayne Ellington is a notoriously streaky shooter. His struggles with his shot have daunted him every one of his 3 years at Chapel Hill. His stats confirm that he most often goes cold in high pressure games, although every interestingly, he nearly always as huge success against Clemson. Perhaps there is something about the team, or his memories of past successes, that give him a secure feeling. The interesting thing about Ellington is that he never has an issue shooting during practice; his team mates affirm that his play during practice is nothing short of awe inspiring, and he is perhaps the best pure shooter they have ever seen. What then, is the issue during the game?
Ellington represents the perfect example of someone who would benefit from very specific and enduring mental exercises that research and resolve in-game success. Timing is also important. Visualizations can be performed before sleep, before practice, and maybe most importantly, just before game time. After 3 years, there are probably a number of mental images impeding his success. All of them must be addressed, success substituted, and impediments resolved.
The significant variable in team consistency is obviously coaching. Coaches affect confidence as much or more in non-verbal ways (e.g, demeanor, unspoken messsages, body posture, honesty, etc.) as they do in laying out game plans and one-on-one talks. When teams have 'bad' games in pressure situations, or come up cold, we must look to the coach not only for solutions, but the seeds of the problem in the first place. 'Soft' teams are a reflection of their coaches. It may be too much expect coaches to learn how to change their game plans in real time (although a strategic assistant would be a good addition in these instances), but they can do much to ensure that their players enter each game mentally and attitudinally prepared to play.
Great sports is as much between the ears as it is in being physically prepared. As Yogi Bera once said, "Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical." Players and coaches would do well to spend much more time on improving team psychological well being and toughness.