Thursday, November 13, 2008

Preparing for the “BIG” Game: A Look Practice Preparation and Implementation

Every athletic team faces a game they must win. It is the game people have looked forward to since the beginning of the year. Some of these games might be traditional rivalries like college football’s famous Red River Shootout Oklahoma vs. Texas. While other games may decide if a team’s season continues like a game in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Winning these games excites fans and leaves them with a sense of accomplishment at the season’s end. These games are not just played in front of a large national audience, but throughout the country on high school and youth sporting fields in every city from Los Angles to New York. On every level, these games mean so much to everyone involved.

Keeping this is mind, coaches have an impossible job. Fans expect their team to win, but that doesn’t always happen. In the end, one team has to lose. What can coaches do to ensure that their team comes out on top? Obviously, there is no exact formula but what if a team’s season is on the line? The following is my perspective on how coaches can tackle these games head-on and help players perform better when the lights go on……

Practice, Practice, Practice……………………………
The first step in game preparation is to making practice situations more challenging than game situations. This concept requires much thought and examination by the coach trying to get their team ready to play. Many times, coaches think by making their practices longer they are giving players more time to prepare. While generally an accepted statement, often this can be fundamentally wrong.

It was been proved that young players only concentrate one minute per their year of age. That means at age twenty a person’s concentration rate should be at the 20 minute level. After eclipsing the time rate, people’s mind tends to focus on something different. Coaches must consider this principle as they create their practice schedule. If batting practice last 1 hour, what are players going to get out of it? How is it going to make them a better hitter? Coaches should contemplate these questions as the construct their plan.

Also, coaches must devise a practice with a mental component as well. Players, no matter what level they are playing on, face many psychological challenges during an athletic contest. Crowd noise, poor referring, or player confrontation are all adverse situations athletes face during competition. Failing to overcome these challenges directly effect how players perform during competition. Coaches need to develop player’s mental strength by putting pressure on them during practice.

Coaches can set up specific individual evaluation in a whole group setting, putting players on the spot and creating tremendous performance pressure. For instance, a coach can put their starting pitcher on the mound with three baseballs. Each baseball represents a mile run for the team. The pitcher is asked to throw three strikes. With each strike thrown a mile is deducted for the conditioning exercise. As the entire team watches, the pitcher will deliver three pitches.

Coaches receive valuable feedback from this drill. What pitcher has positive body language? Does anyone give up? What pitchers can perform under these conditions? Who fails? Pitchers that execute strikes during this practice drill can draw from that experience during the game. Pitching is not the only area where these principles can be used. Hitting, fielding, and baserunning are other areas that can be manipulated to force players to perform under pressure.

It Takes a Village……………..
Teamwork and togetherness are undervalued commodities in sports. They are invisible ingredients that are definitely part of a winning formula. Coaches know how important a sense of “team” can be to a program. To win tough games every squad must work to strengthen their internal attitudes and feelings.

Practice is a time where a team concept can be cultivated by coaches. There is a sense of bonding that a group experiences when they go through tough times together. A team bond leads to trust amongst coaches and players, knowing each have sacrificed a lot for one another.

These feelings don’t just stop at practice; they carry over onto the playing field. In a competitive situation, it is only normal for players to want to start on the field. But, coaches can only use nine players at once. Naturally, reserve players may wish a sense of failure on their competition, thus increasing their playing time.

Though natural, individualistic feelings kill a team centered environment. Forming bonds and trust with teammates allow players to look pass a feeling of “self”. Players start to create roles for themselves helping the team excel using their strengths rather than dwelling on individual wants. Playing in a supportive environment makes a difference when teams are playing opponents with comparable talent and an extra advantage is needed to put a team over the top.

Scouting the Competition……………………………..
Knowing how to attack an opponent is vital in helping coaches prepare their team. Does the opposition bunt a lot? Do they have a left-handed pitcher? How strong are their outfielder’s arms? These are central questions when coaches are evaluating an opponent. By gauging an opponent’s tendency, coaches can set up their practice to target certain skills that help to combat their advantage.

It is important for coaches to have ample knowledge of the opponent, however too much information might be detrimental to preparation. Although it is helpful to know opponent weaknesses, a coach cannot completely change the way their team plays to adapt with an opponent. Coaches must let their team showcase their strengths even if it is risky against a rival program. There is an old coaching saying,” You have to dance with the one that brought you here.”

Scouting can also help shape the role of pitch selection for both hitters and pitchers. Both of these aspects, though relatively small to outsiders, have a direct impact of the game’s final results. Coaches cannot measure the importance of knowing that an opposing pitcher struggles to throw breaking balls for strikes or their clean up hitter takes pitches on the outside corner. These situations can be duplicated in practice and repeatedly worked on before the competition.

Mixing it all Together……………………………………To win an important competition, teams must have a sprinkling of all these areas in their game plan. Of course, there are times when teams “luck” into wins or simply have more talent than their rival competition. Mostly, coaches look to maximize equivalent talent incorporating both a physical and mental approach to gain an advantage on their rivals or “big game” opponents.

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