Book Review: Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and it’s Team

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SPINw Book Review From the book Must Win – A Season of Survival for a Town and it’s Team by Drew Jubera

Must Win

Since Friday Night Lights was published in 2000, a wave of books following a sports team for a season or more have come out. Books such as Hurricane Season, The Blind Side, The Boys from Little Mexico, and even Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer come to mind. There are also some amazing documentaries out there, such as Hoop Dreams and Undefeated. These books and movies go beyond the sports on the field, mixing in athlete’s and coaches’ backstories, plus historic, geographical, and social issues to provide context for the team’s stories.

Must Win follows this tradition. In Must Win, author Drew Jubera follows a year in the life of the 2010 Valdosta Wildcats, the winningest high school football team in the nation’s history. Following in the footsteps of 2 legendary coaches – Hader and Brazemore – there are several coaches who have been hired and fired after 2-3 year stints, unable to live up to the expectations of their predecessors. A new school in the area, Lowndes County High, has taken the mantle of the best team in Valdosta over the past 10 years.

This book starts with the hiring of a new coach, Rance Gillespie, and follows the team throughout the season into the playoffs. In the book, the sport psychology stuff is never mentioned explicitly, but it’s in there. It starts with Coach Gillespie’s changing of the attitude of the players, coaches, and hopefully the town in general. He knows that before he can win any games, he must win over the trust and respect of the players. His practice philosophy works not only on the physical, skill, and strategy level, but the mental level too. As Jubera explains:

“He was old-school tough, but new-school adaptable…. This was a coach who would run you ragged in practice, tell you to suck it up when you came limping out of a pile, but then later call you into his office to show you something cool on YouTube.”

Another one of the main characters in the book is not a coach, but an ex-Valdosta player from their glory days, Stan Rome, who has had his fall from glory, but is redeeming himself. His son is following in his footsteps as a highly recruited player. Rome serves as sort of a town elder, and mentor/coach for the team. The following exchange with a young receiver on the team has some great mental game aspects to it:

“You gotta pull that s— down!” Stan told him, man to man – street kid to street kid. “You can’t hold it up there – you have to snatch it down!” Tyran stood still and straight. Didn’t say a word. He knew he should’ve caught those balls – that Stan would’ve caught those balls – but he got anxious when he saw them spinning his way. He didn’t see himself yet as one of the team’s big playmakers, like Jay or Malcolm. Now, Mr. Stan told him, he was. “Just picture yourself making those plays,” Stan went on, his tone almost therapeutic. “Picture yourself making great plays…”

The way he explains visualization, and mindset is really powerful, and he had the kid’s attention. Throughout the book, the author lets us know what the players were thinking at certain points in the game. Here, he presents some insights on confidence, self-talk, and over-thinking from the perspective of another receiver on the team:

Needing 9 yards on third down from their own 24, Ryan floated back, searched the middle for his favorite receiver, and coolly fired a high strike. As the ball spiraled toward Malcolm, the voice in his head suddenly hemmed and hawed, or at least that was the effect. It seemed to be saying too many things at once. When a pass came Malcolm’s way before, the voice would tell him to run around, catch the ball, and the “Go! Go as far as you can go!” This time, with Malcolm’s ankle killing him, the voice sounded unsure of what to say next, like it was still furiously working out all the calculations. “What are you going to do after you catch it?” it asked. Because Malcolm knew he couldn’t do much once the got the ball. He knew he couldn’t spin, couldn’t stick his foot in the turf when he landed and cut to his right. His ankle wasn’t up to that. If somebody came up on him from his left? He didn’t know what he’d do then, either. “When a ball’s coming at you full speed and you’re not focused 100 percent on catching it, you’re going to drop it,” Malcolm would say later. “When all those things register in your head, that’s what happens. So my focus was off. And the next thing I know the ball is coming out of my hands.”

Overall, this was a really enjoyable book that I read in 3 or 4 days. The characters are interesting and the backstories are compelling. And for me, there was enough of the mental game stuff to keep my attention on that front as well. If you’d like to check it out, you can buy it through our SPINw Store here.

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