How to Handle Adversity (part 4/5 Inside the Mental Game of a State Champion)

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At first glance, it seems like an underdog story. How does a 14th ranked team win all 5 playoff games, 4 of them against higher ranked teams?   But in our eyes, the better question would have been, how did a state championship caliber team only manage to get the 14th seed at playoffs? One of the main elements to why we only ended up ranked 14th was adversity. The thing about adversity, Once you get through it, and come out the other side everything else seems easy. You are more confident.  

And one of the main elements to why we won all those high-pressure games was how we faced that adversity, took it on, and overcame it.  Here are three ways in which we faced adversity during the season.

1) Early Season Losses

While we ended up 14-3-2 on the season, we started out 3-3. We scored only 8 goals and gave up 11 in the first 6 games.  Our early season losses included:

a 1-0  loss in which we outshot our opponent 16-4

-a 4-0 loss to a team that won just two other games the rest of the season

-a 5-0 beatdown to a very talented opponent at our place

These results would have shaken the confidence of most teams to the core. But our mentality and team culture wouldn’t allow that. To our players’ credit, they bought into the solutions we devised from these games. They learned very valuable lessons, which propelled us to victories later on. I firmly believe that the toughest adversity serves to show you something important.  And you can either get defensive and make excuses to why you failed, you can give up, or you can swallow your pride a bit and look inside for what you need to change.

We decided on the latter.  We learned at least one key lesson in each of these losses, and turned those lessons into actionable items.  In other words, if we want to be a championship caliber team, we have to make some changes and really dedicate ourselves to those changes.  The coaching staff and the team did a great job on turning our season around for the last 13 games. After the slow start, we went 11-0-2, scoring 41 goals while conceding just 8.

2) Who Deserves to Start

As I mentioned in Part 1, we had a lot of talent on this team. The coaching staff had legitimate decisions to make each and every game because more than 11 guys were good enough and deserved to start. This might seem like a good problem to have, and it is, don’t get me wrong. But the adversity comes in getting everyone the minutes they deserve, and making sure they feel like part of the team. Afterall, these are really competitive players who all want to be on the field. They have confidence and belief that they can contribute, and they want to be on the field.

Part of my sport psychology duties was to help keep these athletes sharp mentally. Over the years, a common theme for athletes that I work with is that they lose confidence when they don’t start or their minutes go down. It’s understandable, but ultimately the choice is the athlete’s: do I just let losing confidence happen, or do I change my mindset?  I talked to several of our players, and asked them to worry only about the quality of the minutes they get, and not the quantity. In other words, if you get 5 minutes, focus on putting in the best 5 minutes you can, and focus less on the 75 minutes you wish you were playing. Make your attitude and effort so strong, that you make our decision as coaches that much harder. Part of having that positive culture is to make sure everyone feels like they are contributing, even if their minutes on the field didn’t necessarily show it for a game or a week or even a month.

In our playoff run, we had guys that traditionally didn’t start show up in huge ways!  Several key goals and assists in our playoff run came from “second-stringers.” These guys didn’t let not starting kill their motivation or drive. They never felt sorry for themselves for very long, and took initiative to keep their skills and confidence sharp. Through strengthening their mindset, these players were able to overcome adversity, and perform at their best when it mattered most.

As we come into next season, this will be one of the more challenging aspects of our team dynamic. Hopefully, since we have faced this adversity already, we will. 

3) Injuries

Injuries are an unfortunate part of every sport. It’s an adversity you can’t prepare for, but you just have to react in the most positive ways you can.  Fortunately for us, as in the previous section, we had a lot of talent, and guys that could step up. We had 3 huge injuries that threatened to derail our season.

Early on in the season we lost one of our guys to a concussion for 8 games.  A solid and reliable starter, one of those players you don’t think much about how to replace him. That gave valuable time to several players, and gave him time to heal up and get back on the field for the second half of the season.

The next injury was more significant. Our captain, and at the time leading scorer, went down with a foot injury and was out for the year. We had some players who were maybe as technically talented, but there were some intangibles this player brought that were going to be tough to replace. You could tell the mood of the team was a little shaken. We had just begun to turn things around and were on a roll, and now our leader, the guy who stepped up and made things happen (like scoring a diving header against the 3rd ranked team in the state) was gone for the year.

In graduate school, I wrote my master’s thesis on leadership development. Specifically, how do you replace the leadership qualities of a player you have up until that point relied on for so long.  My short answer to the guys was, do not try to be him. We do not need anyone to replace his qualities. Just step up your own leadership qualities. Step up your own play. Do it together as a unit. That message was along the lines of Control the Controllables. Don’t try to be what our captain was, just be the best version of yourself. And to their credit, again they bought in! Some of the players who had been coming off the bench got their chance. 

Finally, in the second round of the playoffs, we lost our then leading scorer to a hamstring injury. A dynamic player with a nose for the goal, who already faced some adversity early in the season, his loss was maybe the biggest of them all. Again, this could have been devastating, but not to this team. At this point, we were pretty confident that we could handle anything. So basically, we played 3 ½ playoff games, including 3 overtimes, without our top 2 leading scorers. 

In the end, facing adversity was instrumental in our run. It’s typically not a matter of if adversity happens, but when. Not of how bad it will be, but how you decide to handle it. No one wants or asks for adversity to hit, but maybe they should!

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