Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The psychology of losing, or You're down but not out

Losing isn't a goal that we all set out to accomplish. It's hardwired into our nature to win -- survival, last person standing, kill or be killed.

But the laws of nature, even though they govern a large part of our psychological and physiological makeup, aren't the "be all, end all" on the roller derby track.

We all want to win. But in any given sport, there can only be one winner.

That "Highlander"-like thought process has to stand at the forefront when you play any game. 

Whether you were beat by 1 point or 200 points, it's important to congratulate the other person/team with sincerity and professionalism, as you would expect the same from your opponent.

I hate excuses. I hate them on the track, and I hate them after the game.

If a player is making excuses on the track or bench, it creates negative energy, and negative energy -- just as positive energy is -- is infectious. One player behaving poorly will spoil the whole bench if someone doesn't control the situation efficiently and quickly. Let the negative energy go and it will consume you're whole team. It's much easier to control  one bad attitude than 14 bad attitudes.

"Nip it in the bud," as Barney Fife would say.

The problem with negative attitudes is that they're incredibly easy to give into. Staying positive takes work and when an opponent is constantly taking swings at your players it's harder to manage. The negative energy also casts a dense fog over the entire game, making it incredibly difficult to focus on the game at hand, which is what you and your players should be focusing on.

I've instituted a "quiet bench" philosophy, in which in our lineup the only five players "up to bat" -- or set to go into the next jam --  are the players who are talking are talking to each other. No one else should be chit-chatting, complaining or making any other verbal comment. None. They should be focusing on the game at hand. The five players "up to bat" should be communicating with each other on how they should play their position and what they need to do to improve the team's in-game standing.

A quiet bench goes above and beyond great measure to controlling bad attitudes. A player who willingly violates the "quiet bench" philosophy is in danger of voluntarily giving up her spot on the roster. No exceptions. Does it suck to lose a player willingly? Yes, but if you allow them to stay bench side you are essentially condoning their behavior. You will have to manage the attitudes of your bench less and focus on the game more.

The quiet bench extends all the way through game time, up until the end of the last jam. This becomes very difficult if it's a close game, but important if you are to set an example. 

We were at a game in which we were already winning and the announcers encouraged everyone to stand up and get loud for the last jam of the game. As my girls started standing and cheering I asked them to sit down and be quiet. "But they told us to stand up?" one of my players said/asked. "Who's your coach and what does your coach want you to do?" I replied. They politely took their seat and waited anxiously for the end of the jam. Was it a cold response? Yes, but necessary. The quiet bench should be an institution from the time the game starts until it officially ends, win or lose.

(If you are a coach who does not wear the A for the designated captain of your team, seat your captains as close to you as physically possible so that you can talk to them without having to yell across the bench. Yelling even if it's important isn't the best way to communicate as people's personal defenses immediately go up. Plus, you don't want to give away too much information to the other team. Bring your captains closer to you, and use your inside voice.)

After a jam, the heat can come pouring in -- as players complain about calls or a missed hit, etc. Control the issues at hand as quickly as possible and move on. If a player has to vent, let her vent, give her verbal and visual confirmation that you understand and move on. Sometimes all a person needs is an outlet to vent, otherwise it gets bottled up. But you can't get carried away and listen to five girls coming off the track all wanting to vent or you will never be able to focus on the next jam, so make it an exception for only a short few.

After the game is over, it's easy to start making excuses for a loss. Instead of negative reinforcement I try to cultivate positive, critical thinking. Instead of the things we did wrong, or what the other team did illegally, or missed calls -- I try to focus on the things we need to work on, how we can improve and what we can do to control future outcomes a little better.

It's incredibly hard to play a game when there are various events in which you have no control, i.e. bad calls, missed calls, what the other team does. As a coach/captain/player you have to focus on the things you can control and minimize the things you can't control. Things you can control in a game: Game clock (via timeouts, official reviews, injury stoppage), Intentional fourth minors (so you don't inadvertently jam a player with three minors), getting the right pack lineup at the right time, etc.

(As a rule I try not to use our official review on made calls or missed calls. A made call will stand nine times out of tend. A referee makes a call based on what he or she sees and it's pretty hard to argue the logic. Besides the referee may have seen something you didn't -- and you've successfully wasted a review. Likewise a missed call is hard to argue for because if three referees are watching the play and they all miss a call -- you aren't going to get the call made after the fact. Only ask for a official review on a made or missed call if you are absolutely, positively you can get the outcome changed and it drastically affects the game.)

There are plenty of things that one can control in a derby game, and maybe one day I'll actually make a list. But it's important to factor in as much as you do have control over, so that you get most advantages when playing a derby bout.

Are you a player that gets called on elbows a lot? There's not much you can do during a game, but at practice you can certainly work on giving hits without following through with the elbow. After a game, you can certainly ask a ref who called you on an elbow what he/she saw. Don't argue. Zebras often are the best source of information when it comes to changing our mental and physical gameplan for future games. They will usually tell you that you "followed through" or that you "swung your elbow" warranting the call.

As a coach, I try to take notes if I see something happen that I know we can fix. In the first intermission this can be crucial. Jot down two or three things at the most -- more than that and you will confuse everyone. I will usually give my few pieces of advice and then let every player know where they stand with minors and majors. And then we set up the first line for the second half.

(I try to take notes for the second half to address at the next practice if possible, but if the game is incredibly tight, it can be more difficult to remember to write things down.)

I'm hoping with a few improvements I can continue to hone how I coach in crucial games. I know that by managing my bench and focusing on the positive, we, as a team, have a better chance to improve on prepare for the next game even if we lost the last game.