Seize the Opportunity

Every sport has different lineup policies – some dress everyone and only some people play (football, basketball, baseball) and others only dress a certain number but most (if not all) participate (hockey). Each of these sports have players that are regulars in the lineup and contribute every night. They also have players that are on the fringe, maybe getting a few plays a game to make a difference.

Players who are securely in the lineup every night face a certain type of pressure. They are expected to produce and play at a high level every night. Players on the fringe experience a very different type of pressure. Fringe players have the pressure of having to do well in limited minutes or lose their opportunity to play.

Who struggles more with the pressure? I would argue that fringe players have a harder time with the consistent lineup pressure than those playing every night. Any high level athlete has the word “player” as a major part of their self identity. Being in and out of the lineup with limited minutes creates a situation where you are no longer a “player” but someone who sits on the bench. This creates an internal identity crisis for the player – are they good enough to be who they thought they were in their mind?

When these players get in the lineup, they often play “to stay in the lineup” vs “playing to win” – they make safe plays and play in a way that shows they are scared to make a mistake. So how do you handle the pressure, how do you seize your opportunity when you are given a chance to play? Daily attention to detail.

If you’re a fringe player, your practices must become your games. Your attention to detail must be near-perfect. Every repetition you get must be done as well as you can do it. You have to be brilliant at the basics of the game. In hockey, this means finishing your checks, picking up on the backcheck, executing systems with precision, going hard to the net, winning puck battles, etc. You have to do all the little things every single day and hold yourself accountable to those details. Ask yourself – did I do the absolute best that I can today?

These details should be ingrained in every player anyways, but they are especially important for players who are on the bubble. Doing all the little things and executing the details with pride will not only earn you playing time but it will also help you seize your opportunity for success. When you do get into a game, your habits (systems, checks, backchecks, battles, etc) will create opportunities for you and your linemates and keep you in the game on a regular basis. If the easy things aren’t executed, it becomes easy for the coaching staff to take you out of the lineup again.

While this addresses players who are on the fringe, the reality is that this is the key to success at any level and for any activity. Being persistent at the details – never letting little things slide. Preparing and practicing like you want to perform will make your performance a habit. People get nervous for games, performances, presentations, speeches, etc when in reality, all these big “events” are is adding an audience to what you do on a daily basis. If you execute the details daily, you will do them in performance. Nerves come from not being confident in your ability to perform – confidence comes from preparation. Prepare like every day is a performance and you will see your success grow.

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Nerves and Fear

I took an exam today. While I knew I had this exam at the beginning of the semester, all this week, and even up until the time of the exam, I was never nervous or anxious. When my professor began to hand out the exam to the people in the front row, I could feel my heart beat faster and my hands begin to sweat. I was nervous.

But why? If you had asked me an hour before the exam if I was nervous I would have said “Absolutely not.” I knew the exam was coming, I knew the material, and I worked hard to prepare. Yet in the moments before I began I felt the effects of nervousness and heard a voice in my head asking “What if you missed something? What if you don’t remember the most important part? What if?”

Nerves and nervousness are effects of fear. They are the effects of fear of the unknown. I was not physically or emotionally afraid of my exam – I was afraid of the unknown aspects of my exam. Fear of the unknown is a natural human emotion. As human beings, we can prepare, understand and cope with what we know. We are unable to do any of those things for something that we are not aware of. Therefore, we are nervous and anxious with a fear of the unknown.

Before every game that is played, it is natural for players to experience nervousness or anxiousness. This is not because the game itself is going to be different or that they are afraid of physical or emotional injury. It is because they do not know what is going to happen. They know the parameters of the game, but they are unable to know what the outcome will be. Fear of the unknown outcome is why players and coaches alike become nervous.

I have been told that the more times you enter competition, the less nervous you get. Is this because you are no longer afraid of the unknown? I would say no. You lose the nerves and anxiety because you get wrapped up in a process and routine that you know and control. This desire for control allows you to plan your actions and your emotions and eliminates the unknown. While the outcome remains unknown, you can plan and dictate your actions in situations that you know you will face. The fear is removed by introducing an element of control.

Control and habit are why sports teams practice, why students study, and why musicians and actors rehearse. These actions are done so that when the unknown happens, people are prepared with actions and counter actions that are certain and known to be successful. Why does “Practice Make Perfect”? Is it because you are doing perfect actions? No, it is because you are conditioning your mind to act in a certain way in the face of a fear of the unknown. Certainty calms the mind and eases nerves.

As a coach, one of your jobs is to introduce certainty. This can be done through film study, practice, motivational speeches, highlight tapes, etc. It is important that your methods fit the temperament and mentality of the team. Addressing this fear and nervousness will help to give you and your team an edge over your opponent – and in situations dealing with an unknown, every edge is important.