March Madness in Massachusetts. The first tournament that I’ve been part of where I was head coach. It was exciting. I had been part of tournaments before, one day events and weekend ones too but all as an observer or an assistant. Here I was taking my team to compete where results counted and I was very proud and grateful to be doing so.
Prep before hitting the road
Once the schedule had been released I looked into who we were facing and at what times. Though I am a firm believer in you should always prioritize your own objectives over disarming the oppositions’, I still wanted us to be very aware of who we were facing. We were able to get a brief insight into the quality of our opponents across the weekend and thus we were slightly more mentally prepared for what we would face and when. But the word slightly cannot be understated. The advantage of knowing how your opponents have fared in their recent games and how they compare to you cannot be pinpointed to any tangibles seen on the field.
From a psychological perspective we didn’t want this tournament to become an overwhelming occasion for the players where they would treat the opposition or games any differently to what we have already experienced because of the word ‘tournament’. The only real variables were the travel (six hour road journey to Boston) and the housing situation (overnight hotel stay). Other than that, this was like any other weekend of games. What we did try to instil however was some professionalism.
Prep before games
Once players arrived to the hotel we held a team meeting in which the messages were clear: ‘Treat yourself as a professional player this weekend’. Recommended meal sizes, times, and contents were discussed and agreed upon by the team. As well as this so too was a recommended nightly schedule. No electronics an hour before an agreed sleep time. I understood this may have be difficult with certain players and the excitement and novelty of being away together with friends would be too much for some. However I believed this was key to us having success on the field and didn’t hesitate in sharing the importance of our professionalism with the team.
The idea of staying on our individual and collective paths was underlined also. Goal setting for the weekend with the aid of some vivid visualisation was encouraged. The importance of focusing on a few targets and bringing these to life with images and mindsets to support them was discussed, as were potential negative moments that could throw us off our path. There will and will always be external factors that are ever present in a game but acknowledging these and continuing to focus on what we can control will always be far more relevant for us to reach our desired performance levels. A recommended pre game goal setting process and a post game self reflection was discussed. Understanding how and why we were or were not able to meet our goals and to what extent would allow us a platform on which to build upon game to game.
We also reinforced to all the players briefly about their roles and the responsibilities that they were required to carry out during the four phases. At least that was the intention. The team was broken up into small groups by their positions on the field. The detail was purposefully kept brief as the timing of the reinforced messages was around sixteen hours from kick off. Moving graphics were used and the conversation was very open with questions welcomed. Certain players sat in on the information for other positions’ groups as we knew ahead of time they would be required to play in additional positions. These additional positions had a natural link to player’s primary position but an understanding on the differences is something I should have actively looked to question them on.
Again, the idea of visualisation; seeing images and understanding with specific action words and phrases what the players would be experiencing on the field ahead of time would only aid familiarity and comfort levels when performing.
Actions during games
Dependent on the kick off time, breakfast timing varied. Our first day of games saw us kick off at 12.30pm so an 8-9 am eating window for a smaller meal was suggested to allow for adequate digestion of at least two hours. The players arrived to the venue 45 minutes before kick off and the players led their dynamic warm-up and ball familiarization before a small possession exercise and final messages.
Unfortunately as predicted, certain members of the team couldn’t adhere to the recommended night time rules. Perhaps going through the itinerary with the parents AND the players would’ve been the better move so there was some accountability on the parents too to help the players stick to the guidelines. I was placing a lot of trust on some 14 year old girls. Lesson learnt. They need help. I had to give the team a disappointing scolding. I didn’t want to but understood I had to.
Before the game the message is more of an emphasis of what has been spoken about beforehand. The focus is us and our game and we must keep calm in the face of external factors that are unfavourable. We introduced some pre match hugs and well wishes at the start of our last game as I felt that this would help spread some positivity across the team. It was amusing and pleasing to see as the players initially showed some hesitancy before embracing the concept.
As for the games, managing rolling substitutions makes life easier for certain as it allows for players to rest momentarily as well as take some time to reflect on their individual performance. However the flow and momentum can suffer at times with the need to introduce players into the game. There were occasions throughout the three games where we were enjoying prosperous moments in possession and introducing substitutions would more than likely been disruptive than beneficial. However incoming players were carefully placed and told clearly about their responsibility regarding the game tempo to minimize the disruption. Well, that was the intention!
Having access to some real game statistics and being able to be objective would have benefited us and helped focus our performance. Having spoken to some colleagues, using our substitutes to record some basic data would have been a great idea. Not only do we then have some insight into how we are performing but it also gives the incoming players an idea of what is going well or not and gives them a chance to personally make a difference based on what they have recorded. It is something we will certainly look to introduce next time.
Actions after games
Debriefs were brief. Whatever needed to be said we always left things on a positive. Perspective was everything so when we performed well we didn’t get carried away and when we didn’t have a great game we didn’t get drawn on it too much. The players were encouraged to enjoy their downtime with one another and on the evening of the first day of games a players and parents dinner was enjoyed in the city.
It is these simple informal gatherings that are so important and so influential in allowing for the players to play to the level that they do. Everything on the field we have done and continue to do is obviously influential in our successes but as I continue to see first hand the social aspect of being part of the team is huge to the players, who in reality are just young ladies full of life.
Finally the role of the parents must be given their due acknowledgement. Player relationships and team unity is one thing but seeing it within the parents to an even deeper degree was so eye opening and pleasing. There was a lot of goodwill and love shared throughout the weekend with many of these memories captured on camera as this post shows! But overall, it can’t be denied that the parents played a huge role in assisting the team in their on the field successes by being completely respectful and supportive of the guidelines that were set out and just being hugely positive and appreciative to the team whenever there was any contact time. I know not every group of parents behind a team can be this in sync but to be able to work alongside and for such a group as this has been an enriching experience that I know very well I am fortunate to be a part of. Thank you all.
Overall, here are some of the lessons taken for the next tournament:
- Get player objectives planned out ahead of time – make it clear they know and understand it.
- Involve parents on team objectives and rules. Use their help.
- Place more responsibility and accountability with the captains from the start.
- Prepare for set pieces in trainings before in greater depth.
- Plan warm up time carefully by the minutes
- Involve substitutions with some basic performance analysis