You’re in the middle of your conference schedule. You’re tired, worn down, and frustrated. Your team just lost another tough game, and the last thing you want to do is train the next day. Now, imagine being one of your players and multiply how you feel by about a thousand.
“At such moments, the Warrior of the Light is not concerned with results. He examines his heart and asks: ‘Did I fight the good fight?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ he can rest. If the answer is ‘no,’ he picks up his sword and begins training all over again.” —Paulo Coelho, Warrior of the Light
If you work in or around athletics, you’re going to deal with tough seasons at some point in time. It’s the law of averages. And no matter how experienced you are as a coach, nothing can prepare you for the challenges of dealing with a team that is suffering through a losing season. It is impossible to truly be ready for these challenges until you are hit with them head-on.
When this happens, as a strength and conditioning coach, you are almost powerless. You can’t put the ball in the basket for the team, and you have very little control, if any, over what goes on during the game. The best you can do is make sure the team is physically ready to play the game when the whistle blows. And 99% of that effort happens when nobody is watching.
We Just Lost and the World is Ending
Well, it’s not really ending, even though it feels like it. The sun is going to come up the next day and, unless it’s the last game of a player’s career, they’ll have another chance to shine. No matter what happened, leave it in the past. Strength and conditioning coaches cannot get wrapped up in the wins and losses or highs and lows a team experiences.The weight room needs to be a safe haven for athletes during a losing season. Click To Tweet
The weight room needs to be a safe haven for the athletes. It needs to be a place where they know they can get better but also step away from the pressures of their game for a little while, especially in-season. They say that doing a round of cardio is the best anti-depressant medicine, so why not make the weight room a place where your athletes can get better while enjoying themselves? The world will not end because you lost a game.
It’s So Easy—in Theory
Everything is easy until you put it into practice. The question is, how do you create this nurturing and positive atmosphere? Strength coaches are competitive. We wouldn’t do what we do if we weren’t. We feel the losses just as much as the sport coaches and the players. But just because we’re hurting doesn’t give us the right to add to the players’ misery the next day. We need to do the opposite. We need to once again create a welcoming, upbeat atmosphere in the weight room, a place where they can focus on their training and not on the game.
How Do We Create a Positive Atmosphere?
Of course, it’s easier said than done and there is no right or wrong way to create an encouraging, positive atmosphere for your team. The key is to know your team’s personality. At this point, it doesn’t come down to X’s and O’s, it comes down to psychology and having the pulse of your team. If your team typically likes to dance (most teams love to dance), make sure you put music on to kick-start it. Freeing their minds of stress, if only for a few minutes, will go a long way to improve their mood and hopefully their performance for the next game.
The Day After a Loss
The day after a tough loss is always going to be the hardest, especially when you have to turn around and play again in twenty-four hours. The team is typically tired, upset, and lacking the motivation to do anything that requires effort. Coaches are working hard to learn from the mistakes from the night before and planning to get the team ready to play the next day, so it’s important that the strength coaches do the same.
When the team walks into the weight room or steps on the court for warm-up, do not throw a pity party and feed into the negativity. Often, the strength coach is the “energy-giver.” Embrace this role and give the team the boost they need. It’s time to move on and get ready for the next step. The past is the past. Learn from it, improve on it, and ultimately put it in the rearview mirror.
Dealing with an Extended Losing Streak
Losing one game is hard enough. Losing multiple games in a row is downright torturous. Former NFL Coach George Allen once said, “Every time you lose, you die a little bit. You die inside… a portion of you. Not all of your organs. Maybe just your liver.”
Obviously this is a bit of stretch, but a point well taken. It hurts to lose. Athletes and coaches make huge sacrifices to succeed in their sport. They expend a lot of effort in their preparation, from the start of the off-season right up until game time, so it’s easy for losing to feel like failing. And when losses start piling up, it’s easy to feel like the world is crashing down.
As hard as it may be and as much as people will resist this, it’s vital to stay positive and stay the course to get out of the losing streak and ultimately get better from the experience. Getting the athletes to understand and “trust the process” is crucial to their overall success and development.
3 Keys to the Process
- Programming is the Easy Part—Buy-In is the Most Important and Toughest Part
As strength coaches, we understand the importance of a sound, year-long training program. We spend hours doing our research and putting together our periodization plans. But those plans, no matter how great they are, no matter how fancy our excel spreadsheets look, are meaningless if we’re not getting great effort and buy-in from the players.In-season is the hardest time to train athletes—the weight room is a nuisance to them. Click To Tweet
In-season is the hardest time to train because the athletes have so much on their plate. The weight room is a nuisance to them; it’s just one more thing they have to do. To get what we need out of them, we must make the lifts short and create variety week in and week out. This doesn’t mean we have them do something completely new to them, but it does mean getting creative with what you have and what is familiar to them.Get creative during the season to maintain the atmosphere of success you built in the off-season. Click To Tweet
Instead of your typical in-season lift, create a circuit to break up the monotony that incorporates the exercises they already know. Or, create a weight room competition where they can get excited and compete in something other than their sport. At some point, jump into the competition yourself and help them get a little crazy. All of this helps keep the atmosphere of success that you worked so hard to build in the off-season.
- Pre- and Post-Practice Warm-Ups and Cooldowns
Warm-ups and cool downs are also times to get creative. You don’t need to make drastic changes. Even playing a game of tag or creating some competition while getting loose is good for morale and gets the team in the right mindset for practice. I admit I struggle with this because there are a lot of things I want to accomplish in my warm-up. But generating excitement with games and forgetting about a structured warm-up is great for the team’s psyche.
As for the cool down, vary what you do each day. Instead of band stretching, one day do a dynamic cooldown or put together a static stretch series. Any variability from the norm will be good for them.
- Game Day Warm-Up
The game day warm-up is the culmination of all the work done in preparation for the game. By this point, there’s no need for anything but to help the players get themselves mentally ready for the game. Unlike the practice warm-up, this needs to be consistent and have no element of surprise. It needs to be fast (7-10 minutes on the court) and move them in the right mindset to play.
I want the team to know exactly what to expect and to put them in an atmosphere where they can find their focus without any external pressures. How you build the atmosphere varies on the type of personalities that exist on the team, so it’s vital you have a clear understanding of what makes the team tick. This is where you see the biggest differences in sport culture. A football team typically wants to get very fired up whereas a golfer or tennis player needs more quiet time to silence the noise. I’ve found basketball is a mixture of both.
When we play at home, I set up the weight room for the first part of their warm-up. I put one of their games—or their opponent’s games—on the TV, pick music I know will relax them, and let them do what they need to do to get ready. I have different exercises set up for them and am available to stretch anyone who feels they need it before they take the court to start shooting. We do all of this before the dynamic warm-up on the court.
I design everything to get the athletes feeling good and in the right mindset to play at the highest level. The more physically ready they feel, the more comfortable they are during the game.
Creating a positive atmosphere for your athletes is the easy part. Putting it into practice when the season isn’t going your way is the biggest challenge. It’s most important to know the pulse of your team and have the willingness to adapt. What works one week might not work the next, so it’s vital to your in-season success to adapt to each situation you face. As strength coaches, if we can keep the focus on continual growth and improvement, our program will reap long-term benefits by carrying over into the off-season, the next season, and beyond.
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