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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Close Game Lessons

Previously we've discussed how sports teach us valuable life lessons: teamwork, getting along with others, doing your best, and the value of winning and losing. Since the odds of winning the lottery may be better than the chances of becoming a professional athlete, the focus for us and our kids should be on these lessons and also on the character building that can come from participating in close games

While it may be nice to win every game by a huge amount and never have the challenge of a close contest, how kids perform in tight situations can be a great teaching opportunity. Each child can take with them the understanding that every play matters, every team member counts, develop the ability to deal with uncontrollable circumstances, how to maintain focus, and the realization that nothing shows your character more than how you react to pressure and adversity.

Every Play Matters

Before the game starts nobody can tell you the outcome. However, after the game is over, anybody can tell you the pivotal moments that determined the winner and loser. How many of us can replay every shot in a round of golf or each moment of a big game in the ESPN Sports Center highlight reels of our minds? When you add up your score in the clubhouse, all your thoughts turn to those one or two shots, good or bad, that had a major impact on the round. As a player or coach, our goal has to be to understand, in advance, that all the plays are important because any of them can be "the play" that changes the game. The cause and effect nature of sports is such that any spectacular moment can be nullified the next instant by an unforeseen development while even the smallest error may be compounded into a major disaster.

Every Kid Matters

Of course, in life, every kid is important, but what about in sports? The best players on a team will often play the most important positions, handle the ball more and take the most shots, but that doesn't minimize the importance of the other kids on the team. Any kid may be the one that comes to bat in a key situation with the game on the line or have to field the tough play with the winning run on base. A team's success and potential to win a championship is often dependant on the weakest link of the chain. We want to be as inclusive as possible not just for the benefit of the kids who many not be "as good", but it's also for the benefit of everybody on the team. As coaches and parents, we need to make sure that all the members of the team are ready for their opportunity when it arises. As Confucius said: "Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure."

Dealing With Uncontrollable Circumstances

One of the keys to happiness in life is being able to only worry about things that you can control. One of the most unique aspects about sports is that most of what happens is uncontrollable. From an official's calls to the actions of a teammate or even an opponent, the ability for anybody to control the outcome of a game is very limited. Even in individual sports your ability to control the eventual outcome is impacted by bad breaks, officiating and the performances of other competitors. Coach John Wooden emphasizes effort instead of outcome to determine success; his definition is that true success is the "self gratification that comes from knowing that you've done your best to become the best of which you are capable." (SportsKids.com January 2006 Newsletter). In the context of a close game, the play that just ended, regardless of the eventual impact it may have on the game, cannot be changed. Throwing an interception or hitting a home run will obviously change the game, but once it's happened the focus has to be on what comes next.

Maintaining Focus

Some games are more exciting than others and close games can really bring out the best, and worst, in all of us. The problem is that we don't know which games will be close or which plays we may be involved in. So having your "head in the game" is crucial to every player's performance. Regardless of how talented a kid is, there is no reason that they cannot be ready to play and be focused on the game. If their only contribution to the team is focus and helping their teammates focus then they have been a big help to the team. When I coach, I try to teach kids to visualize themselves in difficult situations, including when they're not involved, so that they can plan their reactions and their attention. In a softball game there is someplace to go on every play regardless of where the ball is hit and this concept is crucial to staying focused. If your team is having problems in this area then you can try making up a game, or point system, dependant only on being focused. Making the right mental decisions can gain bonus points. I always try to reward players for effort and non-traditional statistical categories, especially when there are large disparities in talent. The points that you award for being focused can be "cashed in" for prizes that might include anything such as time off from conditioning or an opportunity to earn something that is unique to your team.

Character Building

When the pressure is on you can really see how the kids have developed and learn a lot about their character as people. In a close game, do they start to drag themselves around the field or are they extra focused and alert? When they make a mistake do they throw their hat and get down or put it behind them and bear down? When a teammate makes an error do they criticize them or show leadership and encourage the team to get the next one? These are character issues that we try to teach our children that will help them throughout their lives. It is in times of stress that a close game brings out that these character traits and where the benefits of youth sports can be the greatest. As coaches and parents, we can emphasize leadership and effort in order to help all these kids become better people.


Close games create unique situations that are great tools for coaches, parents, and players. The lessons we learn about dealing with pressure, character building, focusing, putting our efforts only toward things in our control, and realizing that every kid and every play matters, are important elements of youth sports and of life. So, the next time that you or your team are involved in a close game try to see how everybody reacts and teach these lessons that will help to make all of us better people.


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