Cleveland Cavaliers

Poise Under Pressure (part 2) – a True Test of Mental Toughness

In Part 1 of Poise under Pressure we introduced the importance of this critical skill by discussing a hypothetical season where championship tournament games and all of the regular season conference games were decided by at least a 40 point margin each and every night. In such an unrealistic hypothetical season we all know that very little ‘pressure’ would exist in the game of basketball. We discussed how dominant teams would roll into arenas full of confidence and perhaps even arrogance, expecting another blowout and the poor opposing much weaker team would play with a hope of just trying to keep it as close as possible and a hope to ‘look good’ losing. But we all know that there is no such thing as 100% certainty in sports or guaranteed blowouts. Games are more often decided by single digit deficits, and at times by just a point or two. A cursory glance at this year’s NCAA tournament brackets and the deciding score line will quickly reveal what every coach in America and every sports fan already knows; games often go down to the wire.

Part 2 of this series on pressure is more than just understanding how pressure is a common denominator in sports, it is about understanding how pressure can affect an athlete’s ability to relax, destroying good shot selection, negatively impacting assist to turnover ratios, lowering shooting percentages, and negatively affecting overall clutch performance. This discussion will also focus on a highly practical first step to excelling in pressure situations, namely a team’s ability to manage their mistakes.

One of the greatest examples of the importance of this skill in pressure situations has been demonstrated by the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and their leader, MVP candidate Lebron James. Before the 07 playoffs, Steve Kerr, certainly no stranger to playoff toughness and great clutch playoff performances, penned a Yahoo internet article that highlighted some important observations.

“In losses to the Lakers, Portland and Denver, James either missed or passed up several game-winning shot opportunities, and he misfired on several key free throws. What was disconcerting to Cavaliers fans was not missing big shots – even Kobe Bryant does that – but his reaction. James looked distraught over the thought of letting his teammates down, hanging his head and flailing his arms in disgust each time…Kobe, Reggie and Michael…when they did miss, they never showed any negative body language that could be perceived as weakness. They held their heads high and defiantly walked off the floor.”

Mentally Tough Body Language

Why did Steve Kerr pay particular attention to Lebron’s body language and behavior in these situations? This question is best answered by posing an additional question. How would most players feel if just before the end of a game on the deciding play, their coach met with the opposing coach and said “here you go coach, here is the last play of the game ….we will take the ball out on the baseline and we’ll be running a double screen from the elbow for our best shooter, and she will take a nice comfortable 12-15ft shot to seal the victory.” The players would probably ‘pitch a fit,’ and understandably so! In a similar way, it is important for athletes to understand that their facial expressions and body language are responsible for letting their opponents know exactly what is on their mind. Opponents have an advantage whenever they know we are frustrated, fatigued, or experiencing any other negative thought or feeling.

An even more important reason for maintaining great body language is the positive or negative affect body language can have on the athlete who is exhibiting the body language. As an example, try to answer the following question. What do all great actors have in common? Well, one of the things they have in common is the ability to convince us that they have become the people they are pretending to be. But even more remarkable than that, they have the ability to often convince themselves that they are playing a role. The great actors often immerse themselves in their roles to the extent that they are able to physically experience intense emotion such as courage, fear, and confidence, even to the point that they can produce tears of joy or sadness. How are they able to achieve this type of control? Great actors achieve this type of physical response through tremendous imagery and word suggestions in their mind and they also assume the body language of the emotions that they are experiencing to add to these emotions. Think about the last movie scene you saw where an actor laughed or cried and think about the body language that contributed to these different emotions.

The important lesson here begins with the understanding that even great performances will often contain some mistakes. How we physically react to these mistakes will help determine our ability to ‘bounce back,’ stay ‘tough’ and continue to maintain the 4 C’s of Peak Performance – Composure, Concentration, Confidence and Commitment. We should never allow a mistake to cause our eyes, chin or chest to drop after the mistake. We may not be able to play a totally mistake free game, every game, but we can always control our body language. The Lebron James from the 2006 season is a VERY different Lebron from the 2007 playoffs and this year’s 2008 playoffs. The transformation has not been physical, it has been all mental.

Great coaches establish a great culture of exceptional body language both on and off the court, and they do not tolerate negative body language. Watch a selection of games from this year’s Women’s NCAA tournament again and put duct tape on the bottom of the TV so that you cannot see the score. Then turn the volume off on the TV set, and you will quickly see the difference between the toughest teams in the country and everyone else. You will often know who is winning and who is losing in the space of just a couple of minutes of action, all without knowing the score or listening to the play by play. When the tough teams are down a few points, or even double digits, they NEVER show that frustration. This year, Tennessee was as good as I have seen in recent years in their ability to handle their mistakes. And for teams of this caliber, their ability to control a physical, emotional and/or verbal response to mistakes will also extend to other forms of adversity that may shake a mentally weaker team, including:

1. On-court negative response to opponent intimidation
2. On-court negative attitude when substituted
3. On-court response to questionable officiating
4. On-court negative response to a mistake
5. On-court response to an opposing team making ‘a run’

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