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The Mental Game at the end of the game

April 3, 2017

The other night, I happened to tune in to the University of Connecticut versus Mississippi State women’s basketball Final Four game during the 3rd quarter and was intrigued by how close the score was. UConn has been dominating the sport of women’s college basketball for some time, and a close game was a rarity for them. In their 36 wins this season, only 3 were by a margin of fewer than 10 points with the majority of the others being blowouts. Given this history, I was curious to see how the team would react to a close contest in a tournament atmosphere. Would they settle down and pull it out? Would they tighten up and struggle to play well? Or maybe they would find that middle ground of “playing badly well.”

As I’m sure you know by now, Mississippi State won the game in overtime with a buzzer beating jump shot, and they thoroughly deserved the win. With that in mind, let’s examine the mental game of each team so we can apply the lessons to our own competitive careers.

Let’s begin with one simple truth: some athletes/teams are great front-runners, but struggle when the score is close at the end. There is little pressure or anxiety when finishing a game in which you have a big lead, but when it is close, you have something to lose. A peek at UConn’s results this season will show you that they rarely faced pressure at the end of a game, and that was a likely factor in how they performed on this particular day. In the 3rd and 4th quarters, they appeared frantic on most of their offensive possessions. There were a couple of possessions in which I thought they settled down, moved the ball well, and took a quality shot, but then they would follow it up with a string of poor possessions in which they rushed and made bad decisions.

Yet, with a tie score in OT, they had the ball with 20 seconds on the clock for a final shot to win the game. It looked like UConn would gut out the win and move another step closer to a championship, but that’s not what happened. Panic set in and UConn inexplicably turned the ball over with approximately 12 seconds remaining in overtime. The team that played under no pressure all season had succumbed to it in a do-or-die situation, while Mississippi State took the opportunity and capitalized on it.

From a mental toughness perspective, there were a couple of dynamics involved in this game. First, UConn’s lack of exposure and practice at finishing tightly contested games was evident. They appeared to be focused more on what they had to lose rather than what they had to gain. This led to fear and panic in their play, especially on the offensive end. Competing in itself is a skill and you must practice playing under pressure. In a sport like basketball, this is easier said than done especially for such a dominant program like UConn. It’s difficult to replicate the pressure of the NCAA Tournament.

On the other side, Mississippi State was a motivated team. Many of the players on this squad had been beaten by UConn the previous season by 60 points, and that loss stung. They clearly remembered that game and felt like they needed to answer for it with a good performance. Mission accomplished. Even when UConn overcame an early deficit to get back in the game in the second half, State appeared to be the more composed team.

So what is the lesson for us? The next time you’re playing that “great” opponent, don’t over-respect them and give the game/match away. See if you can keep it close right up until the end. Make them work hard the entire time. They may panic and choke in those closing moments, while you stay focused on finishing strong. Let them think about what they have to lose while you concentrate on what you have to gain. This is a clear example of how mental breaking points are a factor in competition, and if you understand these dynamics, you will be better prepared to succeed under pressure. Knowing that your opponent might choke is a powerful motivator and putting them in situations in which they may is a good focal point.

Remember, it always comes down to the mental game!

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