7 Tips to Prepare for Success in the Big Game

Enio Sacilotto

Enio Sacilotto is President of International Hockey Camps and operates the Mental Edge High Performance Training. Enio has 39 years of coaching experience (professional hockey in Europe and the WHL's Victoria Royals). Currently, he coaches at the Burnaby Winter Club Hockey Academy and the Croatian National Men's team. If you have questions or are interested in his services, contact Enio at [email protected] or call 604-255-4747

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In sports, when it comes to playoffs and tournaments, the season will come down to one game where the winning team will advance to the next round, or it can come to one game to determine the champion. Occasionally teams who have had a great season choke (negative losing sports experience under pressure) when the big moment comes and the season is over with an unexpected loss.

Why does this happen to excellent teams with great athletes? They are focused on the outcome, the must win game, the elimination game, the one and done – then when the big moment arrives the athletes are nervous, afraid to make mistakes, and they feel they are not ready.  Everyone is tight, tense, and tentative. When something bad happens like a mistake or a bad play or a bad call by the referee, they may never regain enough composure to get back in the game. They are focused on the outcome which they have no control over. Even the world’s best athletes have no control over outcomes. What they do control is the process and the consistency with which they execute the little details.

Here are the 7 tips that will prepare you and your team to be confident for the big game:

1) Win the Day – How about forgetting about winning the game and focus on winning the day? By winning the day you focus on executing the little details of the game you can control and the results will take care of themselves (like winning the game). Executing the little details will make you feel comfortable and confident. In hockey, for example:

  • winning 1 on 1 battles
  • boxing out in front of the net
  • finishing checks
  • blocking shots
  • taking offensive shots
  • going for rebounds
  • racing for loose pucks

Make your own individual and team lists of the little details you can control. You have choices; either you focus on the must win game, single elimination, one and done, or you come to win the day.

2) Be in the moment – play in the now, “where your feet are this moment” to “what is in front of you”. You cannot change the past and you have no control of what happens in the future. You will have a better chance to get a result if you execute a W.I.N. – What’s Important Now. Your current shift, your next shift and your execution of the little details will help you win the day (see your personal and team list). When a mistake happens, such as a bad call by the refs or distractions of any sort, you will be prepared to move on to the next play and will not get stuck in the past.

3) I.P.R. – Instant Positive Response – There are 2 kinds of athletes.

  1. those who fail
  2. those who will fail

Making mistakes is a part of sport and mistakes will happen but if you don’t make mistakes, you are not competing hard enough! The key to dealing with mistakes is how you respond. You have 2 choices.

  1. React – the mistake happens, you smash your stick, then negative self-talk sets in and it takes 15 minutes to recover or you may not recover at all
  2. Respond – with an Instant Positive Response – you recognize the mistake, take a deep breath, and think about what you have learned. Release the mistake, then visualize how well you will do on your next shift, you are now ready to go out and perform on your next shift.

4) Acknowledge the difficult things – In any team or group there are issues that hold teams back or pull them apart. Talk about these issues as they occur and discuss them. If issues are not acknowledged, talked about, and resolved they grow bigger until they become unmanageable. When we face the issues, we fix them and are free of them, allowing us to be our best when the big game comes along.

5) Eliminate Fear – (F.E.A.R.) False Evidence Appearing Real – Fear is perhaps the biggest hinderance to performance. Some anxiety before the big game is a good thing. But fear weakens you, it affects your thought process and decision making and it will leave you tight, tense, and stressed. When you play free of fear you play calm, confident and empowered!

The cause of fear is when one is worried about not winning – making mistakes, making bad plays, or trying to please parents. This is a result of thinking in the future and we cannot control the future! The key is to recognize when you are fearful (the physical and mental reactions) and to treat fear as your friend. Bring yourself back to the present moment and take action! Think about the little details that you need to execute to win the day, think about I.P.R. instant positive response, bring your mindset into competing with all you have and understand that mistakes are okay! Once in the present moment, of what is here in front of you, you will realize that fear is in your mind, it is false evidence appearing real. It takes practise to manage fear, so go towards your fear and what scares you and you will be ready to win the day!

6) Preparation – Proper Preparation is the key to confidence! Practise hard as you will play like you practise, work on your mental and physical skills every day!

A couple of helpful points to preparation are:

  1. 8 to 10 hours sleep
  2. 2) Visualize your game plan and your list of little details – use your mind’s eye to see success
  3. 3) eat nutritious meals that will allow you keep your energy
  4. 4) It is important to stick to your regular game day routine. Treat the big game as you would any other day and control what you can control!

For coaches: a big mistake we all make is to over coach, extra video sessions, extra practise sessions, this is just telling our athletes we are not prepared! Stick to your regular routines, we have been preparing for the big game all year!

7) Develop your spiritual strength – Spiritual strengths are not necessarily about religion, although in some cases they can be. Spiritual strengths are the intangible things like team spirit, unity, playing for each other, respecting each other and loving each other. Individual spiritual strengths are qualities like courage, perseverance, sacrifice, trust, integrity, love and fortitude. These are qualities of the Samurai Warriors, they were armed with spiritual strength and they competed for something greater than themselves, a greater good. They competed with a true warrior’s heart.

An example of spiritual strength are the 4 greater good core values that the NBA Golden State Warriors play by. Head coach Steve Kerr brought these greater good core values when he joined the team in 2014, they are

  1. Joyfulness – have fun, enjoy the game and focus on the journey (not the end result)
  2. Mindfulness – Mindfulness is about being aware of what’s going on around you. Play in the moment (with laser focus), and be grateful for what you have, the gift of being a professional athlete.,
  3. Compassion – Being concerned with each other’s feelings, knowing that each player is secure, safe and trust that players have each other’s backs, no matter what (good plays and mistakes).
  4. Competitiveness – to be a great at anything, you need to compete with all you’ve got. You need to push and work outside your comfort zone and work to create a highly positive competitive environment.

In conclusion, don’t prepare to go out and beat up your opponent. Go out and stay in the present moment, have an I.P.R. when something bad happens, execute all the little details so you can win the day! As a team, come together, compete with all you’ve got and play the game you love to play together and with the heart of a warrior! No one can guarantee you will win a championship, but if you follow the 7 tips, you will play to your potential and more. Oh, remember to enjoy the ride and have FUN doing so!

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