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Celebrations: mental recovery training

Only one team ends their season with a win, only one. Why then, is it so hard to lose at that last game when the odds are so high that it’s the way most of us will go out? How do we counter that feeling that can so quickly give amnesia to players and coaches of a fantastic season after the final buzzer sounds and that crushing realization that all of that hard work and goal seeking is over?

Last year our team made it to the state final four, this year we made it to the elite 8 before going out (twice by the same team, painfully) and by more than a few goals down. But what struck me about this team both years was that no tears were shed, they bounced back after the loss almost immediately and I think our culture had a huge hand in that.

As a coach I still feel like I rack up a list of failures on a daily basis and wish that I could do more than read about great coaches, I wish that I could be a fly on the wall and really study how to do things the right way rather than having to learn the hard way. But if there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that celebrations after games make all the difference when it comes to culture, mental recovery times, and closing out a season with a smile.

There is clear temptation to focus on what went wrong after a game, the thought of course, being that we can point out mistakes while they are fresh. But mistakes are easily remembered by players, and often played over and over in their mind bringing them farther into the slump that brought them down to begin with. They won’t be fixed with a simple post game venting of all that went wrong.  Changing the focus to what was done well, brings about confidence, more of the same positives in the next game, and the ability to bounce back and recover after a tough situation – like after the last loss of the season. We train for important rapid physical recovery after a hard sprint, but are we training our minds for a rapid mental recovery after a mistake or a loss?

As coaches of course, we note the mistakes, and we make plans to address them with situational drills for the next practice. And in fact, that is the best time for drilling weaker skills – at practice- not right after a game when they are emotionally and physically drained and distracted. Our celebration circle is done after every game, win or lose and it’s about celebrations only, no corrections. We give the teammates a chance to call out and bring attention to the positive things players did during the game, and though they may not realize it, it’s mentally training them to recover and look for the good in every situation especially at the height of emotion immediately at the close of the game.

What about parents? What is the talk in the car on the way home from a game focused on? I caught myself the other day, even while consciously trying to stay positive with my 12 year old daughter, throwing in a few “helpful” tips on things to improve and I immediately saw her face fall.  It’s a trap that is so easy to fall into and takes huge effort to avoid, because it goes against our human nature to fix things immediately.

The first few circles for our team made a difference right away in how the players left the field, even after a loss. It made a difference in their attitudes at the next practice, and that made it worth the few minutes after a game to make sure we fit it in and let the parents wait those couple of extra minutes or before we got on the bus. But after two seasons of consistent post game celebration circles, the change became much broader and more effective than just that. The players were making the choice to see the positive side throughout the season, not just after games. It was making a difference on a whole other level, during games, at half-time, when we were down in points, after mistakes on the field, during practices, and in the way the players talked to each other on a daily basis.  Our team was able to come back in a game and get a win even from pretty devastating point differentials at half time because they recovered mentally from mistakes so well.

Today after our game, after a season of celebrations,  instead of the typical circle, we did shout outs to our favorite season memories. At the end of months, week in and week out of pressure, pushing, exhaustion, injuries, celebrations and disappointments, all that really matters anyway, are the memories we made.

SPXLAX 2015, to my team who reminds me how to stay young, that I’m a dork, that it’s ok to make mistakes, how to forgive, to keep it in perspective, and what really matters, I love you guys!

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