Imagine a team that is over-performing in the first half of the season to the degree that they are in the top of their league. All of a sudden they start losing every game and towards the end of the season they find themselves on the verge of relegation. What might be the reason for a team that has been over-performing predictions in the first half of the season to suddenly fall into a long losing streak? More importantly, what can you as the coach of such a team do to turn a long losing streak around and save your team from potential relegation?
There may be many different reasons for a team to over-perform in the beginning of a season, ranging from the timing of when you play who and where to the simple, but difficult to comprehend, factor of luck. Nevertheless, the interesting part in our example is not why the team is over-performing but what happens to players and coaches when it does. How is the thinking of players and coaches affected when their team that was predicted to struggle and finish in the lower half of the table over-perform and find themselves in a position to potentially challenge for the title? Are they still thinking actions and tasks or are they thinking how good they are all of a sudden? Imagine yourself being the coach of this team, wouldn’t it be easy to start thinking about the increased attention your team is receiving? Your players who were predicted to be in the lower half of the table all of a sudden find themselves in this new and surprising situation of being touted as a top team. Could this affect the thinking of your players? Is it possible that they may start thinking consequence (positive or negative) instead of thinking actions?
Imagine walking down the sidewalk and looking at your phone while thinking reading article instead of thinking avoiding garbage can. Suddenly you are realizing that your foot hurts after banging into the garbage can that all of a sudden appeared out of nowhere. Now, you know that this pain in your foot is your own fault and the logical consequence of thinking reading article on your phone instead of thinking walking on the sidewalk. Applying this analogy to our example of the over-performing team it makes sense that when players and coaches start thinking about something else than actions and tasks you risk banging your foot on the garbage can all of a sudden. The question is if you as the coach are able to realize that it’s your own fault that you banged the garbage can and have the ability to correct your thinking to be more aware of the sidewalk and as a result increase the chance of avoiding a long losing streak that brings your team on the verge of relegation.
What are some of the common traps coaches fall into when they find themselves in this situation with a sudden losing streak after a successful start of the season? The biggest mistake is of course to ignore the garbage can entirely and only blame the external factors; ”it came out of nowhere”, ”someone else put it there” or ”the pain in my foot comes from something else”. Coaches who ignore the facts and blame the surroundings instead of holding themselves accountable have a greater risk of making the following mistakes. For example, a coach thinking external factors might start to make many changes to the lineup in an attempt to counteract these external factors, real problems or not. In the middle of a losing streak you not only see coaches changing the lineup from game to game but you also see coaches who attempt to change their playing style midseason and introduce new formations from game to game. All this to fight the symptoms of pain instead of fighting the disease of not thinking walking on sidewalk.
What is the consequence for your players when the lineup is changed after each game? What if you introduce new formations and change the playing style midseason? Naturally, the level of communication between the players drops since they are playing with new team-mates from game to game. When introducing a new formation or a new playing style in the middle of the losing streak you also risk that the players decision making take longer since they find themselves in a new surrounding with new directions. In other words, the players are not sure what to think, they are exposed to uncertainty since they don’t know who will play or even how they will play from game to game. Instead of players thinking about their own actions you now have players thinking about the coach’s actions and the consequences these might have for them.
Switching the thinking of your players and coaches back to actions and tasks in the middle of a losing streak is by no means an easy task. The higher the pressure from the outside world is, the harder it is for players to think actions instead of thinking consequences. However, as a coach it is a good idea to not make things worse for yourself by falling into the traps described earlier. This scenario of being in the middle of a losing streak might also be a very good opportunity for a coach who is leading like a teacher or a manager to switch leadership style and start coaching like a commander. Simplifying the decision making process for the players by limiting their options for a period of time will help them to start thinking actions instead of thinking consequences. When you snap the losing streak and return to a situation when your coaches and players are again thinking actions and tasks instead of external factors you can switch back to your earlier leadership style.
This scenario of a team drastically over-performing in the first half of the season only to fall into a long losing streak that puts them on the verge of relegation might seam a bit extreme. However, the main point of this example have been to visualize one of the biggest challenges for coaches and players during a long season; the ability to maintain thinking actions and tasks regardless of the external factors and the numbers on the scoreboard at the end of games. If you are able to maintain thinking actions throughout your season the chance of your team performing more stable increases dramatically.