Why Your Athlete Really Fails on Game Day

In sports there is a super fine line between success and failure on game day. In a long tournament weekend sometimes that line becomes blurred and as parents or coaches we struggle with why our athlete and team don't play consistently and seem to reach such highs one week then such lows the next.

From a recent experience with my own team I believe I have discovered why so many elite, or travel level athletes and teams fail to achieve their true potential on game day.

If you study, as I do, athletic competition at every level you will find that an athlete's or team's "mentality" before, during and after the game is the X Factor that determines winners and losers.  From professional to elite Olympic, amateur and college athletes alike how you think is truly how you will play. With most teams and athletes at the highest levels of competition being fairly equal in ability it becomes the mental preparation and mental response to game day adversity that becomes the deciding factor.

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However, I have discovered for younger athletes the dynamics on the mental side of game day success are far more complex and far more troubling.

Keep in mind that my assessment is a generalization; that your athlete or team may not suffer from these dynamics. I do, however, highly encourage you to look honestly at your athlete and team to see if you can chalk up game day failure to what I'm about to say:

1. We place our kids in a highly competitive sports environment where the bar for achievement and game day performance is high. They may really want to do this or just follow along because friends do it or parent say to do it, or that's just what everybody does.

Poor baby...only went 3 for 4?
2. We invest $100s or $1,000s into our athlete's game in an effort to keep up with the other kids and, presumably, give our athlete the best possible chance to succeed and play at the next level.

3. We tell them where to play, when to play, and how to play.

4. We drive them to kingdom come and game for practice, games, private lessons.

5. We drag the entire family to far flung places for games, packing coolers with goodies for our athletes between games and the reward of  "drive thru" on the way home.

6. During games we cheer loudly and after games either soothe our athlete's tender egos and feelings or quickly critique and criticize their efforts because we have a right to expect a perfect performance for the money and time we're investing.

7. Because of skyrocketed expectations from parents, coaches, peers and self the athletes are easily impacted emotionally when game day adversity hits...with heads down, tears and diminished attitude and effort.

In short the younger athlete has become a "robot," incapable of making decisions; incapable of producing the fire in the belly necessary to see adversity as opportunity; quick to pout and emote after adversity. 

Instead parents coddle these athletes, leading to mental softness instead of mental toughness. Some bizarre form of ADD takes root in these athletes as they appear to listen intently at practice, yet are incapable of applying what they have been taught on game day...making the same mental mistakes over and over again.

To the modern youth athlete as long as things are going well on game day they smile and play close to their potential. But at the slightest mistake or criticism from coach or parent they crumble emotionally, are quick to make excuses, or just finish out the game in a mental tailspin.

In my opinion many of these kids are cursed with an entitlement mentality, unaware or unwilling to do what it takes physically and mentally to be the best; to see competition as a challenge.

As a parent or coach my suggestion is to sit your athlete(s) down and clarify their motivation and desire for playing the game. Why do they play the game? What do you and them hope to get out of their playing the game at such a competitive level? Do they enjoy playing? Do they enjoy the competition, the challenge? Do they love the game?

To me, the bottom line is how bad your athlete and their team wants success. As I often say success is not an accident; it is an orchestrated effort of clearly defined physical and mental preparation. But more than that it is a burning desire to succeed, to play your best, to meet the challenge that playing sports at an ultra competitive level offers.

As former UCLA softball Head Coach, and winner of 11 National Championships, Sue Enquist told me, "The team that stops competing first will lose." It's just that simple. Unfortunately today many kids and their teams never start competing on game day! They go through the motions...robotic.

Playing youth sports at the highest levels has never been more competitive. It requires no less than everything a young athlete has to give both physically and mentally. I didn't make the rules...that's just how it is today.

Remember, mental toughness, effort and attitude are always a choice. As such game day success is also choice; but so is game day failure.

If your athlete is a robot maybe it's time to pull the plug and see if there truly is any fire in their belly to play the game at this level. If not, maybe chess is the answer?

Let me know what you think?

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