I recently read about the Nationals heroic comeback in the 10th inning of a playoff game to eliminate the Dodgers and advance to the National League Championship. Sports are so often about two things: the power of narrative and momentum.
“For the fans who showed up through all those miserable days that we had early: Hey, thank you, appreciate it,” Martinez said after the win. “And, yeah, we’re playing for a National League championship. A lot of fun.”
In this case, the Nationals had both.
(And they had fun. Don’t forget fun. Please don’t forget fun.)
I bring this up now as I watch the 2019 college soccer season unfold. Most teams are not quite halfway through their conference seasons yet stories are already being told. Those at the top of the standings are feeling overly comfortable and those at the bottom are in some cases overly worried.
Why do I say overly?
Because there’s still plenty of time to come back and way too much time to relax. How often does postseason selection come down to the last game? This is true even for teams who wrote themselves off way too early.
Momentum matters in sports and now would be a great time to galvanize your teams and build momentum whether you are in the catbird seat or feeling out of the race.
I would rather have a great second half of season and whoosh into the playoffs with momentum than start great only to fizzle out.
Consider these options to change course and build momentum.
Tell the Right Story:
Sometimes the wrong narrative sets in. “We are unlucky.” “Referees are against us.” “We can defend but can’t score.”
Change the narrative right now. Don’t refute the old story. Refuting it in an odd way reinforces it. Don’t turn it into an argument or debate where we are looking for evidence of the old narrative.
And, don’t do fake pollyanna framing. Be honest and true. If you have the potential to do well then frame the story for what’s possible.
Start a fresh narrative. “We are a good second half team.” “We are the team that works the hardest. Good things happen.” “Impressed with our commitment so far. Now’s our moment.”
You get the point.
If you don’t think you have potential for right now, frame around legacy. “We are building the habits, standards, culture that will create a winning program in the future. We compete to the end of every training, game and season. Good things that come in the future began here today. We won’t forget that.”
Is it fun?
Is your team having fun? I don’t mean the frivolous kind of fun that indicates no standards. I mean, is there joy in the game? In competing? In learning.
Having fun makes everything else easier to manage.
Of course some seasons are grinds for coaches. It’s naive to think otherwise. But for college athletes who only have four seasons to play fun is a big part of the point. If this isn’t “your season” it’s still an important one to each of them.
Give them the best possible year you can. Manage your own energy and help drive the high standards and energy of your team.
Taking responsibility is a powerful act. We tell leaders all the time to own responsibility. As a result we respect those coaches who stand up and own the negative results and share the positive ones.
But we really should share responsibility for performance with the leaders on the field. In doing so we also share the power to find solutions. You cannot change anything you are not responsible for. Why would this only belong on the sideline?
Don’t hand blame over, hand power over.
Check in with players. See what they think. Ask them what they believe are the keys to success. Give them agency in the determining the next steps. You might be surprised at how insightful they are. You will definitely be pleased with how bought in they are as a result of being consulted.
Coach the individuals:
One of the best way to change narrative, keep it fun and share responsibility is to coach the individuals not just the team.
Have more conversations with each player. Hear what he or she is thinking. Commit to the individual’s development on the field and off.
Learn if there is more going on than you are aware of just from training and games.
Sell your ideas about the narrative and your commitment to the current and future team one player at a time. Persuade them. Prepare each for her current role and for the potential to have a bigger role.
You will be rewarded by more than just better performance; you will have a chance to influence and be influenced by the people you coach. This depth of communication will drive a better experience.
Perhaps it will even drive better results.
There’s still plenty of time left
There’s still plenty of time left in this season and big things ahead in future seasons. You and your team get to write the story.
Stay in this game to the last moment. Your team, and each person on it, will appreciate it and momentum just may swing in your favor.