Game Day Slump: What To Do When Performance Tanks

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One tendency in athletics today is to assume every mistake is the short coming of physical qualities. 

When coaches review film and look at a game situation where a player failed to execute, they often attempt to find a perceived shortcoming that can be “fixed” with more strength, speed, or power work. 

As the saying goes, "if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail."

Here are some all too common examples:

  • A lineman failed to protect his quarterback from the pass rush? He must be too weak in contact and needs to develop his lower body strength.
  • A basketball player’s potentially game-winning layup got blocked? She can’t jump high enough and needs to do more plyometric training... or she gets tired too easily and needs to develop more endurance to shoot at the end of the game.
  • A rugby player missed a crucial penalty? He needs to kick 100 through the posts in training on Monday.

Time To Expand Your Coaching Tool Box

In making such reductionist judgments, what we’re missing is that physical qualities aren’t the only ones that can affect performance.

At any time... in any game... at any level we also see the manifestation of three other co-active categories: tactical, technical, and psychological. 

These combine with physical elements in the execution of every skill in the game context. But we’ve become so conditioned to focus on the physical, we often minimize the other three or exclude them all together.

Then when we try to remedy the issue, we again pursued a reductionist approach that attempts to isolate a certain physical characteristic – the lineman squatting, pressing, or deadlifting more weight; the basketball player leaping higher in her box jumps; or the rugby player standing alone while he sends kick after kick towards the posts.

The trouble is that such drills have little to no bearing on the game itself because they’re not performed in context.

And while we’re having the player spend time on such things, they’re missing the chance to develop other qualities that could actually fix the problem and improve their performance in the next game within the team context.

Having worked with college, pro, and national teams in every major field and court game, I’ve discovered a much more effective way to assess player performance through the lens of the game.

It comes down to better identifying what really went wrong and planning a more pragmatic, holistic, and effective solution that will improve both individual and team performance. Here’s how to put it into practice.

2-1.jpgImage 1: Physical qualities like strength, speed, and power aren't the only limiting factors you must identify and improve as a coach.

1. Take a Four-Dimensional Look at What Happened

3D and virtual reality are all well and good, but when assessing performance, we need to go one step further and look at what happened in four dimensions: technical, tactical, physical, and psychological.

A certain action or non–action (the failed block, the blown layup, the missed penalty) might be due to a physical shortcoming. But most players who are able to reach a certain level have the requisite physical talents, or at least have reached a point of being at a functional minimum level.

power-quadrant-performance-analysis.pngFigure 1: The cornerstone to performance is a balance and orchestration of these essential sports variables. When in doubt, explore the technical, tactical, and psychological dimensions of performance before brushing it off as a physical deficiency.

Example 1: The Lineman

At a certain stage, taking a lineman from a 500-pound squat max to 510 pounds isn’t going to have any effect on his in-game performance because of the law of diminishing returns. Not to mention, the time and effort to get that 2% increase has to come at the expense of something else, such as technical or tactical training.

If he is strong enough to make a block, then we need to consider that perhaps the issue lies elsewhere. Maybe, for example, he lacks the tactical grasp of the defense coordinator’s scheme and so was out of position as the play unfolded.

Example 2: The Basketball Player

The basketball player who missed the layup might be one of the best leapers on the team and didn’t actually blow the layup because she can’t jump high enough. More plyometric training isn’t going to help, then, and might actually increase her risk of injury due to its explosive nature and the demands it places on her connective tissues.

Instead, on looking at the film again, you see that she was forced to her left by the defender and, as she is right-hand dominant, mistimed releasing the ball so the defender could block the attempt.

Example 3: The Fly Half

Finally, the fly half who missed the crucial penalty might be one of the most accurate kickers in the league. The issue might not be physical at all because he has proven over and over that he has laser-like accuracy in such situations.

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Instead, it was the pressure of the moment that got to him and made him start second guessing himself. As a result of this over-thinking, he cracked under the pressure and sent the ball wide. It was a psychological issue, not a physical one.

2. Break the Game Down into Moments

When coaches look at a pivotal event in any game, they are always trying to analyze and then improve it or perfect it. To do this, it’s helpful to first find out what context this pivotal event or action occurred in.

In any sporting contest there are generally four different game moments: offense, defense, transition from offense to defense, and transition from defense to offense. In other words, you’re either attacking or you're defending. And if you’re doing neither, you’re moving from one to the other. This approach will give you better context for the action or event you are trying to address.

When you attempt to remedy the issue, the optimal approach is to recreate similar game moments in practice to allow the player, position group, or team to fix it in this setting.

For a simple example, let’s look at a soccer team’s failure to prevent a score on a free kick.

In this context, they were defending an opponent’s set piece, so this occurred in the defensive moment. Let’s say that two of the opposing team’s forwards were left unmarked in the penalty box, and as a result, one of them scored with a free header. We know what happened – the attackers were unmarked and your team conceded a goal.

Now we need to look at why.

Let’s say your team had been playing a man-to-man marking scheme the whole game, but for some reason decided to switch to a zone in this situation. This led to confusion when several opposing players entered zones at the same time at full speed, and as a result, left the goalkeeper and the goal itself exposed.

The temptation here might be to drill it into the players that they need to stick with man-to-man marking in the future. But they need more than a theoretical grasp of the concept – they need to know what to do practically, and how to man-mark effectively in a game-like situation.

0918-mls-p.jpgImage 2: Players need more than a theoretical understanding of your strategy. Giving them an opportunity to practically apply the concepts in a variety of situations can help eliminate mistakes in competition.

So you set up a learning experience in which one part of the squad plays defense and the other offense. The offensive group takes the free kick from the same spot as they did in the game. You first run this drill with zone marking to remind the defending group of how chaotic it felt in the game and what went wrong.

Then you set it up again with man marking, making sure that the players decide among themselves who should be marking which attacker. Perhaps someone blows their assignment and the attacking group scores easily.

But if you re-run the scenario several times, letting the defending players figure out what’s working and what isn’t, eventually it’s going to click. They’re going to successfully defend the free kick with effective man-to-man marking.

Now maybe you try defending a similar free kick from the other side of the field, or a corner kick.

As you’re letting the players problem-solve independently and facilitating deep learning, they’ll be better equipped to succeed in the next game.

3. Do a Little Detective Work

All too often, coaches can look at a game time scenario and make assumptions about what happened and why. Sometimes an experienced eye can accurately assess what went on, particularly when you pull in more members of the coaching staff and ask their opinion.

But let’s not forget it’s the players who are actually in the moment. Sometimes because of the Fog of War they can’t tell you what occurred. But even in such cases, they might still be able to provide some useful context. And sometimes they know exactly what went wrong.

This information can tell how you address the problem. I often urge coaches to think of an episode of CSI and to ask themselves what clues they see and what they suggest.

In addition to doing the simple thing and asking them, “what happened?” in a certain game moment, you can also dig a bit deeper. How were they feeling at that time? Did they feel pressured or calm? Did they understand the play and where they were supposed to be? Were they feeling tired? Did that sore ankle bother them during the game?

By asking such questions and getting the player’s perspective, you can start to hone in on what went wrong and whether it is a technical, tactical, psychological, or physical limiting factor. This will then inform the corrective you come up with.  

4. Create Realistic Learning Experiences

Now that you’ve identified the players’ true limiting factors – tactical, technical and psychological, respectively – it’s time to find better ways of minimizing their impact.

Example 1: The Lineman

Let’s start with the lineman. Now that we know we don’t need to increase his strength and, in fact, need to enhance his technical acumen, what are we going to do about it?

The wrong choice would be to simply make him study the playbook more. Yes, he might need to review a particular scheme, but theoretical knowledge alone won’t enhance his performance. He’s also got to be able to put this into practice.

What we need to do is to create a realistic training experience that helps improve his grasp of the defensive scheme. So we can set up a drill that recreates the game moment in question. The offense would do what the opposing team did in the previous game, so that we’re working backwards from it.

The player would set up with his teammates in the same defensive scheme and when the whistle blows, the play unfolds. Rather than telling him and his teammates what you’d like the outcome to be, you should have him problem solve independently as this encourages the kind of deep learning that sinks in and will be recalled in the next game.

Once you’ve run through the drill a few times, he corrects his position and is now able to be in the right position to make the block and protect the quarterback.

And in the event that the athlete's physical qualities are in fact what needs improving, be sure to track his progress using software like TrainHeroic.

Example 2: The Basketball Player

A similar situation should unfold with the basketball player. Instead of just having her work on her left-handed layups alone on a side basket in the gym, you need to create a realistic, problem-solving experience in practice. So you set up the defense to force her onto her left hand and make the layup.

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The smartest coaches use the ‘opposition’ or scout teams to force the intended target into the context they are trying to improve. Maybe the first few times she gets flustered and mishandles the ball or fails to score. But eventually she gets it and is able to improve her technical skill enough in this scenario to take care of the ball and score.

You repeat the drill a few more times for positive reinforcement and then move on.

Example 3: The Fly Half

Now we move on to the rugby fly half. The temptation is to have him stand in the same position that he missed the penalty from and have him kicks dozens of balls through the posts. But this has no relation to the game itself.

So instead you run small sided scrimmages until he’s fatigued, and at the end of each one have him attempt a penalty kick, telling him that his team either wins or loses depending on whether he makes it or not. This way he’s physically and mentally worn down, just as he was in the game, and under pressure to succeed.

You don’t need a lot of reps here because volume isn’t the aim and the cognitive demands of such a scenario are high. Perhaps he misses the first kick but then makes the next three, breaking the negative pattern and setting himself up well for the next game.

Keep Your Remedies Applicable

Even if you determine that the limiting factor was physical – which it sometimes is – you should still try to remedy the issue in a holistic manner that’s applicable to the game. If a player says they felt tired because they hadn’t had enough games since coming back from an injury, don’t tell them to go run on a treadmill. Instead, have your player and a couple of teammates with similar issues run a few sprints in between team drills, and then get back into practice.

This will minimize the impact of their physical limitation while still keeping their focus on realistic, game-applicable learning experiences.

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About The Author

Dr. Fergus Connolly is the Director of Performance and Director of Operations at University of Michigan Football and the author of Game Changer. He has worked with teams in the NFL, NBA, Premier League soccer, the Welsh national rugby team and British and American Special Forces.

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