Isn’t it interesting that most of the teams rated as the “underdog” won their games in the opening night of the NHL playoffs. How does a team that finished in eighth place in the conference beat a team that finished first overall? Barring injuries to key players, talent usually rises to the top and accounts for how high a team finishes in the standings. So in the playoffs, how does a “lesser” team beat a more talented team? Or stated another way, how does a “better” team lose to a less talented team?
The answer has to do with the expectations the athlete has about playing a “better” or “lesser” team. How he/she assesses their competition seems to determine how they prepare for their game. It has to do with the player’s expectations of themselves, their teammates and their opponent. Based on those expectations, the athlete prepares accordingly. This then begs the question of what goes through the mind of the athlete who is preparing to play a significantly less talented opponent and what goes through the mind of the athlete who is preparing to play a significantly more talented opponent?
Based on human nature, most people exert just the “right amount” of energy necessary to accomplish a task. It is uncommon to work harder or faster than is necessary to complete a task and in some cultures, doing so can create conflict among workers or teammates. People perform according to the “expectations” they hold of the task.
Thus, less talented teams don’t expect their opponents to expend as much energy to beat them as compared to more talented teams. Simply put, the more talented teams don’t seem to prepare as much because they think they don’t have to! They do not take the “lesser” team seriously enough and therefore play down to their opponent’s level.
On the other hand, when faced with playing a more talented team or opponent a different approach to game preparation takes place. There is a strange calmness present as the expectations aren’t as great. It is felt that there is “nothing to lose” and therefore, the pressure is lessened. No one will be disappointed if you lose, because your opponent is a better team and they are supposed to win. Based on these lowered expectations, the preparation to compete against this “better” team is often more relaxed. This more relaxed, just “play your game” attitude, seems to be a more successful strategy.
If this seems confusing or counter-intuitive, it is, since it’s not logical. It is, however, psychological and that is what people are all about. Imagine how an athlete must feel always having to gauge and adjust their preparation to their expectation of how the other team will perform. A more effective way to prepare to play a match or game is to play at the same optimal level regardless of the opponent. In fact, the opponent shouldn’t matter at all, nor should the score, the game conditions or the refereeing. What should matter is playing your game to the best of your ability regardless of what external conditions are presented. Your internal consistency is what you can control, therefore, learn to control it. This consistency of play is at the core of mental toughness. Thinking about how good or how poorly your opponent plays should be kept out of your conscious awareness. Focus instead on playing your game and playing to win. Keep playing at the same high level of intensity until the buzzer sounds, regardless of the score or your opponent level of play. If you do this you will lessen the chances you will lose to a “lesser” team.
Interestingly, most of the “better” teams won the second game of their 7 game series against their “lesser” opponent. They must have prepared differently, i.e. changed their expectations eh?
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Use your Head to Stay in the Game.