One of the things sports is full of is excuses. Not only does nobody want to be responsible for failure there is a laundry list of expressions to explain away losing. The team/player looked tired out there today. Didn't have their A game. Turns out this was a trap game for (X) this afternoon. Maybe they were overlooking this opponent. The team looked uncharacteristically lost/unprepared out there today. He was half a step slow out there. Players looked tight. They played with tired legs. It's a young team and they haven't been here before. They were in uncharted territory ...
Sometimes teams and/or players really are physically worn out and unable to perform to their true ability but more often than not the litany of excuses refer to breakdowns in a team's or player's mental game. Barring injury nothing has more of an impact on a contest's outcome than the mental state of the competitors. At the peak of sport, any sport, the competitors are all highly skilled, well trained, physically capable and have years of experience. The dividing line between winning and losing becomes razor thin and more often than you might imagine the difference isn't a matter of excellence but the ability to play up to your normal standard in unusual high pressure situations; the mind game.
Case in point: Tampa Bay Damage. Going into Day 2 in Phoenix Damage was 19-1 in its previous 20 matches and that string included three wins with a World Cup sandwiched in the middle. On Day 1 the team won 2 matches by identical 7-1 scores. On Day 2 the wheels came off. [In no way should these comments be construed as suggesting anything negative about our opponents who did what they needed to do to win. My only point is that Damage had routinely demonstrated the capacity to perform better than the team did to close out Phoenix and in Chicago.] So what happened? Did a championship caliber team suddenly forget how to play? The answer is of course not so the problem lies elsewhere. First we lost the mind game then we lost the match(es).
Why does it happen? I don't know. How does it happen? Sometimes it begins with a single player and single negative comment. Depends on the team and depends on the players. Sometimes it begins with a bad point. An outburst in the pits. An argument that escalates into a shouting match in the middle of a paintball match. And sometimes it's as seemingly benign as coming out flat, starting slow--having tired legs. There is no single cause or cure. It is least well understood or controllable element of the group dynamic. But happen it does.
I am inclined to think that at its core its a failure to deal with pressure; the pressure to succeed, to perform and the bigger the moment or the greater the expectation the more the pressure mounts. That still doesn't explain why it happens to players and teams when it does but I don't think there is just one explanation.
The more important question for the competitor is: How do I fix it?
I wish I knew.
Okay I have a few ideas. (Otherwise I wouldn't have bothered to write this post.) Change the focus and control what you can control and ignore the rest. When I say 'change the focus' what I really mean is stop focusing on winning. Don't get me wrong--winning is the bottom line and I'm all about winning. You can take that to the track and bet the trifecta on it but--the first goal for every team is to focus on playing your best game. You have no control over winning. All you can do is your best and believe that today it is enough to bring home the victory. For good teams the pressure to win is always there anyway but the only thing under your control is how you perform. Stop thinking and simply start doing. And to do that the team must focus on the things under its control. Preparation. Repetition with purpose. (By that I mean not simply going through the motions but making the effort to learn from mistakes as a player and a team in the process preparing to compete.) Clearly defined roles. (When players know their roles they play within the concept of the team and focus on their job.) Execution of the game plan, point by point. (Staying focused on executing the game plan puts the bigger picture out of mind and helps to remind the player he is part of a larger whole.) Play in the moment. (Do your job, trust your teammates to do their's and play as a unit by executing the game plan.) Do all that effectively and success will follow. Fingers crossed.