When I played and coached in Europe for four years after college, I loved explaining baseball to people who didn’t understand it. People who had never seen baseball. I remember talking to an Austrian friend about the closer role. We had just talked about pitching, and I said there’s one pitcher who only pitches in the last inning. And only when the score is very, very close. Their job is to do the hardest thing at the hardest time, with the most pressure. Her eyes widened and she asked, who are these people?
I’ve always been fascinated by the character and make-up of pitchers, but especially closers. The same for the last second free throw shooter in basketball, the penalty kickers and goalie in soccer, penalty shot takers and goalies in hockey, and the field goal kickers in football. If sports can mirror life, teaching us lessons on consistency, support, failure, patience, perseverance, time, and process, then these last second moments in games where all the attention is one person are its most advanced master class. The ultimate, final exam. Can you do something that you may not only fail at, but you may fail so spectacularly unlike any other moment you can experience in sports? Doing your job is expected, and when you don’t, the entire game may feel like you yourself have lost it.
The spotlight is on and everyone is watching. And then – it doesn’t happen. A miss. A loss. The game is over. The challenge quickly becomes, what will you do now? Who are you really?
I always give athletes in these moments the utmost support and respect. Acknowledging that what they are doing is so hard, that this whole team has their back no matter what. The best way to transform the pain of a late game loss into a stronger sense of resilience is through the loving support of family and the confidence-building understanding of teammates and coaches. There are of course individual self-regulation skills that can help with the preparation for these moments. How to find one’s optimal zone of performance, how to manage it up or down depending on the situation. How to recover from a loss and prepare for the next game. But when spotlight losses occur, our roles as coaches, mentors, and parents are of the utmost importance.
Parents need to remind their children they love them. That they love watching them play. That they are there with them. Coaches need to remind spotlight players that the most important element of these moments is preparation and effort. Let them know you want them to approach the big pressure moments in a way that when they’re over, no matter what the outcome, the player can honestly say to themselves, ‘yeah, I trained, I was ready, I was focused, I was aggressive. I did my best.’ That’s it. That’s all we can ask of ourselves. Coaches also need to set up team environments where everyone understands spotlight moments are the most important situations to be supportive. Not just the cursory pat on the back, get ’em next time. But the real, from the heart, I’m with you – no matter what. This fuels healing from the spotlight loss, and builds the resilience for the next game.