In the past week, I have received numerous requests to help players finish their rounds, games, or matches. It seems that they are playing great for the first 75% of their performance, but as the end approaches, their level of performance suffers. It is an interesting question because it makes me come back to my roots in baseball, but it really applies to every sport or performance situation.
In baseball, the hardest three outs of the game are the final three. That is why a Major League baseball team will pay millions for a pitcher that is effective at closing a game. Currently, one of the best in the league is Brian Wilson. He is more known for his outlandish character and fun with the media, but when he enters the game, it is over. His teammates know it, his management knows it, and the opposing team knows they have a huge challenge in front of them.
When the score is tight, there is significant pressure at the end of the game. Each pitch means something and when the opposing team can garner any momentum in the ninth inning, that momentum cascades usually into a change in the lead. It is up to the team to train and identify a pitcher that can keep their attention and focus in check in order finish the game. That role is not for any pitcher, though. It takes a player that is aggressive, confident, and has a short memory. All that matters is the batter you are facing right now. The closer WANTS the ball. Very simply, they want to be in that position.
When I was a pitcher, I was a reliever. Either I would come in early in a game or at the end of the game, in the ninth inning. I loved that pressure. In fact, I fed so much off of the adrenaline at the end of a game that I struggled as a starter. As the game got tighter, the more excited I got. I wanted to be the guy at the end of the game. Win or lose, I wanted to be the pitcher that the entire team looked to. The funny thing was that I did not have the great physical tools to be successful. I did not throw hard and did not have a nasty pitch. I was average, but I prided myself in my mental preparation, my focus, and my attention. I wanted it. When I was not brought into a game, I was not happy. I wanted the pressure, I wanted the adrenaline rush, and I wanted the opportunity. I did not worry about the consequences of not finishing a game for my teammates, because I felt that I was best prepared to get the job done. There were no “If’s,” only NOW.
The reason so many pitchers struggle with finishing the game is that they allow the pressure of closing a game to overwhelm their attention and focus. As a result, they try to be too fine, too perfect, and tend to pitch with a fear of consequences. They allow themselves to worry about the opinions of others if they fail. What is funny is that same pitcher may have recently completed the 8th inning with absolutely no problem, but once they walk out for the 9th inning, you can see the change. Finishing is not about changing anything, but focusing and raising the level of attention to what you want to accomplish.
Every athlete trains to be in the winner’s circle. If a player is not striving to be a champion, they are selling themselves short. The truth is, a player must compete to be in that position, competing to have to the opportunity to challenge themselves at the end of a game, match, or round. It is not about fearing how they will handle the situation and pressure, but instead, embracing and feeding off of it. Winning is not an accident. It is a result of a solid approach, efficient preparation, and playing with aggressive confidence when in position to close the deal.
To finish, do not change your approach or strategy. Avoid the self-talk of “If I can simply….”, or “Let’s just get this over with…”. Instead, square up to the challenge and raise your focus and attention on what you want. It is no different than a musician waiting for the opportunity to audition for a new contract. Sure, the nerves and anxiety will be peaking just prior to going out on stage, but the greatest embrace the nerves and “leave it all out on the stage.” They flush the fear of failure and instead, fully embrace the ability to showcase their skills. This is your time – show it.
So, when you are coming down the homestretch, focus on the shot, the pitch, the throw, or the final routine at hand. Fully give of yourself without fear of the consequences, both positive and negative. Accept the opportunity to showcase what you have trained for and leave it all out on the table. Win or lose, that is really out of your control. See yourself in the position that you want to be in. Visualize yourself managing the emotions, the arousal, and the excitement of the FINISH.
What’s the worst that can happen?
Fully give of yourself, focus on the WANTS, and accept the consequences, and you win?