With 2:15 left in the game, and down by seven, my players walk towards me, exhausted.
The crowd is ecstatic. It is any team’s game.
The young men are expecting directions, but that is not why I called a timeout.
They don’t need instruction—they need a pause. After a few breaths, the team has caught on and is breathing in unison.
A few close there eyes, no doubt recalling the short meditation sessions we do in practice.
I slightly open one eye and see Terrance mouth the technique we have used so many times before this moment.
In, 2, 3, 4, hold 2, 3, 4 Out, 2, 3, 4.
I smile. My arms fill with goosebumps, and I can feel the tension leave the circle.
"Gentlemen, you are working hard out there. Each one of you has the skills, and you have each other. Win or lose, do it together."
I close my eyes, in, 2, 3, 4, out, 2, 3, 4. The players follow suit for a breath.
“Bring it in,” I say in a low voice. The captain shouts, "1-2-3” and the explosiveness in which they yelled “Work hard!” startled even me.
These young men are ready. We have a deficit of seven to make up.
Terrance gets a steal, passes it to Tony—now we are down by five.
Their point guard takes a shot, misses, Adam gets the rebound, hurls it down the court to a wide-open Terrance. The gap closes to three points.
A bad pass by the other team makes Tony dive on to the floor, knock it toward Sean, then with a quick pass to Adam we are down by one point with 0:35 seconds left.
The other team calls a timeout.
Adam—the team captain—looks over at me. I smile and wave him off.
He huddles the team together under the basket.
I don’t know what was said, but we scored two more times to win the game.
How to Increase Performance
Games are high stress for everyone—players, coaches, parents, and fans alike experience increased heart rate and crazy emotions throughout the game.
I often get asked, “How do I make my athletes more mentally tough?” and I think that is the wrong question.
A better question is, “How do I make my athlete more present and able to access their physical skills?” The answer: pause, take a breath, and go.
Next time your team is needing a pause to gather themselves, use a timeout and give them a break from the craziness. Not much needs to be said if anything at all.
Give the team a moment to gather themselves, to relax, and to get control of whatever needs to manage.
Sometimes, to perform at our best, all we need is a pause.