Empowering Players to Come Back from Halftime Deficits

I vividly remember one awful game from this past season. I’m just going to call it the Game of Shame. We faced a double-digit halftime deficit. Not that that was anything new. It actually happened on a couple different occasions this past season. The memory of this game is stronger though because I remember the team’s reaction to being down. It surprised us. And when I say us, I mean players and coaches. And that is the first problem.

This quote came from the book The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday. This quote drove home the lesson for me about surprises.

“About the worst thing that can happen is not something going wrong, but something going wrong and catching you by surprise. Why? Because unexpected failure is discouraging and being beaten back hurts.”

Avoid Surprises at Halftime

One of the questions I typically ask one of the assistant coaches leading up to a game is, “How are we going to lose this game?” It might sound like negative thinking, but the intent is to be reflective. “They hit shots, we cannot get out in transition.” The coach’s responses are always simple, but also realistic.  I am most likely to ask when I sense the opponent is weak or our team is over confident. The process allows me to be open-minded about meeting adversity during the game.

I never bothered to conduct a pre-mortem in the Game of Shame. We were evenly matched on paper. I never anticipated a blow out, so I thought I knew how the game could be lost. When our team faced a significant halftime deficit, I was overly condescending without offering appropriate solutions to why we were trailing. In fact, I was so caught up in the scoreboard that I was failing to understand the reasons for our struggles.

Surprise Can Lead to Panic

Holiday’s wisdom on panicking is appropriate advice to contemplate. “When America raced to send the first men into space, they trained the astronauts in one skill more than any other: the art of not panicking. When people panic, they make mistakes. They override systems. They disregard procedures, ignore rules. They deviate from the plan. They become unresponsive and stop thinking clearly.”

The halftime speech in the Game of Shame might not have seemed like a panic, but I checked off most of the boxes from the quote above. Not anticipating all possible outcomes was the first problem, but my reaction to the surprise created a second problem. I essentially excused myself from diagnosing our shortcomings and making the adjustments. It is certainly a good exercise for players to have stock in the adjustments, but they are not the team CEO for a reason.

Once the deficit ballooned, I needed to be accountable to the team. Then I could be in a position to listen to the coaches and captains input for the second half. There is a time and place for going ballistic. And when I say a time, I literally mean one. I did not go ballistic in the locker room, but I set a tone that scared away feedback and made a comeback less likely.

Simplify the Objective

If the coach is not panicking down by a high amount at halftime, there is a good chance the players panic. Holiday offers sage advice for coaches in these circumstances.

“Okay you’ve got to do something very difficult. Don’t focus on that. Instead break it down into pieces. Simply do what you need to do right now. And do it well. And then move on to the next thing. Follow the process and not the prize.”

When we talk about pieces, I might offer the team to consider the first two possessions or at most the first two minutes of the half. If we get some momentum during this phase of the game, I often burn a timeout to remind them of the next phase. It might come back to bite me, but at that point we are almost certainly still trailing by double digits and using the timeout gives the other team an opportunity to panic.

Six years ago I read Rick Pitino’s book The One Day Contract. Pitino’s reputation has taken a hit since this time, but I vividly remember an anecdote in that book in which Pitino describes how his team came back from a 20 point halftime deficit. In it he mentions that the thought out of the locker room was get a score and a stop. A coach I work with likes to say, “There’s no 17 point shot.”

Avoid Victim Mentality

If a player appears ready to lash out, Holiday offers this:

“Whatever you’re going through, whatever is holding you down or standing in your way, can be turned into a source of strength – by thinking of people other than yourself. You won’t have time to think of your own suffering because there are other people suffering and you’re too focused on them.”

This quote is good general life advice, but it is something for players to ponder well before being down twenty points. Sometimes to re-center players we do a pre-mortem in the locker room before the game. I will cold call a player and ask if the referee misses calls or we are down by thirty how they will handle it. The player is in charge of her emotions at that point so will offer a positive solution. It is the same reason we conduct fire drills. When the real fire happens, we are mentally ready.

Focus on Team Culture

I wrote a month ago about continuing to compete when hope seems lost. If the breaks do not shift in the second half, there is more on the line than just that night. Competing will result in improvements deep into the future. If the mentality is to give up or players play for themselves there is a deeper problem. There will be plenty of time to correct players, but in that moment as a coach you need to celebrate the smallest victories. Sulking with the rest of the team is tempting, but prove to me it accomplishes something. Sulk in private after the game or confide in an assistant coach over the phone.

Villanova lost to Oklahoma by 23 points in December of 2016. Oklahoma never trailed in the game.  A few months later Villanova stunned Oklahoma by the greatest margin of victory ever in a Final Four game. That is Villanova’s ‘attitude’ culture. Ditto to the New York Giants beating the undefeated New England Patriots in 2007 after losing a regular season game at home. And there are countless other examples.

A large halftime lead is not insurmountable, and neither is a final score. As Holiday puts it, “The path of least resistance is a horrible teacher.”

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