Learning how to finish strong in games is one of the hardest things to do in sports. Playing well for the first three quarters isn’t always that difficult. It can be easy to build a large lead against a weaker opponent, but it’s not always easy to finish them off in the fourth quarter. Many times, teams will build a large lead but then blow it away towards the end of the game. For example, a football team may be up 28-0 at halftime, but then only win 35-21. What could have been a dominating performance becomes a close game. Even worse, a team may be up 21-10 with five minutes to go, but then choke and lose 21-24. So as an athlete, how do you learn to finish stronger in games?
The first step to finishing strong in games is maintaining motivation. Too often, teams will get too satisfied with a lead and become complacent. They get overconfident and think they are safe with their large lead. In some cases, this may true, but still, taking your foot off the gas to save energy is rarely worth it. Even if you think you don’t need to continue giving your best effort to win, you should still do so for four reasons:
- Your opponent may actually comeback and beat you. As long as there’s time left in the game, there’s always a chance that your opponent can comeback and win. The chances of this happening are greatly increased if you get lazy while your opponent keeps going strong. So if you want to secure a victory, you need to keep your foot on the gas!
- To improve. The purpose of sports isn’t just to win. It’s also to stretch your limits and improve. Even if you’re winning by a large margin, you should continue to give your best effort in order to improve. If you stop trying, you’ll miss out on the opportunity to improve, which will hurt you later in your season or career. Also, giving your best effort late in games doesn’t just improve your skills and fitness, but it also improves your mental toughness. By finishing strong every game, you’ll develop the mental toughness to finish strong when you really need to!
- To have fun. The purpose of sports is also to have fun. It’s fun to get into the zone and play your best. And in order to get into the zone, you need to give your best effort. If you stop trying in games, you’ll miss out on the opportunity to enjoy your sport to the fullest. And as an athlete, you only get to play so many games in your career, so make the most out of each of them!
- To show respect. Even if you don’t need to give your best effort to win, you should still do so to show respect to your coaches, your teammates, your fans, yourself, and even your opponent. When you stop trying in games, you’re not just affecting yourself, but also everyone involved in sports. You need to take pride in your effort, play for something greater than yourself, and respect the game as best as you can.
It can be easy to become complacent in games, but with mental toughness, you can avoid this trap. To maintain your motivation, you need to monitor your mindset throughout a game. Stay aware of the thoughts that enter your head. As soon as you notice yourself thinking ahead in games and predicting an easy victory, you need to snap out of it and proactively motivate yourself. If you remember the four motivations listed above, you’ll do a better job staying motivated late in games and avoiding complacency.
However, complacency isn’t always the issue when it comes to blowing away leads. Sometimes, despite giving their best effort, teams will blow away leads because they either choke under pressure or because they play too conservatively.
The next key to finishing strong in games is learning how to perform better under pressure. Building a big lead can come with a lot of pressure. When you build a large lead in a game, it feels like you’re supposed to win. So not only may you feel the pressure to win, but you may also feel the pressure not to blow your lead. Blowing a lead can cause you to panic because it feels like a sure victory is being snatched from your hands. All of this anxiety can cause you to choke and lose games that you should win. Often, when teams are feeling the pressure of holding onto a lead, they’ll cope with their anxiety by simply hoping their opponent will give up or that the clock will run out. Instead of doing the hard work of finishing strong, they relax mentally and physically and hope that their opponent will just hand them the victory. However, most of the time, this doesn’t happen. Your opponent will rarely give up completely and hand you the victory. Most of the time, you have to earn it by finishing strong! And in order to finish strong, you need to embrace the pressure, be positive, and stay focused on the task at hand. When negative thoughts such as “Oh no, I’m about to blow this lead” enter your mind, you need to stay strong by responding with, “It’s ok, I got this! I just need to focus one play at a time.”
The third key to finishing strong in games is staying aggressive. Teams often blow leads because they start to play too conservatively. Instead of playing to win, they play not to lose. Usually, this is due to the fear of failure. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes teams play too conservatively not because of performance anxiety, but because they honestly think it’s the smartest thing to do. This may be true sometimes, but often it is not. In most cases, it’s smarter to stay aggressive late in games. By trusting the analytics and sticking to the most effective game plan, you can maximize your chances of winning the game. Think about it. If you want to hold onto a lead, you need to continue doing what gave you the lead in the first place. If you gained your lead by playing aggressive, you need to stay aggressive in order to maintain and increase your lead. Yes, there’s always the chance that you’ll make a costly mistake and blow your lead by playing aggressively, but you need to do your best to ignore these negative thoughts and trust your skills.
In summary, here are the three keys to finishing strong in games:
- Maintain your motivation to give your best effort.
- Embrace the pressure and remain focused on the task at hand.
- Stay aggressive and play to win.