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Minding the mind games

school of sport:with TIM MIDDLETON

MANY years ago, the newly-appointed first team hockey coach of a very successful sporting school, recently retired from a full and successful playing career, called his players into a huddle and explained how he wanted them to play that season.

Instead of the traditional 2-3-5 set-up (known as the W formation), comprising of two full backs, three half backs and five forwards, he advised them they would play in the more modern 4-3-3 formation (the paragraph did begin by saying this was many years ago and the types of formation now clearly underline that point). The coach explained that the sweeper would play behind the other three players in the back four, that the middle three would make up the midfield as the link between defence and attack while the front three would comprise the attacking force of the team. They went through drills that showed the boys how this worked and tried it in a practice game. All was fine.

They then played their first match with this system — and lost, a rare experience for them. At the first training session after the match, the players complained to the coach and told him that the system did not work. The coach heard their cry, but said they just needed to persist with it, as they would be better with it in the long run. So they carried out further drills and practices to work on this system. They approached their next match with some more confidence, but once again the result went against them. This time, in the next training session, the players complained more loudly and strongly that it just did not work; they must play the system to which they were used, the 2-3-5 formation which had brought them great success in the past. They had made up their mind.

After a few moments the coach responded: “Okay, we will play the 2-3-5 formation, but I just want to make two tiny changes with it. First, instead of the two full backs swapping which one is higher up the field dependent on which side of the field the play is, I want one to stay back all the time and the other to stay further forward — okay?” The boys nodded their agreement with a smile. “And the second slight change is that I want our centre-half not to mark the opposing centre-forward but the opposing centre-half — okay?” Got it! The boys were chuffed! They had got their old system back so everything was fine! They practised hard, with these minor changes, and were very happy and confident as they went into their next match, which they won, and their subsequent matches, which they also won.

We might look at that situation and consider that the coach did well to listen to the players and to respond to what they wanted and needed to do. Perhaps it showed the coach’s humility in being willing to step back and adhere to the team’s needs and plight, rather than ploughing on with his own favoured formation. Maybe the coach simply had to put on a brave face and grudgingly gave in to his players’ demands to save further embarrassment. Perhaps the coach lost confidence in his system and decided to go back to old winning ways.

Or maybe the coach was just smart! For what actually transpired was that he got the team playing his formation while all along they thought they were playing their formation! The coach’s two slight adjustments to the 2-3-5 system in effect made the team play in the 4-3-3 system, but because the players thought they were playing their trusted formation they were happy. The successful games were won in the mind, not on the field of play.

Coaches at the highest level are often accused of playing mind games with their opponents in the public eye to try to gain an advantage over them by disrupting their focus, by increasing their doubt or by making them over-confident. Such games are aimed at taking the pressure off their own players and by adding expectations on the opponents. The real mind games, though, are played out with the coach’s own team, by ensuring his own players are in the right frame of mind, are appropriately confident and know what is required. At school level, we need to desist from playing mind games with the opposition and simply concentrate on psychological awareness and astuteness in getting the best out of our players. It is less a matter of psyching out the opposition and indeed even of psyching up our own team. The game is more likely won in the mind. Mind that!

l Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email:

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