Looks Like it’s Time for the Toronto Maple Leafs to “Come to Jesus”

 

The time has come for Ron Wilson to get the Leafs back on track for the home stretch of the regular season.

With the NHL’s trade deadline come and gone this past Monday, upper management of the Toronto Maple Leafs has strongly indicated that they believe the talent pool in the locker room is good enough to make the playoffs. With their recent play seeming to indicate the opposite though (see also: Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to conference rivals, The Florida Panthers), it may be time for a more abrupt message. Now is the time for what is often known as the “Come to Jesus” speech. Not to be confused with a sudden influx of religious fervour, a CTJ speech or moment is one that some teams or individuals may require in order to try get back on track when they seem to have lost their way. It is usually a moment in which an honest appraisal of what has been happening takes place, and one tries to plot a course for the future that will help lead to better results.

A CTJ speech doesn’t necessarily mean that one needs to change everything about how to play the game. In many instances, it’s not about WHAT athletes are doing, so much as HOW they are doing it. Effort, intensity, and approach can all have a huge effect on eventual outcomes. If anyone (let alone, more than one) of these factors is lacking, results can be disastrous.

So what would I say? The first place I would start would be with the mindset of the team. With a record of 1-8-1 over the last 10 games, you have the makings of a team that is frustrated, lacks confidence, and is beginning to get desperate as the playoffs loom and they currently find themselves on the outside looking in.  Additionally, the dynamic starting to shape up in Toronto is very much an “Us vs. Them” situation. The team is being assaulted on all sides. Their opponents want them to not make the playoffs for obvious reasons; The fans are frustrated, booing during games, and calling for the head coach to be fired; The media continue to pour on the pressure with their constant second guessing and armchair quarterbacking. It’s an easy dynamic to fall into, so why not go for it? Think of the pennant run sequence at the end of the movie “Major League.” An overly dramatic example, sure, but the basic premise is there. Everyone either thinks you can’t, won’t, or don’t want to make the playoffs. Prove ‘em wrong.

Once the mindset of the team is taken care of, I’d get down to the nuts and bolts of how to go about finishing the season strong. Namely, I’d point out that now is the time to set some short-term goals and narrow the focus of the team. The season isn’t 82 games anymore – it’s 19. Shortening the focus of the athletes to view the remaining games as a sprint to the finish can also have a large effect on the intensity they bring to each game. It’s not about being 3 points out of the playoffs. It’s not about needing your opponents to do badly. It IS about making the most of the 19 games left before the playoffs begin. Focus on those things that you can control and forget the rest.  A reasonable goal at this point is winning at LEAST 10 of those games. A better goal would be winning 14. One of the keys in goal setting is to make sure to set difficult, yet not impossible goals. Another key, especially in this case, is to set goals that, even if they aren’t reached, put you in a much better spot than you were previously. Winning 10 of the next 19 games would be a big lift for the Leafs. It would definitely put them in contention, but what happens if they get to that 10th win with 6 or 7 games to go? The last thing you want at that stage is to take the foot off the accelerator once the goal has been reached. With a 14 game goal, The Leafs may not achieve their goal, but they may win 11 or 12 in the process, which would almost assure them a playoff spot. Additionally, since they didn’t achieve their initial goal, it gives them somewhere else to go once they’ve reached the playoffs, rather than simply saying “hey, we made it!” and losing in the first round.

Finally, I’d point out that times like this are about going back to the basics. The players know the systems at this point in the season – they know what they need to do in order to succeed. Shorter, higher intensity practices should be all they need to maintain their focus and stay energized for the last push to the finish. The key isn’t to try and do anything fancy, over the top, or drastically different in terms of actual gameplay. Rather, they need to focus on an earnest, intense effort for the next 30 days of the regular season. The Leafs have systems in place that work. One need only look at the month of January in which they went an entire calendar month without giving up a goal on the penalty kill for proof of that. The key is sticking with that approach every shift of every game. The team’s leadership, especially head coach Ron Wilson and Captain Dion Phaneuf, need to press that point home. Amen.

The Psychology of The Loser

Despite the loss, Tom Brady will continue to be a top competitor in the NFL.

With the Super Bowl recently concluded, there has been a lot of talk about the game, and the endless comparisons that inevitably follow. Does the Giants’ win mean Eli is a better QB than Tom Brady? Than Peyton? Do the Giants have what it takes to maintain their high level of competition? Is Tom Coughlin really a better coach than Belichick, or did he simply figure out the Patriots on this occasion?

One of the things that has always fascinated me though is the psychology of the “loser.” Whenever I watch a championship game I can’t help but feel for the coach of the losing team who is invariably put in the spotlight and asked “what went wrong?” That said, focusing on the psychology of such a loss, and more importantly, how to recover and move on from such an (often traumatic) event is key for any athlete or high performer to understand.

Time heals all. This may sound trite and clichéd, but in this case it also happens to be true. In the moment immediately following a loss at a big event such as a world championship or Olympic Games, athletes can often be inconsolable. Everything they have worked so hard for – all the training, careful diet planning, travel, and sacrifice – seems to be for naught. Feelings of failure are commonplace at one’s failing to achieve an ultimate goal. That said, taking some time afterwards to decompress is always a good idea. In order to properly evaluate what went wrong (and learning how to correct things in the future), you need to have a clear head. Taking a few days (or weeks if possible) to achieve this is a much better plan than trying to watch game film the next day while the wounds are still fresh.

Not all goals are created equal. One the things that I preach to my clients the most is the importance of setting goals based on one’s personal performance, rather than simply on outcomes. If this is a new concept, allow me to explain. Performance goals are those goals in which the measure of success is a previously established personal performance. The amount of time it took you to complete a run. The number of consecutive free-throws you can hit. Basically, something in which you are competing against yourself, and the standards of performance that you maintain. With outcome goals, the focus of competition is completely external. Winning a race, beating an opponent, any type of situation in which the focus of competition is interpersonal. The key distinction between these two types of goals really comes down to one thing: control. When sitting down and evaluating things after a big loss, it’s really important to focus on improving those things that are directly under your control. Trying to win a big game is important, but there are so many factors involved, that at the end of the day, you need to focus on those things that you can control, and leave the rest to play out as it will.

Looking to the future. Immediately after a big loss, its tough not to dwell on what could have been. Second guessing is an all too common occurrence that affects both professionals and amateurs alike. That said, its important to remember that, despite the loss this time, there are other events in the future which have yet to crown a victor. Shifting focus from the past to the future can be a good way to gain some perspective, reassess, and recommit to one’s goals. Its important to remember the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them, but keeping one’s focus and attention towards the future is the best way to continue progressing towards one’s ultimate goals.