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March Madness has come and gone. A new NCAA basketball champion has been crowned. Unfortunately for those of us who live in Kentucky, the Kentucky Wildcats came close but did not win the title. Every NCAA basketball tournament provides some lessons to be learned about performing on the biggest basketball stage.
There are two performance principles to examine for the Kentucky Wildcats. The first principle is pressure. To succeed at any high level performance a team must understand pressure and know how to use skills to combat the pressure of competition. Regular season competition has pressure, as well as regular SEC league play.
When athletes play for a team like Kentucky, they have been training all of their lives to play under pressure. They know when they come to play at Kentucky there are high-level expectations as players work to fit into the storied program that historically has had incredible success.
Students at the school expect the basketball team to succeed. The community around Lexington as well as most of the state expects them to succeed. This is pressure and it is good for players to live with it so when they move on to the NCAA Tournament, they are used to being in the spotlight.
However, I think it is the second performance principle which cost the Kentucky a spot in the championship game. This principle is recognizing the attention thief of playing in an unfamiliar setting. This year’s NCAA championship was played in Reliant Stadium, which was built as a football stadium for Houston’s NFL team. It has a retractable roof, so when the roof is closed, it feels like a giant basketball arena.
Arenas used exclusively for basketball usually are of the size that seats anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000. When a championship basketball game is played in front of a crowd of more than 60,000, it means the sight lines are very different for players. It is true the court is a normal size and the baskets are still 10 feet high. Those are about the only normal things in this style of championship game.
Every other basic thing about the environment is different. When preparing for such a different environment it is imperative the coach and the team develop a preparation strategy that allows them to get comfortable with these new distracting elements for the game.
Most teams will use a comprehensive strategy to help their players be comfortable with the 60,000-plus fans screaming during the game. They will figure out a way to help players be more comfortable with the different way it looks to shoot a ball at a basket that has a very different background behind it. Teams will want to spend as much time as possible on the court getting used to differences. They will want to use imagery to practice seeing themselves playing in this different environment so they believe the important performance adage, “If you can see it, you can do it.”
I assume the Wildcats’ staff did all of these things and more to help the team feel comfortable in this performance environment. In each player’s heart, they probably believed they could perform in this environment. However, the sad fact is they did not. They probably lost the game because they did not convert their free throw attempts. It should be the easiest thing to do in any competition — to shoot at an unguarded basket. On the night Kentucky lost in the semifinals, they did not make the easiest shot in sports because of the pressure and most likely the unfamiliar surroundings.
One other performance factor might have played into this defeat. Maturity and experience make it easier to overcome this type of environmental challenge. Since Kentucky uses very young and talented players, the failure at this tournament might be very simple to explain. Kentucky players were not mature enough to utilize the performance skills necessary to overcome the different playing environment.
This is a challenge every coach faces: Can the players learn enough performance skills to overcome the new challenges of each performance environment? Unfortunately for March Madness 2011, the Wildcats did not solve this performance problem.
Dr. Wilson is a performance consultant in Hardin County. He is the owner of the Wilson Center for Performance. He is also the performance consultant
for the Louisville Lightning Professional
Indoor Soccer Team. He can be reached at TheWilsonCenter7@aol.com.