By Dr. Alan Goldberg
Slowly, over the course of the season and despite periodic grumbling, this began to happen with the Huskies. As the team approached the championship part of the season, there was more of an acceptance among all the players as to how they were going to best contribute to the team’s mission. There was more of an understanding that the only way to accomplish this goal was for everyone to come together. After all, it’s never the best team that wins. It is instead the team that plays best together!
UConn won the regular season Big East Championship and then unexpectedly was upset in the semi-finals of the Big East Tournament. The loss dropped the team out of the national seeding for the NCAA tournament and eliminated any home field advantage. It was a tough reality check, but a blessing in disguise. Despite the fact that winning the Big East was one of the team’s preseason goals, the guys knew that they had a much bigger prize in mind. The loss mobilized and refocused them. They beat Dartmouth 3-0 in the NCAA opener at home. In the round before the quarters they had to travel down to South Carolina to play Clemson at home, a team UConn had never before defeated. UConn let in a soft goal early in the game and dominated play for the remainder of the action. Unfortunately, they still trailed 1-0 the entire game.
Just because you’ve lost to a certain opponent every other time that you’ve played them, doesn’t mean that this match will end in the same manner. All too often, athletes and teams talk themselves out of playing to their potential by focusing on past history. Believe it or not, what’s happened in the past is totally irrelevant to this match as long as you can keep yourself focused in the NOW, on what’s happening in front of you. The past is, very simply gone and that’s where you want to leave it. Thinking “this always happens”, “we can never beat them” is nothing more than a set-up to underachieve.
With 3 minutes and a few seconds left in the game, and their season and dream slowly slipping away, the Huskies continued to maintain their composure and focus. They didn’t let themselves get sidetracked by the pressure and rapidly disappearing time. They kept their heads in the game, created a scoring opportunity and capitalized on it, sending the game into overtime. There was an understanding on the field and the Husky bench that the game was now theirs. Clemson seemed to be barely holding on to their lead as the final minutes of regulation slipped away. They hadn’t been able to mount an offensive for most of the second half.
What is mental toughness? Can you keep your head on straight when your back is to the wall and the negative thinking and self-doubts are threatening to overwhelm you? Can you keep your concentration on the task at hand as the clock is inexorably robbing you of a chance to reach your ultimate goal? Can you stay relaxed under pressure and avoid the trap of pressing or trying too hard? Can you block out the home crowd who delights in everything that goes against you? Mental toughness is all about staying focused and relaxed under pressure.
This is exactly what the UConn players did. They gave a clinic in mental toughness. Playing probably the gutsiest and best game of their season, they pulled out a win in the first overtime period on an unbelievable bicycle kick by one of the freshman. This win gave the Huskies a quarterfinal game against a very physical Brown team at home the following weekend, the winner earning that coveted trip to the Final Four. The team entered the Brown game pumped with confidence and beat them in a hard fought game, 1-0 setting the stage for a return to Charlotte and another shot at the National Championship.
I spoke with the team the day before their semi-final game and had the eerie, wonderful feeling that they were going to go all the way. They were relaxed and composed. They were focused and determined. They knew what they had to do and were unfazed that this was the Final Four. The key to peak performance under pressure is both simple to understand yet sometimes very difficult to achieve. You have to stay relaxed and focused. In the big games all kinds of elements conspire to prevent you from accomplishing these two critically important tasks. Stay loose and focused. Yet here I was with these guys and this is exactly what I was picking up from them. They were ready. I had the urge to write down, then and there, that I knew they were going to win the national Championship. However, being an athlete and as superstitious as the best of them, I didn’t want to offend the Gods of big game competition. I kept my thoughts to myself.
In the semi-finals against Southern Methodist University, the #1 goal scoring team in the country, UConn erased the pain of the previous semifinals by playing a virtually perfect game. They completely shut down the much talked about SMU offense and won 2-0. Interestingly enough, one of the Huskies’ important goals at the beginning of the season was to turn themselves into one of the best defensive teams in the country. Their shutout of SMU was pretty clear evidence that they had accomplished that goal.
Now UConn was one game away from that dream that had started one year ago to the day when they lost to Santa Clara. One game away from a National Championship! The weird feeling that they were going to win was stronger than ever inside of me. I knew that the National Championship was inevitable. Talking with the players on the Saturday before the game only reinforced what I felt. They were loose and relaxed. They were confident. They were focused on themselves and the task at hand. They were not caught up in the hype, the media circus that was the final four or the reputation of the opponent. The players knew to keep their focus away from “uncontrollables.” They knew that there were many elements completely out of their control. They also knew that focusing on uncontrollables will only get you uptight, kill your confidence and make it impossible for you to play to the very best of your ability. Their mission was even clearer now then it had ever been. The end result seemed inevitable.
Sunday, game day was unseasonably cold in Charlotte. UConn’s final opponent, Creighton had beaten twice defending National Champion Indiana in their semifinal match-up. Creighton played the wide-open game style favored by the Huskies. UConn’s defense shut down Creighton’s offensive power and midway through the first half, the Huskies converted on a penalty kick opportunity. The first half ended with a 1-0 lead. With less than 10 minutes to go in the game UConn scored again to ice the game and secure the National Championship. It had happened!