At approximately 10:15 p.m. tonight, the La Salle Explorers will tip off in a Sweet 16 matchup with Wichita State—a pairing that just about no one predicted one week ago when March Madness began. The winner will be just one win away from the Final Four, while the losing team’s season will end much as 52 others already have in this wacky tournament.
Dr Joel H. Fish, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia and Sports Doc panelist, wrote earlier about the Philadelphia fan experience with March Madness. He answered a few questions about the player experience as well:
It’s probably safe to say this is the biggest game for anyone on either team. How does that affect the players—individually and as a team—in preparation?
Dr. Fish: From a sport psychology perspective, the first thing I see for La Salle tonight is an opportunity. The Staples Center in Los Angeles is a far cry—literally and figuratively—from Tom Gola Arena in North Philadelphia. The Staples Center is bigger, sure, but more than that it’s a novelty. When an athlete or team goes into a bigger, novel environment: there are two approaches—embrace the environment and the moment, or become overwhelmed.
On both an individual and team level, the focus needs to be on embracing that moment. I’m a big believer in embracing the moment, because we all know it’s a big game. It’s pointless to try to ignore the moment and do the ‘just another game’ routine—because that’s impossible. Instead, view this game as the greatest opportunity of your career. Take a look around the arena, with 20,000 fans cheering for or against you and tell one another “We have an amazing opportunity—let’s go for it, make the most of it” rather than “What if I make a mistake in front of 10 million viewers?”
What about the opponent? Wichita State is a strong team, but they aren’t Duke, Kansas or any other perennial national contender. Does it help or hurt to play a team that is considered another ‘Cinderella’?
Dr. Fish: At this stage, every opponent is a mixed bag. Think about the expectations—both Wichita State and La Salle have exceeded just about everyone’s expectations already. So it’s easy for both teams to approach the game as “we’ve got nothing to lose.” So from that perspective I don’t think it’s an advantage [to be playing Wichita State.] I think if you were playing Duke or Kansas, their own expectations are so high that you can flip the pressure onto them. Those big-name schools can be embarrassed in a way that La Salle or Wichita State can’t. It’s the Sweet 16—there are advantages and disadvantages to every scenario.
You mentioned opportunity—what about the bigger picture? Talk about the opportunity the players have to put La Salle back on the map nationally.
Dr. Fish: In sport psychology, we talk about being the calm in the storm. You can start thinking about your legacy, thinking about how many people are watching the game, thinking about the fact that people may talk about this game for years—but for 18-22 year olds, that creates pressure that’s not necessary. If anything, my hunch would be that the coaches are emphasizing simplicity. Stick to the game plan, take it one possession at a time, communicate with one another. The bigger the stage, the more you want to boil things down to the basics mentally.
If I’m advising a team or a player, and they started talking about their legacy and how they want to be remembered 50 years from now, my response would be “That’s all well and good, but let’s get back into the moment.”
So there are two games in L.A. tonight—Arizona and Ohio State play before La Salle/Wichita State. Do you think there’s an advantage or disadvantage to playing the second game?
Dr. Fish: This is really interesting. I like the fact that they’re playing second, especially in this new environment. Ideally you want to have some familiarity with the environment. I’m sure they’ll get there early, go out and watch part of the first game. That allows them to get caught up in the excitement and the buzz that surrounds that atmosphere. At the same time, you can get the lay of the land—the seating, the sound system, the layout of the court. You can embrace all the hoopla in that moment, so that when the time comes to take the court, it’s just about playing basketball.
I think any familiarity you can obtain is better than being completely unfamiliar. Also, watching another game can take away some of those butterflies. If I was a coach and I had my druthers, I would definitely prefer to play the second game of the doubleheader.
Dr. Fish is a Psychology Consultant for the 76ers and Flyers. He can be reached at email@example.com
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