This afternoon many soccer coaches and teams will learn their NCAA fate. A handful of bubble dwellers will be disappointed by the committees decision, but most teams hosting a watch party will be celebrating the decisions. And, they will be immediately be thinking about their announced opponent and how to succeed while heading to the tournament.
I have sat through both watch parties and experienced both fates.
The first year my Northwestern team made the tournament we were the last team called. On the edge of our seats the entire watch party, I kept thinking they’ll call us next and by the end I thought, shit they may not call us at all.
Our fate once determined was to travel the same 3 hour journey we had traveled many times before to play Wisconsin in the first round.
Same team, same journey, but it felt entirely different.
The tournament feels unlike any other game you played this season even if you play a familiar foe. The atmosphere becomes heightened. Preparation is focused. People are excited and happy to be in the tournament. Players who complained about their role, complain less. Your decisions were validated. Everyone is happy to be a part of a special experience.
My team lost to Wisconsin that year 1-0, but we played really well. The experience was invaluable just two years later when we advanced to the third round, losing to eventual National Champion Florida 1-0 in overtime. Florida certainly outshot us, but we defended our hearts out and we had our chance. Literally we had one really good chance on goal. We hit the crossbar on a set piece we designed off a throw in.
Painful to lose, but also gratifying to have competed and executed well. As you can tell, the memories stay with a person.
Here are a couple of my thoughts about the early rounds of a post-season tournament.
If you are a higher seed heading to the tournament
I only have one thought here for the better teams: Manage your communication. You might be thinking that you don’t want your team to be overconfident. That makes sense. But you might not want to say it. Don’t talk about how the other team is better than they seem. You risk the unintended consequence of delivering the exact opposite message than you mean to, and worse, getting the opposite response from what you want.
Instead, prepare, communicate and approach the game as you would against any other seed. The best way to tell your team to take a team seriously is to show them that you take it seriously.
If you are the underdog heading to the tournament
Congratulations on making it to the tournament. It’s very exciting to be here. My guess is you know exactly how to motivate your team to win big games because you had to win big games to get to this point. Since the start of your conference tournament you have had to treat each game like a must win or you would not be here.
Winning in the first round of the tournament might require something different. In my experience the most effective path is to emphasize the performance key you think can lead to a positive result. All week in training. Short focused training sessions on the two or three elements you must execute in order to compete.
Why short? You want your team fresh and focused.
Certainly you will have a defensive approach for the game. It may be different than what was required to get here. On the attack you must introduce some element of threat. Perhaps you notice your opponent has a serious gap in how they defend set pieces or corner kicks. You might work hard on your corner kicks all week knowing you might only get one, two or three but executing it well it may be the key to grabbing a goal.
If you are the middle of the tournament pack
Stay the course. If your team has been comfortable changing tactics for different opponents this season then change them for this game too if you deem that necessary to win. But if your team perceives a change in tactics to be a lack of confidence on your part then you are sunk. Better to stay the course and demand the very best execution. Again, teams watch the coach for cues about the game, even more than they listen. Pick the path that drives confidence in the team.
Anyway, enjoy the show tonight and if you are heading to the NCAA tournament (or any post season tournament) then enjoy every minute of the journey.