Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Getting a team mentally prepared for a big game

As you'll likely hear or read a lot about this week, 35 years ago yesterday, Notre Dame snapped UCLA's 88-game winning streak.

ND was down by 11 with three and a half minutes left, but went on a 12-0 run, holding the Bruins scoreless in that span.

In his book "Tales from the Notre Dame Hardwood," Irish coach Digger Phelps describes his team's preparation the week leading up to the game.


I always felt the mental part of preparation for a big game was more important than the physical. I even used to have one of my assistants in charge of pre-game motivation, some gimmick that would give the players that little extra from a psychological standpoint.

Even though we were 9-0 and had outscored every opponent by 26.4 points per game coming into the UCLA game, I thought it was important to put this team in a positive mindset.

We had lost four straight to UCLA by a total of 128 points, so I had to change the mindset. One of the things I did was show the team film of the first 10 minutes of the two games the previous year when we'd played well and we were in the game. This way they could see themselves playing against Walton and Wilkes and the others, holding their own for a long period of time.

On Wednesday, it hit me. Why not practice cutting down the nets? So that's what we did at the end of practice that day. That's right, still three days prior to the game.

We had a drill where the blue team (subs) was pressing the gold team, which had a 10-point lead with three minutes left. Ironically, the game situation the following Saturday would be the opposite situation.

At the end of that drill, I brought the team together and said, "OK, you know what happens now? Shumate, you go to one basket and Goose (Gary Novak), you go to the other. The rest of you split up and lift them up so they can cut down the nets, because that is what we're going to do after we win on Saturday. Someday you will tell your grandchildren about this.

Some of them looked at me like I was crazy, but they did it. We repeated it after Friday's practice. Every time Gary Brokaw talks about that game, he talks about cutting down the nets at practice leading into the game. He always said it gave the team confidence.