Purpose2Play: The playoffs are guaranteed for your team, even with a couple of games left to play in the regular season. How do you keep your team playing at a high level leading up to the playoffs?

Dr. Cheri Toledo: Congratulations!  How exciting that your team has secured a playoff spot. I’m counting on the fact that you began the year building the habits and character traits that would produce winning performances and attitudes. Stay consistent and push players just as you have all season. Make sure players are focusing on the growth they can make until the last play of the season.

This is the time to re-evaluate the individual and team goals that were set earlier in the season. Make adjustments to those goals as needed to keep the target just beyond the players’ reach. Then set specific goals for the last games or matches of the season to help players stay in the moment and continue improving physically, psychologically, emotionally, and socially. Since you already set goals for each game/match, set new goals that are specific to the remaining contests. For instance, “The seniors have exactly three games left before we get to the playoffs. Let’s keep (or get) our win streak. In order to win this next match/game we need to” fill in what needs to take place; e.g., hitting percentage, free throw percentage, goals, etc.

Purpose2Play: In that same scenario, do you keep playing time consistent among your starters or do you give your reserves more time?

Dr. Cheri Toledo: This is always a hard decision. First of all, it’s important to keep the momentum going, so you want to play the players who got the team this far – as the old saying goes, “Dance with the one you came with.” On the other hand, it’s also a great time to give the back-up players some needed playing time. You will have to take a look at the personality of your team and decide just how playing the reserve players will affect the overall morale. This can be determined in part by the talent levels of your players. Is there a big gap in abilities between starters and reserves? If so, then keep most of the starters in the game while playing the back-up players. Make sure, though, to give the reserves some experience in pressure situations during real competition. Help them develop the confidence to meet those challenges.

Depending on the sport, it is also important to consider sitting certain players to make sure they don’t get hurt. We see this all the time in the NFL pre-season. The starting quarterbacks play only a couple of down series during the first two or three pre-season games.  Then the second and third stringers come in. However, the starters need to play enough to stay sharp. So much of your decision will be based on who the competition is.

Purpose2Play: The regular season is done, but the playoffs don’t start until next week. Talk about practice intensity. Do you rev things up or use the week as a kind of physical/mental rest period for the final push?

Dr. Cheri Toledo: For the physical part I would go easy, hard, medium, tapering into the playoff game/match. For the mental game, I would make sure that they are focused on this one game and totally engaged in what we need to do for this game only.  Monday would be a low intensity, basic skills day; e.g., if I’m coaching volleyball, Monday would be passing and serving; very little jumping or swinging, so their legs and arms are rested; going over the scouting reports and/or game films. Tuesday I’d pick it up a little and add hitting, blocking, some 3-on-3; increase the intensity and competitiveness at practice. Wednesday would be the most intense day; going hard and working on the areas that need the most improvement and/or adjustments to the opponent’s game style from scouting reports/game films. Thursday focus on technique, intensity, pushing them mentally more than physically, and practicing the game plan for the upcoming match. Friday would be scrimmage day with a focus on the game plan.

Purpose2Play: The playoffs can be an exciting, but stressful time for both coaches and players. Give us some tips related to stress relief.

Dr. Cheri Toledo:

Tip #1: Keep doing what you’ve been doing – this isn’t the time to change anything. Let the players have the routines that they’ve been doing all season. There is comfort in routine, so that will lower their stress.

Tip #2: Talk about and walk through possible scenarios. Sometimes playoff games are in large venues, so think about what you want the players doing from the time they arrive to the time they leave. It shouldn’t deviate too much from their normal way of doing things, but there may need to be changes just because of the facility. Make sure to walk around, get used to the lighting, the size, the way the ball may react differently, etc. It is best if you can practice in the gym or on the field so that you can help players make any needed adjustments. Again, talk about all the possible things that they may experience. It’s important to normalize their feelings and help minimize the surprises.

Tip #3: Lead the players in some mental imagery. Help them envision the entire experience before it happens. Go into detail and include each of the senses.  End with them winning the game/match.

Tip #4: Whenever there is a post-season the parents are more visible, involved, and intense. Make sure to set boundaries for what parents and friends can do – you need to be ok with being the bad guy. Find out who is coming and set up times for dinner or visiting. Make sure to let players know what they can and can’t do as far as visiting with family and friends before and after games/matches.  This should be the same policy that you have established from the beginning of the season. You may need to remind players, parents, and friends of these policies. The intention is to keep the distractions to minimum.

Tip #5: Let’s assume that your team has made it to the state playoffs and you will be on the road for two days. Have a schedule that specifies the activities and timelines for the trip.  Leave nothing chance or guessing. Give players free time and structured free time; team time and individual time.