Helping Athletes Close Out the Game When Ahead

Helping Athletes Close Out the Game When Ahead

Does a 30-point lead at half-time of a basketball game ensure victory?

Will a 3-goal lead in a soccer match with 10 minutes remaining guarantee victory?

Is it even possible that a golfer with a 5-stroke lead heading into the last two holes of a tournament can lose?

There have been countless historic collapses in sports when teams had seemingly insurmountable leads yet found themselves on the losing end when the final buzzer sounded.

You can probably think of a competition in your child’s sport when a team collapsed after having a significant lead.

You may have noticed that the team made more uncharacteristic mistakes, played with less enthusiasm, had lapses in concentration, made bad decisions, communicated poorly with teammates and lacked energy.

So, when is it safe for youth sports teams to coast when they have the lead? The short answer is NEVER!

Of course, embarrassing an opponent should never be the goal, but letting up in a competition has two potential trappings:

  1. Young athletes might allow the opposing team back into the competition and even suffer a comeback loss.
  2. This can create bad habits. When sports kids take their foot off the gas, it may detract from peak performance habits, such as focusing, maximizing effort and honing a closeout mindset.

When young athletes allow the mental game to get away from them, their physical game will follow suit.

Closing out a game requires finishing strong. Finishing strong should always be the objective of a competition, even if your child’s team is ahead.

In a 2024 midseason matchup between the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks, the Hawks trailed 68-38 with 4:23 remaining in the second quarter. A 30-point lead in an NBA game “feels” like a victory is imminent. 

However, the Celtics took their foot off the gas and were outscored 82-50 from that point, leading to a historic collapse and a 120-118 loss.

Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis commented that the Celtics mentally allowed the game to slip away.

“Maybe too much (confidence) a little bit, maybe we need to sometimes have a little bit more urgency,” said Porzingi. 

“But of course, we’re a confident team because of what we have shown, and we expect to win every game. It’s a slip-up for us, letting this game slip out of our hands…” 

“We just don’t want to make it a habit, and it hasn’t been a habit for us. We slipped one game, and we did relax a little bit and we paid the price.”

In sports, the body follows the mind. If kids focus on the wrong cues, they will make more mistakes. If they assume they will win before the game is over, they will give less effort.

Maintaining the right mindset throughout a competition is crucial for athletes’ success and consistency.

Remind sports kids that habits are the sum of their choices and actions. To have a closeout mindset in pressure situations, they need to build that mindset at every opportunity.

Kids should stay aggressive and continue to go for their plays. They shouldn’t wait for their opponents to make mistakes.

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