As we turn the corner into the business side of the season, coaches and players at all levels are facing into a few months of playing for the top or bottom of the league. In this pressure-cooker scenario, every game is a cup final and with each win that intensifies further.
They key in preparing for a 'big game' is that it is just another game. If a coach decides to change how the team trains, travels, prepares or is selected, he is casting a question over what he has been doing in every game up to this point.
If a certain volume or style of training is expected to yield a better performance why have you not implemented it for previous games?
Therefore, the best results come from teams who keep to their norms as much as possible but this is assuming they have always prepared as best they can. In his interviews Pat Lam speaks of the process; the process of how you will improve is the same from the first game of the season as the league semi-final - trust the process you use and follow it.
The biggest trap which teams fall into in the lead-up to a crucial match is to increase the training volume. What is the purpose of the increased time on the training pitch?
Again if your team is not well prepared for the closing stages of a season that is a reflection of a coach's planning and the content of the sessions to that point.
What is important is that your team is at their best for the 80 minutes of the game; that means the players are fresh, hungry, rested, injury-free, mentally prepared and relaxed. Increasing the amount of training increases the risk to all of the above.
Most teams now adopt a process called tapering, this means reducing the amount of pitch time in the weeks leading to matches. Planning for this involves having your match plays prepared and practised weeks before and much of the long intense contact work done approximately three weeks before the game.
With this preparation done the match week should involve only two short and sharp sessions.
Coaches can hone in on how to strategically exploit their specific opposition and how to best defend against them. The tendency can be to invoke a change, but a coach must tread carefully in what he instructs his players to do, for example focusing too much on a strength of the opposition and one of their players may cause your players to defend differently.
A coach must first of all ask: will how we currently play be sufficient?
Will our attack break them down and how we currently defend be sufficient to contain them and force turnovers.
If the answer to this is "yes", the best course of action would be to focus on what you already do and ignore the opposition.
Alternatively, if you have many concerns about what the opposition bring then you need to tailor your defence and attack accordingly.
The match-day preparation is difficult time for players filled with a lot of idle time while the impending match gets played out in your head. In general, when it comes to important matches players don't need to be built up, if anything they may need to wind down a bit. Coaches and managers should have the ability to see if a player looks uptight or uneasy and act accordingly.
Any changes in routine may only increase this anxiety. In the pre-match meetings or discussions with players, the coach should focus on aspects of the match the players have control over, what they intend to do with the ball, in defence or into a wind.
Stressing points like, "it's a cup final" or that "the club has never been relegated" are just stating facts that lack the substance that a player can act on.