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Gazette Premium Content Mind games: Air Force basketball must find a way to let go of loss

BRENT BRIGGEMAN Updated: February 11, 2013 at 12:00 am

In the tense moments after a disappointing loss at Nevada, Michael Lyons wasn’t interested in a conversation on sports psychology.

“Every loss feels the same to me,” the Air Force senior said.

But does it? Does a loss like the one in Reno, in which the Falcons led by 10 points with just over 5 minutes remaining, not hurt more than one that is more lopsided? And is it therefore not more likely to linger?

“There’ve been some interesting studies with Olympic athletes in terms of who’s happiest,” said Sean McCann, the senior sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee. “The gold medalist is usually very happy, but ironically the bronze medalist is usually happier than the silver medalist. The silver medalist tends to focus on how he could have won the gold had he done a little bit better, whereas the bronze medalist thinks, ‘Wow, I could have been fourth.’

“In a basketball game, if it’s close — win or lose — you can think, ‘How did I contribute to that?’”

McCann agreed to provide insights as long as it was clear that he was not commenting on any specific players or the Falcons team, which he has not met. He has, however, dealt with athletes who fit the general model that is required for admission in the academy and he knows that intellect can be an advantage or a hindrance to an athlete who can’t manage those thoughts and allow one performance to negatively impact the next.

For Air Force, managing those thoughts means putting the loss behind them. That was the talk immediately after the game from Lyons and fellow senior Mike Fitzgerald, but it’s not always that easy.

A loss earlier this season to UNLV in which Air Force had chances to win at the end of regulation and overtime clearly stuck with the team into its next game at Colorado State. The Rams are good, no doubt, and are ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1954, but they probably aren’t 39 points better than the Falcons.

“They’re 18, 20, 22 years old,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said of his team. “Ten minutes after (the loss) they get a text saying someone got a new something ... you know how they are. I mean, I think it did wear on them, but they let things go a lot quicker than we do.”

Pilipovich said he has struggled with the defeats, which is understandable. Had those two games gone Air Force’s way the team would be tied for first in the league and in a prime spot to earn a postseason bid. Instead, they’re in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West and in the familiar position where a conference tournament championship will likely be the only avenue to the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s like that song,” Pilipovich said. “We’re so close, yet so far away.”

To keep the focus on the future instead of the past, Pilipovich is calling this ‘Challenge Week.’ Each player and the team as a whole will have specific tasks in which to improve before Wednesday’s home game against UNLV; with the goal to then build on them for Saturday’s meeting with CSU and so on.

McCann said his approach with athletes who tend to dwell on defeats is to give a timeline. He’ll let his athletes be angry up to a certain point, usually the next morning, and then the loss must be forgotten. He also makes sure the athletes know it’s OK to strive to be great — but not perfect. Those two should not be confused.

“A lot of very successful people, a lot of leaders, are perfectionists in all areas of life,” said McCann, indirectly referring to the type of athlete who tends to be targeted by Air Force coaches. “The positive side is the high personal standards and striving for success, but the No. 1 problem in sports performance for perfectionists is an over concern about mistakes — getting too worried about mistakes and trying to prevent them.”

The rarity, McCann said, is the intelligent athlete who also has enough irrationality to believe, even if he’s shooting 20 percent from behind the 3-point line, that the next shot will fall.

That’s the kind of mentality it would seem Air Force needs at this point.

“Some of the best athletes I’ve worked with are really smart,” McCann said. “But they also know how to manage it and when to stop thinking.”

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