Example 1: My teenage son is a competitive junior golfer, and he has a habit of playing poorly the first two or three holes, thus damaging his final score. The last 15 holes are an uphill climb due to the slow start. The first three holes, however, can shoot him right out of contention barely before the round has begun!
Example 2: My daughter is a libero on her 8th grade volleyball team. It seems since she started playing, the early going of a match is just awful - the "deer in headlights" look. A ball or two hitting the floor right near her. So much so, it's like "how is she playing libero?"
Yet as the match progresses, her abilities usually shine through - passes are nails, digs are crisp.
The problem is, her slow starts are hurting the team.
As a coach, is this a phenomenon commonly encountered? Is it human nature to "start slow"? What strategies do you suggest to minimize this?
The 'slow start' is a common concern with any coach of any sport.
And this is not a new phenomenon; I was watching a video of my UCLA glory days and even when we won a NCAA Championship, we had to do sprints in a couple of practices during the middle of the season because we kept dropping game 1 (we ended up 30-3 overall).
But, I would suggest that this 'slow start' situation is becoming more and more common in today's youth sports because today's youth have a different mentality. Because of technology and social media, there are any number of superficial distractions before matches. These distractions don't disappear until the athlete is on the court, within that insulated environment, and it is only then, do players focus in on playing. But, it is not an instant focus, as it takes a certain amount of time to dial in the concentration.
The coach's desire that their teams/players focus before competition is the entire reason for pre-game rituals. This is why coaches take away cell phones before competitions (cell phones are today's biggest distraction to individual athletic success), why there is a serve and pass before the match, why there is a team pre-game meal, why there are team meetings hours before a game, why players are not allowed to hang out with family pre match, etc., etc., etc. Coaches are trying to establish a routine which results in focus and team success.
Back to your babies; they need to develop a pre competition routine and a pre training routine for success. The old saying, you play how your practice is true. If it takes a player 30 minutes to "get into" practice, then they will do the same thing for competitions. I suggest that high school age athletes develop a pre-athletic routine, that allows them to let go of distractions and prepare for practice/competition.
My senior year pre match routine was my room mate drove me to the UCLA campus, we listened to two Rolling Stones songs on the way, I went to the training room to change, entered Pauley Pavilion through a specific door and went to the floor to start warm-ups.
For today's players, they need to lose the social media distractions (or friends or family or socializing) before they get ready to practice/compete. They need to develop a specific routine that allows them to successful at the proper time. They need to develop a pre-game/pre-practice routine.
Put the phone on airline mode and just listen to music before practice. No text or snapchat or instagram is going to be worth sacrificing concentration before practice/competition. Use 30 minutes before practice/competition to visualize the upcoming endeavor. Use 30 minutes to create a 'quite space' to let the distractions and the day fade away. Use 30 minutes to focus on what your practice/competition responsibilities are. If a player steps into practice/competition mentally focused on the task at hand, then they will be more successful than 'getting into it' during warm ups.
Parents need to become part of the successful solution and not the distraction. I can't tell you how many times, I had collegiate players talking/texting with their folks right before warm-ups. Wish your kids good luck an hour before the match, not 5 minutes before warm-ups. Remind your daughter/son to turn off their phone and that you will call the coach if there is an emergency.
It just comes down to the reality that you can't be thinking about something and doing something else physically. The slow starts of players is a result of using time for their minds to join what their bodies are doing.