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For the Lady Spikers, Losing Can Be a Powerful Tonic

The most merciful thing that could have happened yesterday, or at least to the benefit of those who follow the fortunes of the Lady Spikers of DLSU, was for the evening news to come on and put an end to the coverage of jubilant scenes of Ateneo celebrating their second successive UAAP women’s volleyball title.

The second most merciful thing, of course, was that Ateneo finally put the Lady Spikers out of their misery in straight sets fashion for the second consecutive match, in so doing rudely cutting down whatever romantic notions there remained that the latter ever stood a chance of regaining their title after the unfortunate Ara Galang injury.

Not that Galang, had she been fit, would have stopped the Ateneo juggernaut. She would have made it that wee bit harder, granted; but even the most loyal of DLSU supporters would have, albeit grudgingly, acknowledged that on song, the Ateneo girls were a class all their own.

Michele Gumabao and Melissa Gohing, two title-winning alumnae of the Lady Spikers, went on record to decry the lukewarm support that the team had received in the finals. That is just the way things are in sport the world over. People will willingly part with hard-earned cash to see a contest, not a foregone conclusion; and especially since the match was on television, anyway.

I have been watching the Lady Spikers for many seasons now, but this season I sincerely felt that the girls were a pale shadow of the championship winning teams of the recent past. I have no pretensions about having tactical and technical knowledge of the game of volleyball; but having coached football teams for three decades, perhaps I am qualified enough to spot a mentally fragile team when I see one.

Ramil de Jesus’ record is excellent and speaks for itself; but, in retrospect, his titles were won in an era when all the other teams were coached by fellow Filipino coaches who called timeouts to express petulance.

In contrast to most of the Filipino coaches, Ateneo’s Coach Tai Bundit’s has not only consistently called timeouts to prevent opposing teams from building any sort of momentum but also, more importantly, to draw out tension from his players and replace this with positive energy.

Yesterday, the Lady Spikers were still well-poised to take the first set until an error late in the set allowed Ateneo to draw even and nudge ahead. De Jesus could have taken a leaf out of Coach Tai’s manual to relieve his players from the tension of having to close the first set out.

Was it just me, or did the Lady Spikers begin to crumble after his annoyed timeout; and the more annoyed he became, the more disjointed his team performed? To be fair, some teams will respond well to a coach’s petulance. At the end of the day, it is up to the coach to recognize the sort of players he or she has; and petulance is, perhaps, not the best way to approach a mentally fragile group.

It is in the understanding of the psychological side of sport, perhaps, where the Thai coach currently enjoys the edge. From the timing of his timeouts to his courtside jigs to his cryptic instructions to his players, everything is calculated not only to have his players’ positive juices flowing but also to get in the hair of opposing teams.

Even the courtside meditation, I had written before, is a totally bogus psy-war tool probably used to unnerve opposing teams and give his own players something of a placebo effect to counter tension. In truth, you need somewhere quiet to effectively meditate. (Coach Tai’s Meditating Ateneo Girls)

It will be foolhardy, of course, to assume that Ateneo won on the basis of psy-war alone. On the contrary, Ateneo played this season not only with the power that they had even in their unsuccessful years; their blocking and floor defence had been of the sort that used to be almost patently Lasallian.

The 16-match unbeaten season, naturally, speaks for itself.

As for the Lady Spikers, while a runners-up finish will not be good enough for a team who themselves set the league’s standards of excellence, the off-season is always a good thing to look forward to for soul-searching and to ponder ways to prevent Ateneo from building a dynasty.

The last time I lost an NCAA-South final, I did not even allow my boys to dwell on the emotions that came from the loss. Our preparations to win that championship, I told them, began right there and then. Twelve months later, we were champions.

For the Lady Spikers, the countdown has begun. The pain from losing a final can be a powerful emotion that can knock a team down; but it can also be a powerful motivation for a team to pick itself up and fight harder.

And a dancing Thai coach has shown everyone how important the mental side of sport is to winning a championship.