Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Navy can make fans happy by doing what the coaches want

Coaches and players can't think through sports the way fans can and do. Yet, everyone -- those between the white lines in the stadium and those watching in the stands or on TV -- wants the same end result: victory wherever it's available, and domination whenever it's possible. Navy can heed a coaching staff's message and arrive at a place where fans will feel good about a season which has already achieved some solid results.

It is the reality of sports, and it will always remain thus... because it must: Players and coaches cannot think about their work the way fans do. 

This is not a criticism of fans. It is merely a reflection of the wall dividing the participants from the spectators. A fan can afford to be emotional and carry around either a lingering glee or a simmering frustration, because there's no job to do, no work which has to be done in the five minutes after a huge touchdown or a crippling 15-yard penalty on third and 17 with the opposing team's quarterback headed out of bounds on a scramble. The ultimate wishes of the fan and the coach or athlete are the same, but the roads used to get to that shared endpoint -- success, ideally at the highest level -- are different.

As Navy prepares to host Tulane coming off a bye week, this necessary -- and innocent -- distinction between the fan's perspective and the coach's perspective is very much worth noting.

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If a fan is looking at the second half of the season as a whole -- and really, what fan doesn't use a midseason bye week to do that sort of thing? -- the importance of this week's game against Tulane is clear beyond the simple win-or-loss result.

Think about Navy's season on a larger level: Not a lot of people are going to worry about the Midshipmen's ability to beat Tulane or South Florida in the next two weeks at home. The real meat of the schedule comes in November, with Memphis and Houston plus an anything-but-easy road trip to Tulsa and a potentially thorny game against an SMU team which can throw the ball extremely well under the guidance of head coach Chad Morris, who has greatly improved the program despite a losing record. 

The other big-picture detail to keep in mind is that with the American Athletic Conference staging its championship game on Dec. 5, Navy -- should it attain the main goals it is shooting for -- would not have a single bye week over the next two months. This is a marked departure for a team which has been used to multiple bye weeks in the back end of its schedule. The just-ended bye week marked Navy's last best chance to get some rest. It's going to become a very hard road for this team beginning in November...

... which leads us back to Tulane this weekend.

A fan will look at this game and say, "Navy needs to blow the lid off this game early so that the starters can rest in the fourth quarter and pace themselves for what's ahead." A fan will look at this part of the schedule and hope that Navy can make quick work of an opponent to stay fresh for the long haul. This is like the case of a tennis player who has a match delayed by rain and knows s/he has to play again the next day versus an opponent who will have more rest. The player knows that it's important to win the match quickly, get off the court, and have as much time to recuperate as is humanly possible. Yet, when a player gets into that kind of situation, s/he can't reinvent the wheel. Much as you can't hit a five-run homer in baseball or make a four-point shot in basketball, you can't win two points in one in tennis. You can only give full concentration to the point you're playing right now. Broadly translated, you can only focus on what's right in front of you. Anything else -- in terms of a mental approach -- is wrong. Trying to win a match quickly -- if it means rushing shots or doing other irresponsible (low-percentage) things to hurry the proceedings along -- is counterproductive. Consciously thinking, "I have to win this match in fewer than X amount of minutes," merely sets up the athlete for frustration when things don't go well.

The way an athlete thinks through the sport s/he plays can't be the way a fan thinks about an event. Allowing technique and concentration and energy -- the building blocks of peak performance, fused together -- lifts the athlete to a higher plane of productivity. The coach's job is to stress these components and cultivate them in instruction and film study (and other routes used to polish the way athletes perform).

The task is therefore very clear in the Navy football locker room: Sure, Ken Niumatalolo would love to rest Keenan Reynolds and other starters in the fourth quarter on Saturday, building up added periods of rest which could come in handy versus the Memphises and Houstons of the world. Yet, he can't allow himself or his players to think that way.

Being sound with the ball -- not falling into the traps which ensnared the Midshipmen against Notre Dame -- must be the first point of focus for Navy. Niumatalolo will certainly stress the need to re-establish good habits on this homestand before the road-heavy journey through the month of November against high-caliber opposition. Tending to the finer fundamentals and the more granular components of winning football -- relentlessly, on every snap -- has to be the backbone of Navy's outlook. Taking care of that stuff -- as opposed to thinking about a shorter workday for the starters -- will get Navy to the endpoint it wants just as much as its fans do. 

Let the details and the work -- the substance of winning, not its effects -- become the answers to problems. Let precision on the field, everything this team is coached to exhibit, allow Navy to achieve larger goals in service of a fully successful season. 

Navy can't think about what it would like to happen. Navy just needs to tend to the business of doing what it can -- as best as it can -- on each snap.

The rest will take care of itself, as the second half of a very promising season gets underway against Tulane.


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