Gut check time. Time to ask the questions that make us feel a little bit uncomfortable.
Are you willing to let a win slip by in the quest for a better team at the end of the season when playoffs roll around? Not just hypothetically, would you really do it? With the parents in the stands watching, the kids on the bench behind you with zero stick skills and some of them staring off into space, the opposing coach yelling onto the field ferociously seeking the big W and putting in their best of the best alone?
I can say that in all my support and love of growing the game, and developing players, I still have let my ego steal my team’s potential away. It’s so easy to identify a win with success, it’s human nature, it’s taught to us from the generation before us, our society celebrates it and lifts it up on a pedestal. Not many awards go out to coaches for having a well rounded team that loses all season. If I can get the ball to Susie and she can drop it in the net on any goalie in the state then who’s checking my winning ego and telling me that I’m sacrificing the development of 16 or 17 other players in search of something that will make ME look good.
But it’s more than that, more than needing that win. I’m hurting my team if I seek the almighty win and use that as a measuring stick for success. Because that team that won all season has a shallow bench as the players who weren’t very good never got the playing time they needed to get better, my star could get injured or miss a game or be shut down by the other team, and then what do I have left?
Ever wonder why teams that go undefeated in the regular season and seem like a shoe in for playoff success get knocked off in the first round? I used to wonder that all the time, and it happened to me. It was an awful way to end an almost perfect season of Wins across the board.
I had an interesting conversation recently with successful Milton HS head coach, Tim Godby that really clarified what I already knew but hadn’t quite fully committed myself too. I rarely find a person who is more entrenched in the world of lacrosse than I am, who spends more time growing the game, thinking about the game, building the game, and then personally attending everything and anything lacrosse related. Going further than that, as a female coach I think it’s fair to say that I suffer from what most of us female coaches suffer from – an automatic chip on our shoulder for male coaches in women’s lacrosse (but that’s another subject entirely for later) But I have found that when Godby – who almost impossibly is on the lacrosse field more than I am, talks about lacrosse, I listen, and I always pick up something that helps me get better as a coach.
As a team that wins over and over again, I wanted to know, how do you keep your team motivated year after year? My teams seem to do great the first year – working hard, racking up incredible winning streaks, driven to succeed, but then they work less hard the next year, and it declines further the year after that. How do you avoid complacency, that feeling that you have arrived and no longer need to put in the grind that’s needed to keep success.
The answer: Milton plays teams that could mop the floor with them during the regular season, even though that’s becoming a harder quest as they have to now travel far and wide to find teams that have that kind of skill. They aren’t afraid to lose, because when they do – they learn, get better, get stretched, and here’s the big one – they stay hungry. That team jumps up and down at each state tournament like it was their first time winning it. I believe that’s because they don’t waltz through their season collecting winning streaks, they are comfortable risking a loss in order to have the skills they need to maintain their playoff success.
Going further into that ideal, is that being willing risk a loss when the opposing coach is playing their best players and not subbing, am I willing to put in my third string players even though I know they will drop the ball? Am I willing to sacrifice immediate glory for having a deeper bench at the end of the season with more experienced players? I’m not trying to lose, I’m still seeking to win, but without sacrificing development in the process, and with a bigger goal in mind.
Playing all of our players, playing against teams that could annihilate us – these are risks that could certainly put us on the losing side on the scoreboard. But like investing, the payoff is higher when we put a little risk into it. And what are we really risking besides a bit of pride if we don’t get that win from playing only the best of our players, or teams we know are closer to our level? If all of our players get played, and they have to work hard against the odds, come to practice hungry to get better, appreciate each goal because it was hard fought, and they all have more experience in competition, would the season maybe be a little more enjoyable for them too?
I was on board with playing good competition because I know it makes us better, but I have often fallen into the trap of following our ranking a little too closely during the season, looking for that 10 goal differential to keep our power ranking higher, playing mostly the best players because we had a great streak going, using the scoreboard as a measuring stick, looking over that player that isn’t good enough yet in favor of someone who maybe needed more rest.
This season I want to reach for more than wins, I want better players – I want an entire team of better players, I want players hungry to work harder, who know they still have miles to go to meet their potential, and who celebrate those hard earned goals like it was their very first, every time.