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It's Not Important How You Start The Season, It's Important How Well You Finish

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

The long term process vs short term gratification

As a high school lacrosse coach, I have come to recognize that the season is a rollercoaster of emotions and expectations.  At the start of the season, the first stressor for athletes is tryouts. It is one time where athletes face the most uncertainty as it relates to the team because teammates are directly competing against each other for roster spots. While freshman athletes are anxious to just make the team, the returning players are eager to make the varsity roster and to be designated as a starter. Once rosters have been set for the season, e.g., varsity, junior varsity, and freshmen teams, the next stressor becomes the battle for playing time. As the season progresses toward the playoffs, the hope is that players on the developmental squads (jv and freshmen) have refined their skills and are ready to swing up (get promoted) and contribute to the varsity squad.

A few years back, I had a high school player, going into his junior (year) season. *Of note, the name of the player and certain parts of the story were altered to protect the identity of the athlete. Joe was a junior midfielder trying out for the varsity team. He had played his last two seasons on the junior varsity team. He was a multi-sport athlete who was very athletic and coachable. Basketball was his primary sport and lacrosse was his secondary sport. He loved lacrosse because a number of his good friends played and because the game was similar to basketball.

After the week long tryout, the coaches and I had made the hard decision of designating Joe to the junior varsity team to start the season. The decision was based in the following, while physically he was in great shape, his technical skills (throwing, catching, and shooting) and his tactical skills (field IQ: offensive and defensive strategy) needed work. It wasn't an easy decision to relegate Joe to the junior varsity squad. However, we felt that it was the best course of action to get him up to speed. If things went well, we felt he could join the varsity squad by mid to late season, priming him to help the team for the playoffs.

After I had posted the rosters for varsity and junior varsity, Joe had requested a meeting with the coaches. At first, Joe was crushed that he would have to start the season on junior varsity. He felt he deserved a shot to be on the varsity squad because: he was a returning player, he had taken the time to stay in shape (mainly by playing another sport in the offseason), he had participated in a handful of the captains’ practices in the off season, and a number of his friends had made the varsity roster.

After allowing Joe to air his frustrations, we discussed areas he could improve his technical, tactical, and physical skills to get him up to speed. We also spoke about the importance of gaining the experience of playing in games against other teams. The coaches and I felt that Joe would get a lot playing time on jv vs little to no playing time on varsity. It was also the moment we conveyed to him that "it's more important how he finishes the season vs where and how he starts the season."

While still upset that he would not start the season on varsity, he was determined to earn a spot on the varsity roster. As a result, Joe checked in with the coaches before each practice, he would come to practice with things he wanted to work on, and he would ask coaches best times to work on these skills, e.g., specific drills in practice. To top it off, he ask to review film of the games he played, with a coach, to see where he could improve and to help identify things he was doing well.

Joe’s hard work and determination paid off, near the mid point of the regular season, he was ready to swing up to the varsity squad. While he got sparing minutes, at first, Joe kept a good attitude and made sure to take note of things he was doing well and things he still needed to improve on, from game to game.  By the end of the regular season, Joe and one other player were consistently coming off the bench as part of a platoon of defensive midfielders. 

In the end, Joe recognized that setting specific and personal goals to work on each day, avoid comparing his effort and abilities to the rest of the team (e.g., “I feel like I worked harder than most of the team and am a better player”), and asking the coaches to work on specific skills and tactics allowed him to focus on the process of improving and just playing the game.  In short, the process meant, focusing on the little things like his effort, insights gained from working on certain skills and tactics, and learning from his mistakes. Over time, these small "munchable chunks" of skill building added up to larger gains that prepared him to make the varsity roster and contribute in competition.

Coaching Points of Emphasis:

1. Set the expectation and make time to develop athletes individually and as a team.

2. Show athletes that you care by nurturing relationships. Get to know your athletes as people, not just as athletes.

3. Teach athletes how to set SMART goals and hold them accountable. The hope is that each athlete finds the motivation and dedication to improve on their own.

4. Provide specific feed back to athletes, highlighting small successes and the little things that they need to improve on. Athletes lose hope and motivation when they don't receive feedback that identifies if they are doing things correctly or not.

5. Help athletes identify their role as a member of the team. If they understand their role, they will be motivated to contribute to the team and support their teammates.

Athlete Points of Emphasis:

1. Don't assume that coaches are going to take the time to get to know you or help you to develop. Take the time to build a relationship with your coaches and ask for help. If they know you are interested and motivated, they will be more willing to help you.

2. Be curious and ask questions. Coaches don't get mad when you ask for help and admit when you don't understand something. They tend to get upset when athletes don't pay attention and when they make excuses for perform poorly.

3. Don't wait for a coach to tell you what to work on, take the time to meet with the coach to assess areas to improve your game. FYI, asking coaches to help you with something specific vs a general question of how can I get better, shows that you are invested in improving.

4. Assess the need on your team and try to fill that void. If you see that the team needs a specialist like an all defensive player or an offensive player to initiate the offense, take time to acquire that skill. Again, players who stand out are the one's who assess the needs of the team and are able to fill that void.

5. Set personal goals to accomplish at each practice and each game. For example, if you are a lacrosse player that wants to improve his weak hand, think about certain drills in practice to work on this. Focusing on the effort you put in at practice, the insights you gain when working on something specific within a drill, and remembering that making mistakes are part of the learning process (if you aren't making mistakes, you aren't challenging yourself), will help you to improve and focus on the task at hand. This is the process of building muscle memory. The more you work on a skill in practice, the more it becomes second nature. It's what allows you to think less and just do it, in competition.

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