Editor’s note: Connor went back in and changed the last third of this post after thinking on it some more. He realized he wasn’t practicing what he was preaching. Check it out.
You can win the biggest games of the season by taking one of two approaches: The First is to just be the better team, to work hard and stick to your guns and schemes. The Second option requires a more fluid approach to the game, but this usually doesn’t mean a complete overhaul of the team. It just means a willingness to change some select little things, do so on the fly, or in a matter of hours, and to always embrace the desire to keep your opponents on their heels. However, there is a fine line between fluidity and panic, and the winners can usually make that distinction.
I don’t think anyone needs me to really flesh out the prior route to success: be the better team. Do what you do, rely on your talent, and athleticism, and make the other team play your game. If you have a bunch of blue chippers, this plan can work. But 90% of the teams in the country probably do not have this luxury. So how can they use the latter option mentioned above to see greater success?
The first key to making a change is knowing WHY you are making said change. My point here is that change for the sake of change, especially near the end of the season, REEKS of panic. If an offense has been primarily running a 2-3-1 set on O all year, and have struggled, they don’t change to a 1-4-1 just to change. There HAS to be a reason to make the change. Now if you told me that your top dodging middie likes dodging the pole, but needs more room to operate, now THAT is a reason to work on the 1-4-1.
But the argument that “the 2-3-1 isn’t working, so let’s just change to something else” holds absolutely no water. And here’s why:
You could change to a new set, but without a reason to do so, what makes you think this new set will work better? What aspects of the 2-3-1 were failing that the 1-4-1 will solve? If you can not answer these questions, then you don’t know what you’re doing. And you’re making change for the sake of change. Having a team run an offense they know, even if they struggle with it, is better than having them run an offense they don’t know at all. I can almost guarantee that they’ll struggle with the new O as well, possibly even more so.
The same thing is true on the defensive end of the field. Seeing as I played a LOT of zone at Wesleyan, I get a decent number of emails from coaches asking me if they should install a zone Defense over the next two days to use in the playoffs. I respond back nicely, but usually ask them if they have lost their minds. A zone defense takes weeks, months, and sometimes YEARS to install correctly. But some people involved with the game think that switching to zone is just like flipping a switch. And they think the same thing about offensive sets. What they don’t know is that it takes some serious time to install these schemes correctly… and if they aren’t installed correctly, more often than not, your team is going to be in even MORE trouble.
Making change for the sake of change is the easy way out. And from my experience, the easy way out has NEVER helped a team or young man attain success.
So now that I’ve ruled out changes merely for the sake of change, let’s get into what a team CAN do to help make a push in the playoffs… and thankfully, there is a LOT they can do!
A deep run into the playoffs or towards a Championship needs one thing first and foremost, and this single aspect truly matters more than anything else: COMMITMENT. It needs to come from every player on the team, and this is true in college just like it’s true in high school. Seniors need to lead by example and work HARDER than they have ever worked before. This is THEIR shot, and if anyone is going to push the team to greater heights, it almost always comes the guys who have been there the longest. At the same times, they need to be committed to their roles on the team. They just need to fulfill them better.
This means busting their butts in practice, it means buying in to what the coaches are selling 110%, and it means putting Summer, the next step (college, grad school or career) on the backburner. It means that when all the kids who DON’T play lacrosse are out in the sun enjoying themselves, the dedicated kids are out on the field getting extra reps in. It means when other people are out at night, you’re in, thinking about lax, or studying, or spending time with your family. It means re-committing to the goals of the team more than you ever have before. It means sacrifice… but a sacrifice for something you’ve worked hard to attain for at least FOUR years! To some, this is an easy choice, but to others it is not. And it really shows the true character of any team.
I’ll share a little story with you from MY high school times…
We started the program at my High School in 1996 as a club team. By 1998, we were a full-fledged varsity team, and we went 8-8 in the toughest conference in Massacusetts (at the time it was the strongest: the Dual County League) and qualified for the state playoffs. We lost 12-8. in 1999, the ENTIRE team returned and we had big expectations. The season went well, but we finished 8-8 again. In the games we had lost, we were much more competitive.
When the playoffs rolled around, I thought we were ready to start playing at the next level. But I was kidding myself. Guys showed up late to practice, had their heads in other places and went out at night. I would have been out with them but when I asked my father if I could go out on a school night, he would say, “not a chance, kid”! And this saved me to a certain extent. 6 of my friends were out one night, and 4 of them played lax with me. All 4 were starters and some of our best players. They decided it would be a good idea to go out one night, and in the process, also decided it would be a good idea to light a fire on OUR OWN football field, in the shape of a giant ’99.
Needless to say, they got caught, and the 4 guys were kicked off the team. This was one day before our first state playoff game. Those of us who could still play went out and lost. Badly. And this was a team we could have beaten otherwise. We lost our starting goalie, two top middies and our best longstick, who had around 40 points on the year. Yes, a longstick had 40 points for us. He also played man-up.
I was pissed off at these guys. Over the years, I’ve let it go, and I don’t talk about it in a negative way. It was a chance for us to all learn some lessons. I still got to play college lacrosse. And I learned how quickly you could lose it all. And all 4 of the guys who got kicked off went off to college and had great careers. And they stayed out of trouble as well.
But in the end, I was too eager to place blame on others. I wasn’t ready to take responsibility for my own actions. The fact that I didn’t lead better by example makes their mistake MY FAULT. Sure, in the end, we’re all responsible for our own actions, but the fact is, if I had been a better leader, what happened could have been different. And this is what I talk about when I speak of commitment. It’s a commitment to each other, to the team, to your parents and the people who have gotten you there, and to yourself. I wasn’t ready back then to be a man and lead by example. I committed myself, but did nothing for anyone else. And to this day, it’s one of my biggest regrets.
In the end, we all learned from the experience and grew up a lot. But had we committed right away, it never would have happened, and we would have learned the lesson by doing it the right way. And that was the difference. We grew as people, but we had to have it all taken away to understand just exactly what that meant. We could have learned those lessons either way, and it’s a shame that we had to learn them by losing. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Now if you DO have players that are willing to commit, there are more things you can do.
Let’s go back to the 2-3-1 set we used as an example earlier. Throw a new wrinkle into your 2-3-1, but keep running it in a similar fashion. Do this for two reasons. 1) Your team will be more comfortable. 2) Other teams will think you’re still doing the exact same thing you’ve been doing all season, but you’re not. A new wrinkle could be instead of after an alley dodge you don’t move the ball right to X, you look for a newly placed cutter and THEN move the ball to X. Or you could add a high crease pick on the dodge, and then cycle into a pick and roll. The looks are a little new for your guys, but the scheme is still the same.
I also talked about switching from man to zone and why that’s a problem. Teams just don’t have enough time to install something like that. But could install a backer man to man defense with two crease defenders. Or you could install a shortie lock off and run a 5 man to 5 man 1 on 1 rotation. If the other team is great at dodging, the prior might work. If the other team has a sniper or single stud, the latter might work. But neither one is a complete overhaul of the team’s practices, and both still require a LOT of work and commitment from the players and coaches.
Be innovative, do things for a reason, and re-commit to who you are. It will help you when the times are darkest.
The overall idea is that your schemes and team principles have gotten you to this point. Now to go further, a team will need to work even harder to perfect what they are doing, and make some small changes that could be the difference makers in tight games. Installing a zone, or switching sets for the sake of change will do nothing but hold your team back. You are who you are, now the players just need to dedicate themselves to that ideology 110%, and good things will continue to come.