There is nothing quite like the playoffs in lacrosse. While box lacrosse often uses a series system to determine a playoff winner, field lacrosse relies exclusively on the single elimination or “win, or go home” playoff format, and it makes May a truly riveting time of the year for our growing community.
It’s also a special time for the coaches, players, and staff (even friends and parents!) on teams that are still winning, as they are experiencing something only a handful of people ever get to experience… the potential run to a title. While I never competed for a D1 (or even D3) title, I was on a number of NESCAC and ECAC playoff teams during my career, and I can tell you how great that feeling was. I can also tell you how crushing it was to lose.
And now we come to the big reality that no one really likes to admit: Since there can be only one winner, there are going to be a number of other teams licking their wounds after a tough loss.
In fact, every playoff team except the winner is going to end their season with a loss. Every team that thought they could pull it out, except for one, will lose. Like Highlander, there can be only one. So if almost everyone loses to end their season, how can we manage to draw positive movement from it?
The first step is to realize that what I said above is true: There can be only ONE winner. Everyone else, at some level is a loser. Once you really think on that, you often start to gain perspective, and rethink the word loser. A lot of teams would kill to lose in the finals, because they finished the season at 3-10 and missed the playoffs. Loser can be relative. It doesn’t take the sting of losing away, but it helps you get to the next step.
The second step has to do with more introspection… Did the other team (the one you lost to) play better than you did? Were they just better than you? Or did you play poorly and lose to a lower skilled team? Could you have done more to prepare your team? Try to be honest with yourself, and dig down to find the real reason for your last loss. It’s not easy, but it can help. Don’t blame others, just look at the facts. Once you realize WHY you REALLY lost, it is easier to move forward. I was bitter after many losses in college, but instead of focusing on what happened, I always tried to focus on why the loss had happened. It definitely helped, even though it was only a small change in thinking.
Realization of shortcomings is a huge step (via a small change), but it’s not the end of the line by any means. If you have another year (or two or three) with this team, it is time to start making improvements with this same team. Even if older players are moving on, if you have realized what went wrong, you can start working towards fixing it almost immediately. If you are moving on yourself, it’s time to start working for that next goal, whatever it is.
Assuming you’re still playing, and assuming your team couldn’t finish the ball, set up Summer shooting sessions with teammates. If your goalie struggled, then pull him out every day this Summer to take shots. If he’s not keen on being pounded by lacrosse balls, use tennis balls. Challenge yourself, and challenge your friend. Nothing takes away the pain of a recent loss like putting in the work to avoid the next loss.
The last part of dealing with a season ending loss is REMEMBERING THE LOSS! Remember what it felt like to lose that game. Remember the other team celebrating. Don’t hold it against them, or be jealous… but WANT that feeling for yourself. Remember the loss, and let it motivate you to do more. About to sit on your couch to watch TV? Remember the loss, and go play wall ball. Ready to pack it in after only 30 minutes of shooting? Remember the loss, and the shot you clanged off the cross bar. Thinking about scaling back that 5 mile run into a 2 mile jog? REMEMBER THAT LOSS!
Use that feeling of not measuring up and disappointment in all things. Use it to fuel your practice work, your gym time, your academic work, your community service, and anything else where you invest time. Remember the loss, use it, and next year you just might be the one team ending their season with a win.