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Real Talk: Practice Like You Play

“For every pass I caught in a game, I caught a thousand in practice.” – Don Hutson

I’ve been on a number of good teams in my day, and it’s no coincidence that the best ones have had great leaders. The coach wasn’t always my favorite (he wasn’t our friend or teammate after all, he was our coach), but our team leaders were something else.

These leaders had character and discipline. They each exhibited a high sense of maturity beyond their years and brought a massive competitive edge to practice daily. It consistently caused the perfect domino effect. When our team stepped onto the playing field, there was never any walking or goofing around. It was all business.

When we’d lose a game, that very next practice there were giant chips on the shoulders of our leaders that quickly tumbled down onto the shoulders of everyone else. When we won a game, there was a feeling of pride that oozed throughout the team followed by a loud “LET’S GO TO WORK!” to get the next day of practice kicked off correctly.

When I was on these teams, lacrosse was FUN. Practices were serious because they needed to be treated just like games. Game situations all the time. Yet there was still a constant, uncanny sense of excitement and enthusiasm present through the voices of the leaders, which resulted in excitement and enthusiasm amongst the rest of the team.

The leader always sets the trail for others to follow.

At practice, we were there to play 100% at all times. The repetitions and intensity in drills helped our muscles remember how to act and react in game situations, and our coaches preached about that constantly. Meanwhile, our leaders did each rep like it was their last on earth and the whole team followed suit. They actively showed their desire to win every drill, every scrimmage and every day.

“Practice like you play” is a beautiful, undying concept that too many athletes ignore or take for granted. The best lessons I’ve learned were from practices at which I worked so hard I puked, and I’ll never forget the times my teammates joined me at the trash can to do the same. We worked our asses off because we had great leadership and a hefty goal on our minds at all times.

And you know, now that I really think about it, it wasn’t just on our minds. It was in our hearts.

When it came to winning and achieving our team goals, our team leaders wore their passion on their sleeves. Even at the very beginning of the season, you could quickly sense our leaders’ intense desire from a simple conversation about our next practice or game. And as I mentioned above, there it was… a domino effect. The team’s passion grew.

Coincidentally, it was on these teams that I had the privilege of playing in championship games.

Now, as I reminisce and reflect on my experiences, a number of internal questions arise:

What characteristics make up a great leader?

Where should team leadership come from? Just the seniors? Only captains?

How do leadership and practice combine to create championship caliber teams?
… Is there some long lost formula?

I’d love to hear your take.

(Main photo via lclarkepix on Flickr)