Like many life lessons, I learned about how to be a good coach on the athletic field.
I was playing in the last lacrosse game of my junior year, an away game vs. Clarkson University. Games at Clarkson were always a challenge. They maintained one of the only true grass fields in the league (all the other schools had upgraded to synthetic turf) and their field was perpetually muddy, frozen or both.
On top of the usual challenges, this year was particularly hard. Just before the season began, our coach who led us to win the league championship the year before was replaced with a new coach who was much less experienced. The new coach was young and full of fresh ideas, but he had a very different way of running the team and even late into the season he had yet to earn the respect of all the players.
The moment of truth came with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. The score was tied at nine goals each.
We had just missed a shot and the ball careened out of bounds – to be recovered by our opponents. At this point our new coach seized the opportunity to call a “10-man ride,” essentially pulling the goalie out of position in order to get an extra man on offense. It’s a risky and aggressive move, leaving the goal totally unguarded.
The whole team had about 10 seconds to get into position and execute the ride correctly. I can picture the scene clearly, even today. From my spot on the defensive line I saw our huge 6 foot 3 inch goalie race passed me, out of the goal and into position for the play. The problem was, only about half of the rest of the team moved with him, the other half of the team stood flat-footed in protest – they did not agree with the aggressive play-call. When the whistle blew to resume play, only half our team was in position.
Clarkson capitalized on our disorganization, racing down the field and easily dunking the ball into the open net.
Objectively, it was an unusually aggressive play-call. Typically the 10-man ride is reserved for desperate situations where your team is losing by several goals, not when the score is tied. But that isn’t the point. If everyone had run the play, we may have gotten the ball back and won the game. It wasn’t the play that won or lost us the game – it was the fact that we all failed to move together as one unit. We heard the play-call, but we were divided and failed to execute.
If I had to point to the single difference between my sophomore year lacrosse team that won the league championship and my junior year lacrosse team whose season ended at Clarkson after a blown 10-man ride, I’d point to believing and “buy in.” Between the two years, most of the team was made up of the same players. The difference was that one year we all believed in the plan and moved together as a team – the next year, we challenged our coach and didn’t buy into his play calls.
Looking back, this whole experience really taught me a lot about coaching a team. As a coach, there are only two things that are truly important:
1) A clearly articulated plan
2) “Buy in” from your team
Without these two things, you will almost always fail. With these two things, everything else is just icing on the cake.