So, there we were, at the provincial lacrosse tournament. The only reason my team was there was because we were the host city, and had no choice but to represent. The odds were heavily against my team, as my home town (Sherbrooke, Quebec) was much smaller than the cities our competitors came from. Each team we played against were “all-stars” picked from four or five teams in each region.
Our “all-star” team was basically our regular season team, plus just three other players from a nearby town that did not have enough players to qualify. Our team was also the only team to have a girl, and she was our goalie. Truly, we were the “Bad News Bears” of lacrosse.
In our first game, that difference was made physically clear by the fact that our biggest players were only as tall as our opponent’s smallest players. And we only had two or three tall players. To say we were outmatched in size would have been a huge understatement. However, being four feet and seven inches tall myself, I felt I was the perfect coach to guide my undersized team to success in this land of giants.
Our first few games were rough: One win, a few ties and a few losses left moral quite low. It was our last game in the round robin, and we absolutely needed a win to make it to the medal rounds. Somehow, we won that game, and then it dawned on me: I had to prepare my team for a bronze medal game, against one of the goliath teams that had soundly beaten us in the preliminaries.
On the eve of the “big game”, I had a one on one discussion with our goalie. I asked her to visualize herself making one great save after another, and playing her best game ever. In my speech to the whole team, I reminded them that it’s not the size of the player that matters, but the size of their heart. I also asked them to visualize the bronze medal that was up for grabs, and to go home, and pick out a spot where they would display it.
The next morning, the first player to arrive at the arena came up to me and said, “I’m putting mine on the refrigerator.”
I was so nervous about our pending medal game, I had totally forgotten my speech from the day before, and said “You’re going to put what on your fridge?”
My player responded “My bronze medal!”
“Oh, yeah” I replied, “Good for you!”
The big game arrived, and I realized how badly I wanted our team to win, so that these kids could learn that even if you are an underdog, you can still do great things. On a personal level, I despised my opposing coach. His approach was so negative, always berating his players, and even making them do pushups if he felt they made a mistake during the game.
The game itself went by in a blur, as they always did. In my experience, good coaching is always about training, preparation and motivation. The actual games, win or lose, usually turn into a mixture of a runaway train combined with the cartoon character the Tasmanian Devil. Especially with kids, good coaching during a game is more about never losing your cool while managing disasters, and making sure the kids are okay and having fun.
What I do remember about the game was that we were behind for most of it. In the first period, we were down by a goal, and then we tied it. This pattern repeated for the second and early third period. Each time we fell behind, the players on the bench would say to me, “Put our line on coach, we’ll score the tying goal!” And so we did.
Tied three to three in the third period, our opponents were bombarding our goalie, but she played outrageously well. Thenm late in the game, they threatened with a near breakaway: Only our youngest and smallest player stood guard between their best scorer, and our beleaguered goalie.
I’ll remember this part for the rest of my life. Our little tyke gamely trotted towards his charging opponent, his protective lacrosse helmet and face cage bobbing like bobble-head toy. Then, our brave but tiny defenseman curled up into an even smaller, but mighty ball, and collided with Goliath, right around leg level. It was a perfectly legal body check but a hilarious one: Our opponent’s would-be breakaway attempt literally exploded with sticks going one way, and the ball going another as their player flipped end over end.
As the two players disentangled themselves, and picked up their sticks, our feisty little defender ran to pick up the loose ball, and started running the wrong way. After shouting urgent commands from the bench, I finally convinced him it was a bad idea to shoot the ball at our goalie, and to run towards our opponent’s side of the playing field instead. He had not touched the ball for most the game, so he had a blast scampering all over the field, and giving his coach a heart attack.
Eventually he handed the ball off to one of our better players and we scored the go-ahead goal. It was now late in the game, and the pushups on our opponent’s bench were coming fast and furious. They kept coming at us wave after wave, shot after shot, but our goalie stood firm, a veritable octopus that no shot could get past.
At long last, the buzzer rang, and our players stood there, too exhausted and stunned to realize at first what we had accomplished: The final score was four to three for us, and the bronze medal was ours!
Eventually, our team woke up, and started celebrating and jumping on our goalie, elated by our victory. After the game, parents, league administrators and other coaches came up to me, and declared that our game was the most exciting they had ever seen. Each time I would pass on the praise to my players who made it happen. That evening, as I tiredly lay down for a much deserved night of sleep, I started to cry with pure joy.
Yes, I was proud of myself, and all the hard work I put into the entire season. But what I reflected on most was my player’s tenacity and courage in the face of adversity. It was truly humbling: No matter how many times they fell behind, they never gave up. Their faith in me as their coach, and their faith in themselves never wavered.
In truth, they taught me the lesson I had been trying to teach them from the very beginning: It does not matter how many times we fall down, but how many times we get back up again.