Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What happened to the Leafs?

There will be endless water cooler discussions (or maybe other beverages will be involved) as the true blue fans and the skeptics talk about Game 7 between Boston and the Leafs.  In case you're not in Toronto as you read this (and your world does not revolve around the fate of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team), let me give you a quick recap of their first round playoff series against the Boston Bruins. Toronto lost 2 games on home ice and was down 3-1 in the best of 7 series. They fought back (unexpectedly) to a 3-3 tie, forcing a 7th game in Boston.

Back on Boston ice, the Leafs were up 2-1 after two periods, and 4-1 about 9 minutes into the second period. (A period is 20 minutes).  They then allowed 3 unanswered goals, went to overtime, and lost early in the sudden-death overtime.  No more playoff dreams for Toronto, and some folks ready to call it a choke.

I don't think it's entirely fair to say they choked. What I saw (and I only saw a little of the previous games) was this: after a goal was scored for or against Boston, Boston came to the face off ready to charge. After a goal was scored against Toronto, they were scrambled, pushing hard but scrambled. That wasn't just true in the 7th game. It was true enough to seem like a pattern.

Imagine that you expect the other team to score but over and over again you escape. Your goalie makes amazing saves; the other team misses the net; you get some lucky bounces. One way or another, you escape enough that it seems like you are meant to escape. And then the puck lands in the back of your net. For a moment you are as confused as your fans. Although the odds were in favour of this happening, your direct experience was so vivid and compelling, you forgot about the odds.

The same optimism that allowed you to rebound from lost games and score unexpected goals now turns on you. You suffer a few moments of confusion. And in those moments a better, more experienced team makes you pay. They beat on you physically, and they are more focused than you mentally. And that's what happened to the Leafs.

If you're the underdog, part of your preparations has to include the pattern interrupt that happens when you are suddenly ahead instead of behind. And it has to include the next pattern interrupt, where fate turns on you and the other team is suddenly on the upswing. You need to be able to charge through the confusion with fierce focus and calm hearts.  That's a different kind of conditioning.

People will no doubt accuse the boys in blue of lacking heart and focus. But it's more likely that it was precisely the momentum of heart and focus that got them into trouble.

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