A Strange Night in the Courtyard, an Aftermath Story by Joe Barrett.

As we all prepare for the NXL Windy City Major this weekend, Joe Barrett provided ProPaintball with a story from the NXL Mid Atlantic Major that has crucial insight, lessons, and knowledge. His re-telling of the second event of the NXL season can be found below and is worth the read! 

The following story is by Joe Barrett of San Diego Aftermath and was written, in its entirety, by Joe. 

The Event Starts

It’s a strange night in the courtyard of our hotel, on the Friday of the event. The weather is nice, the environment is peaceful, but there is a feeling of unease, disappointment, and tension in the air amongst all of my teammates. Not because of any personal resentment towards each other, or a terrible incident occurring. No this was just that painful feeling you get after going 0-2 the first day. It’s a clouded whirlwind in your mind of confusion, what-ifs, shoulda couldas, and a lack of solid answers as to what went wrong. At the end of the event, you’ll know exactly why. But in the heat of the moment, when you are completely consumed in the tunnel vision that is a professional event, it’s very very difficult to know exactly which issue is the root cause of your failures. Adrenaline and competitive nature keeps us very caught up in the moment, and words can be said a thousand different ways and not get through in a way that we should so clearly understand if we were to step back and see it from the big picture.

The event started off absolutely horrible for us. I could go into detail of the matches against Thunder and Russian legion, even down to specific key moments in the points. But they are irrelevant. We lost, and that’s all that mattered. The conditions were rough. The ground was terrible, with virtually no grass and rows of corn as the surface. Every time you dove, it was a mouthful of dirt and dust. This compiled on a particularly hot and muggy weekend in Pennsylvania made for some less than ideal playing conditions. But that wasn’t why we lost. When it comes down to it, every pro player is pretty tough. We have all mostly played on lousy fields somewhere or other. We are all resilient enough to adapt and play through.

Did we not prepare enough?  Absolutely not. If you are not familiar with Mike, and the SDA franchise….it is forged in the crucible of hard work. I’m talking about weekends of well over a skid of paint shot. Dozens and dozens and dozens of points a day, back to back to back. Combined with hundreds of breakouts and dozens more drills, situations and individual play. We are the first to the field, the minute it opens, and the last to pack up just before it gets dark. We typically play until every ball is shot, and half the guys can barely stand. Our training is long, high pressure and cut throat. The sword is sharp, and no mistake is missed or forgiven. We not only are prepared for long events, but prepared for whatever can happen on the layout. In fact not only is it learned……it’s beaten into our heads with more repetition than most teams could imagine.

Did we play the field wrong?  This too is a no. We scouted these two teams well. Our coaches told us everything they would do and they did that exactly. We ran the plays that we had practiced hundreds of times. Nothing new or unseen occurred.

I remember leaving the field quietly that day, not really saying much of anything in the rental car on the way to the hotel. I was surrounded by friends, and things clearly needed to be discussed even before the team meeting. But I just didn’t know what to say.  You see, I had a rough first day individually. I could look back at several points and say that I shit the bed, and even cost us some of them directly. I sat half the points, which I can say I wasn’t used to at all. Coming from DMG, you could say I was one of “the guys”, and played virtually every point for 3 seasons straight. This carried over to our first event with SDA. I am not a flashy player by any means, but I have become reliably consistent….and on this day, I was anything but consistent. I could say this stemmed from playing a layout that I never fully felt comfortable on leading up to the event. It didn’t really cater to my natural style or skill-sets. 

I could also say that it was because I played one side the two weeks leading up to the event, and then switched to the other for the Thursday practice before. But these are just bull-shit excuses. Excuses, your head will tell you to try to logic a reason. The reality is I was just playing like shit. Even the known veterans have a rough event once every few seasons, where things just don’t click. And holy hell did this feel like mine. Dying on bounce shots, screwing up my timing, and then finally having points work out on my side but fall apart on the other side. Whether it was my multiple mistakes or even things not directly on me, the stats would show that points I played were not working over half the time. And because of this, I felt awful. I felt like I had let the team down. And at a time when I could have and should have offered up some inspiring or uplifting conversation to bring up the team’s morale, I sat there knowing that I was quite a bit of the problem. It’s hard to keep that emotional leader energy when your own energy is low from failing. 

Later that night.

Why does 0-2 on the first day suck so badly?  Well, anyone in this situation knows that it is fairly close to a death sentence for your event. The cliche is that “fate has been taken from your hands”. If you lose even 1 more match, you are out for sure. But even if you win the next two matches, you will most likely still be out.  In fact, even if you win both matches by a lot, depending on what happens in other brackets and the rest of prelims, you are still likely to not make it. 

The 0-2 conversations often begin that night. After 15 years of national events, I’ve heard these a few times.  Guys want to remain hopeful, but they must also face reality and plan realistically. Talk is said like “Guys, let’s just take these losses and learn. Improve on this for tomorrow and continue the growth for the long term”, or “Let’s go out on a positive note”/”Win a game for pride” 

The next few hours and two different meetings are what I look back on as the most important moments of our event. They were the catalysts to the change that was likely noticeable from us between Friday and the rest of the event. And they are the most important things I could touch on, as they are lessons I took in deeply, lessons that everyone could use. These moments were not only the most important of our event, but felt almost life changing.

Team meeting time happens and it is a strange strange mix of reality check, a mirror held up for us to do our own self reflection, and then followed by inspiration. Now I’ve played on a ridiculous amount of teams, for a lot of great coaches. But the man that is Mike Hinman is on another level, not from this planet.  For any outsiders, you really only know people in paintball from their highlight real personality. Due to this, Mike looks like a loud, tough and unforgiving coach in the league. But you do not know the real Mike until you are on SDA. I knew and talked to this man cordially for years! Hell, I didn’t even fully understand or comprehend his method! I mean clearly it worked, from a successful history. But I didn’t fully get it. 

I don’t want to paraphrase, and I could never give the speech justice anyways. But Mike proceeded to look us all deep into our souls, and ask us all the questions that needed to be asked. No, I’m not talking about “why did you get shot this point”. I mean questions about if we thought we had it in us. If we weren’t ready. If we were man enough to take accountability, to look at the man in the mirror.  And if we were warrior enough to get back up and prove everyone wrong. If we were mentally tough enough to overcome this beat down and live up to what we needed to become. The look of intensity glaring from his eyes into each and every one of ours, with long pauses that you wouldn’t look away from out of respect. He is not asking out loud for each person to answer back. He is asking it outloud as the voice that we should be asking ourselves, and answering in our own minds. We could either feel exposed and accept defeat. Or answer “Yes, I am better than this, and I will do better”. We now have alot to dwell on before bed, and a vision of new and improved outcomes to visualize before the next day.

It’s a long and difficult process. This meeting is not held with a white board and plays. It’s held in the psyche of our minds. I can feel my own emotions swelling, and notice it coming across the faces of my 7 teammates in the room as well. It’s an angry face, like the one that says challenge accepted. Noone is angry at the coach, as he is just posing the questions. He has to remain unbiased. He isn’t going to tell you you can’t, but he also can’t tell you you will. Because it’s not his responsibility to convince you to believe in yourself. It is on you to hear the challenge and take it. The vibe of the room is intense. Every players ego has been challenged, and all of us seem to want to come out the next point ready to prove our doubts wrong. The process is there to make you question things, and to be honest with yourself. It’s quite the plan. And the reason that makes it sink in so well is how it’s delivered. 

That man really knows how to ignite the fire in your heart. Honestly, it’s god damn inspiring and almost movie-esque. Sometimes the speech is almost so good it feels like it was scripted for a sports blockbuster or a world war 2 movie! I mean, after each one I’d instantly follow Mike into a bar fight or a burning building. You can’t ever repeat it even with the same words in that same exact delivery. It’s best described by how you feel it. It’s like that. You see, being on the inside, I’ve learned quite well that the loud guy you may just see from a distance is not angry or “mean”. He is passionate.  Quite possibly the most passionate person in paintball that I’ve ever been around. I don’t just mean a love for the sport, or living every asset of it. I mean passionate about competing and winning.  Mike has one of the biggest hearts ever, and when that thing is geared towards the goal of winning…..it’s unstoppable. He pours everything, time, resources, wisdom and effort into making his team into winners. And that heart and passion will not allow his players to not become what is needed to win. 

This is why many players can’t take the system, or you hear of it being “too tough”. Because the demand for constant improvement and the pressure is so insanely strong. It guarantees to do two things…….get you to what you need to be, or trim the fat. There is no room for feelings, and no one is ever babied, because the goal is winning. So the soft do not survive. It’s also never personal. Every bit of criticism is to demand more out of the player. It’s on them if they will continue to find more or not. 

And this was when I realized the true art form of this style, and fully bought into the system. I remember wanting to join SDA to become a student again and learn more about how to play the chess game. I had even been told that Mike is not an Xs and Os coach before coming on, but I figured that was being modest. He even told me himself that there was likely nothing new he was going to teach me about how to play the game, which I could not fathom. But this proved to be the case. I haven’t learned some new secret, complex strategy to play the game that the top 6 teams and winning pro teams know. The most important part of this coaching was just the constant demand to continue finding more in myself. It feels like infinite pressure, and lots of stress. But this is the secret, and it coming in its final form….a mid event speech made everything click. 

We left this meeting and I returned back to my room. I had my homie Josh to make light of things with by creating stupid memes about him.(follow my ig story for great laughs!) Noone had really talked alot or even smiled much since we finished our second match. We sat shamefully in the grand stands and watched every single match as scouting homework for the rest of the day. We had played morning bracket, so this meant sitting in the humid heat and direct sun until the entire day was over. A whole team in the top of the stands, watching very attentively….but quiet and embarrassed. Not having any fun by any means, and not really connecting with each other either. So it became a mission to get some laughs in my room to break the edge before we finally went to sleep. But before I could start, I was told to follow along for a second meeting. I was confused, and almost nervous for some reason.

Introspective Thoughts

It’s a strange night in the courtyard of our hotel that evening. Yes we have returned to this moment of fate. I remember walking up to the table, feeling a huge mix of emotions. I was beyond the point of shame and negativity, as that Mike speech made me more fueled up then I had felt in years. I felt angry, anxious, and excited to go out and play with a renewed passion. However in the back of my head I also felt the frustration of knowing it may still be all for nothing. Our event could still easily end if we win both these coming matches, and we still stand the risk of losing them! After all, everyone looked motivated, but the team still had to put something together to win games. We were told how to rise to the occasion, but not really given a direct strategy for on-field things to change. As far as we knew, our only chance was to not only win, but basically mercy both teams to get a good points margin. And no matter who you play for, that is a tall task. One that is difficult for anyone to feel confident that they will just pull up and do.

This is the second pivotal moment of the event. The longest standing alumni player on the team is Alex Keys. He is an unknown, underrated, unsung hero. Alex has only just entered pro paintball for the first time. He has been a backup on SDA since the successful semi pro years. But this man is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with. He works hard, a great presence in the pits, and plays selflessly for his team. On top of that, the guy is ready for pro with great breakshooting and an eye for aggressive center reads. Anyways, Alex basically takes the mic and gives us a spur of the moment players only meeting in the courtyard. This was the other thing that really needed to happen. Everyone had failed themselves that day. Everyone on the team likely felt like me, as if they too could have been the ones to step up and bring back morale. But none of us did. We all let negative energy spiral us downward. At this moment Alex became the leader that the team needed.  He said what we would need to do to get through these matches together. How to keep each other up, and overcome this obstacle. He asked everyone to give input, and spill it all out on the table. Get everything in the open, say what you need to say, get it off your chest, and leave nothing unsaid. For the idea to do this and really get everyone on the same page, I still feel Alex became the captain we needed in that moment and a hero for the event. 

We all said everything we had to. I will quote a small blurb about the content of that meeting that I already wrote in a social media post and probably could not put in better words. “Quite simply, we came out flat.  The team showed up serious, and focused…..but not being itself. There was no laughter amongst teammates, or even long conversations for that matter. There were 8 isolated individuals, thinking about what each had to do as their part…..but not as a whole.

That night we had the most important meeting of our event, paintball careers and maybe even life changing. We expressed what we felt about the team vibe. We made points about our lack of connection. We brought up the obvious, that we were forgetting about the badass individuals around us. We were forgetting to have fun playing our game. We knew what needed to be done, basically two mercy rules. A tall task. We knew it would not happen if we didnt play with a completely different fire. Videos of the Aftermath of old were shared. Guys who would roar and push and shove in the huddles. Flashes of our coaches passion, and the raw emotion of the guys who built the early franchise. I thought I had an anomaly of a  heart, but some of the speeches I heard that night showed a new level. A coach with passion rather than blood coursing through his veins. Teammates who  clearly wanted more just as much as me. That shit was inspiring.”

Life is a strange thing. It’s almost as if reality is just every single thing that can happen, happening all at once. And we are divided into billions of perspectives to experience it all. What are we but the things we do and the experiences we have had. Beyond that? Just a bunch of smooth skinned mammals that can talk. A weird part of life is that we have the ability to become whatever we choose. However in order to do this, you have to step into the roll. You have to do all the things that a person in that life would do. For example, you can’t say you are a swimmer if you live in a desert. You have to learn how to cook to become a chef. And at any given time, you can decide that you can be something new and just go start doing it. Aside from a few exceptions, life does not pick favorites or exclude. People will tell you that you can’t do something, but life does not. “Oh sorry Joe, you wanted to go pro? Others are allowed, but you can’t.” Nope. As long as you do the needed things, you will get there. 

To become professional at something, you must literally forget your own emotions and limiting beliefs of self, and simply do what that would demand. Ask yourself, What would a professional “blank” do? They would probably work extremely hard, even harder than most people could work. They would probably have an extreme commitment and willingness to sacrifice other things and balance to pursue it. They likely treat themselves professionally, take care of themselves responsibly, and design their lifestyle to only give advantages towards that goal. It is not just a habit, but a priority. To become an SDA player adds an entire extra layer to this!

The culture that is Aftermath is alot to put into words. But if you had to put it into cliff notes or just a few words from looking at it, you would likely mention…….Intense, brutal, hard working, aggressive, and scrappy.  Stemmed from the example of our coach who is well known as a badass, gang mentality and down for a bloody fight; his team has always emulated much of the same. The players had to be more than tough, but also willing to fight for each other. Of course we are not likely to get into any real fights, but that’s kind of the persona of our pits. Someone is swinging on our homie, and the rest of us are willing to take some punches to dish some damage back. Aftermath players are relentlessly aggressive on the field, attacking all match. And off the field, they are loud, energetic, hyped, and ready to keep swinging with an almost un-killable positive energy that says “I am going to beat these guys”, through the entire match, regardless of score. Since it was a d3 team, you could hear an SDA match and its pits from across a venue. And it sounded like people were going out to a street fight. So here we were, 8 players who were all new to this system. Mostly quiet, calm, composed and collected individuals. Half of us had been here for a while, and normally warmed up in our own quiet focused zones. We played the game similar to the Russians, with no emotions. Level regardless of the situation. The other half had not been here before, and surely approached this situation with uncertainty. Not knowing quite how to act or how to take it, and probably looking for some guidance which we were not giving. And here we were acting as 8 different our own persons……looking this goliath of a team identity in the face. 

Mike had told us several times at practices leading up to this point that we had to establish “what is our identity”. I figured we were kind of creating that as we went based on the new style that our team was slowly creating and ironing out. But going to bed that night, I believe we all realized what had to happen tomorrow. And we all realized it was so much more simple than we thought. This was just to step into the SDA identity, the framework of what was already there for us. If we could just take our individual out of it. If we could just stop being ourselves, stop thinking “I’m not that type of player” and just step into the roll of an SDA player, then things would begin to work. So what does that entail?  Well, I’ve already covered that above. It’s not as if we were at the event not giving a shit. But we were still living in the rolls of a new rookie team trying to find ourselves, and just hoping to compete as pros. The roll of this team demanded alot more confidence and ferocious energy than that. Even if you weren’t that type of guy, it was now time to fake it till you make it, to play the part and bring it out of those around you.

Heading into Day Two. Emergence

The sun slowly began to creep across the sky above us as we were already at the field on Saturday morning. Sun begins to shed light on the same 8 bodies warming up at the field. But this was not the same team.

No, today SDA showed up to play paintball. Every one of us left our personal egos and ways of doing things at home, and showed up as a storm trooper to the teams way. We circled up and set our intention for the day. I shit you not……set our intention. This sounds like the kind of hippy stuff that half of them will joke about me for saying. But it was not a light hearted one. We each said what we would actively work on doing better today. And then aloud we spoke out the words, that we would go and not just win, but beat the hell out of these teams. The clear and distinct goal was set, the identity was waiting for us to step into like an open mobile suit cockpit of destructive force waiting for its trained pilot, and our second chance had come. 

Once again, I could go into detail about our matches with AC Dallas and Uprising, but the actual game play details are not important. 

The important thing was SDA had came to play the event. A loud and scary team roared in chants before the match and entered the pits with a moshpit of uplifting energy. Intense Eye contact burned into each others souls, locking through objects that would pass in the way, perfectly attentive and not distracted. Coach Mike and our other unsung hero coach Jerry looking at each of us intensely. Kind of putting the question out there. “I told you everything you need. What are you gonna do with it kid?” Mike looking at us with his unbiased and blunt truth. Jerry being there as the guy thats always in your corner. Our guy that calls the name and says that they know we can do it. Everyone is fired up to go attack the opponents and extra motivated to not let them down. Truth be told, it is one of the biggest motivators. We don’t fear mistakes due to being yelled at. We don’t care about loss of play time. I personally don’t hate losing because of some hit on my ego. The worst part about losing is always disappointing the coaches. These two do so much for us its ridiculous. They invest so much into this, and so much into us. They put so much trust into us to work hard and earn it. Letting them down and not living up to the team is one of the worst feelings in the world. Getting that look of “ I know you had more in you” feels like it pulls your soul out. And as added motivation, you fight tooth and nail to not let them down. Go out and do your job no matter what.

For those two Saturday matches, we all played the part. We finally became our identity and played aggressively like we decided. We swung at them relentlessly and came in hyped to go get them again after the points we lost. We all wanted a piece of them, like a pack of wolves going after and taking pieces off an injured elk. And we boosted each other and egged each other on to get back out there and get more too. If you were killing it, you were told so and spun again. When you eventually made a mistake, you heard it loud. Judgement came swiftly and you were given a bench spot, in which we all convinced our minds to do the right thing and rise to the occasion. 

Guys played gritty. An 8 guy roster, the conditions, and a very fast field that made for lots of points played; these factors would beat up teams. But every guy dug deep and played through the fatigue, soreness and scraped off skin. We didn’t just put the team first, we all became the team. Ignoring personal issues or wants to play and staying what was the character of the team we stepped into. Loud, passionate, aggressive. We beat the first team by mercy 6, and the second team by 5.

What a rollercoaster of a prelims this had been. The first day was filled with utter defeat and despair. The second day felt like an entirely different team in a different season. True to the culture, every mistake was punished even in those points we won. With the big dog, its always more more more. Until you’ve won an event without losing a point, there will always be more demanded from us. And so I found it hard to even keep up with the score and how well things were going! No matter what we are just told to go out and get another point. There can be no burning of time when winning the match doesnt matter. Only mercy rules matter. This created quite the whirlwind because you are winning but also feeling like you are shitting the bed every time you get shot. When you constantly feel like you are sucking and need to do better every point, it creates a strange effect.  The match ends and you didn’t realize how well you did or how much you won by, because caught up in every moment you thought it was not going well. It’s only apparent that the team was playing very well once its finally over and you rewatch it. Strange phenomenon, right? 

Back to outside, big picture view…..the SDA you’d expect had shown up and beat the heck out of two teams to many viewers’ surprise. What happened to that quiet team that got stomped yesterday? What happened to all those players having rough events? Now you could witness an actual team, a singular cohesive unit out playing together and for each other. You could see players doing their jobs. Most of the time getting it done. Sometimes having rough points, but coming back into a pit of criticism and than positive support. A team that kept itself moving along smoothly. A collective morale that felt borderline psychotic, with an excited go get em attitude through the points won and the ones lost. You watched players step up to fill their own shoes, like Brandon Unger going on on a scoreboard topping K/D spree. 

Something happens when you go do what you set out to do in a tournament. Something happens when you focus on the now, one match at a time, one point at a time, instead of thinking about making it to the next day. Instead of getting ahead of yourself. The universe almost seems to look out for you. Weird things happen, stars align, luck occurs, whatever metaphor or cliche you want to you……it happens. We made the goal of beating up those two teams without knowing if it guaranteed anything. And sure enough, getting so many points, and a few games in other brackets going a way that seemed to almost add to our destiny, we did enough to squeak out of prelims. We once again were fortunate enough to make Sunday. And we didn’t take it as lucky or feel that was enough. We were going to keep this fire burning.

Sunday Paintball, solidarity.

Sunday began the exact same way. The energy carried over through the night and the momentum even built. Like a forest fire, the burn not only stays lit, but begins to burn bigger and stronger as it spreads out. We fought through an extremely tough match against Diesel. This game was a bloody brawl, going back and forth. We knew it wasn’t easy, and we liked that even more. The pit and team morale stayed steady and a consistent confident demeanor radiated through us all. It felt like those fights that make you really feel alive. It did more for us then winning an easy or decisive match.  We had made it out of the wild card round, and beyond the first round of Sunday.

The team was having fun playing these brawlers. But its not like haha fun. It’s more of that stuff you live for type fun. The thrill and ups and downs and endorphine releases that feel more real then anything in our day to day lives. 

A funny moment happened in the 40 min of downtime after this match. Josh was sitting next to me. He and I had been playing together for many years now and been through alot of events. In 3 seasons with DMG, we had only made it to Sunday 3 times. Each time we were eliminated in the first round. He said “Joe, We’ve never been here before!”

I thought that was funny and a great way to take away the seriousness. But he was right! We had both won events in paintball. But not in pro. We had both been to sunday. A few of us on the team had been to finals and 2 of our guys have even won events on different teams……but Josh and I had not moved beyond first round of Sunday together yet. This was uncharted territory. It’s a weird feeling actually. You are at the same venue you were at the last two days. Same geographic location, same activity, same people. Yet something feels almost like you are at a new place you have not visited yet. It feels almost as foreign as traveling to an exotic land. There is a newness to the feeling of being at this level. And its difficult to explain, but time seems different as well. Like you have stepped into something that was already happening, and it’s just that you did all the work and everything that the role of getting that far required. Now you truly know what it takes to hit that peak. It feels like almost sacred ground each time you get to another one of these new places, and each ones must come with even more respect and humility. 

Don’t let the moment be too big for you. Don’t tell yourself that you don’t deserve it, or get the imposter syndrome like you don’t belong. You do. But simultaneously, respect where you are and what it means. Things have just narrowed down to the really serious teams that compete for the tournament. This was kind of a strange perspective I had too. It’s almost as if these events can be compared to an action movie. It starts with alot of cast, but by the end you look around and see the real main characters who are still standing. The pit area is alot less crowded than its been all weekend. The grandstands are gaining people from every elimination. The 8 teams you see left are all the teams that were really here with a chance to win this particular event, but you can see them now that the crowd is moved.  And the next round of cuts will bring it down to the consistently elite. You think you’re doing well enough so far? You aren’t. That was only enough to get that far.  Now you need to give even more. You need to tighten it up even further. Make one less mistake. Find that inner more that Mike is always demanding. This is what that was for.

We start our quarter-finals game with an explosive energy that carried over from that close win. The extremely tough battle seemed to make us exponentially stronger for this game. And fortunately we came out more then warmed up for a fight against a Russian team that had not played yet this morning. 

I can not speak enough about how great the Russian Legion is. As an organization and a team, they are truly the definition of Professional. They are world class competitors, honest and a class act. The guys on this team are A+ talent, and great human beings and many of them are my friends. If you play them, you play the best, and if you are able to beat them, you are playing very well. But this Russian Legion had a few disadvantages. The first big one being a 5 guy roster, which would ultimately gas them out. The second being a lack of coach, which is a massive part to the teams success. They are always known to scout very well, and make intelligent play calls for every situation. And they also came in playing “cold” (hadn’t been tested yet or played a tough team that morning) against a revitalised SDA that just survived a grinder. Teams that claw their way out of close games normally only get tougher from there. 

We beat the Russians decisively. I will not say it was easy. Every point, they throw players with elite talent right up into your faces at the 50s and put the pressure on you. They play at a very fast pace, so even when you are up several points, or there is little time left, you are constantly playing with the knowledge and awareness that they could easily score lots of quick points and come back. They are the definition of aggression in our sport today. However we played lights out this match with controlled aggression and excellent breakouts. As the team won, it gained more and more steam. The pit would chant, the players would hype each other up. The vibe felt like we were dominant and kicking ass the entire time. From the end of the first point on, we all knew we were going to win this match the entire time. I think we all know those matches where we just know for some reason that it’s in the bag. This game, the match that on paper we were the underdogs, felt like that. There was no worry or thoughts about who the opponent was, or how they might play. There was no care about what people had predicted. We weren’t doing it for them. We weren’t doing it to prove anyone wrong, or spite anyone or make any fame. We were doing it only for the guys next to us. Because they were the others that had stepped in to fill the roll of SDA as we did. And the only way this would work was to remain in that mindset and connected. It was all on us. And we all thought on this sunday, Why not us? This had been said a few times this morning, and after the first match we had all bought in. Why just try to have a close game with the Russians. Some teams have beaten them. Why not us? 

Another one of those uncharted territory moments happens after this game. Josh and I are pounding water and he says again….”Joi, We’ve never been here before”.  You know that saying “pretend like you’ve been here before?” That’s an important lesson. Because this was like getting allowed back stage to your favorite artist. And for some reason, it wasn’t by luck or chance. You are actually on the list”. Now you know you belong here, but it still feels weird the first time (I’ve actually been backstage at a concert and it does feel like you are getting away with something for a bit). 

I have to back up and explain something. See I had been to this stage of an event before with Tampa Bay Damage. I have been to 2 semi-finals and 1 finals in one season of all Sundays. But this did not feel like that. There are very few people who have played on top tier teams early on and then left. So I’ll explain this in a way that anyone can relate. It is kind of like being a good college player and jumping in with an NFL team. You might not get much play time. Even if you do, it’s not really going to affect the game. As long as you don’t LOSE the game for them, not much will change in the outcome. Whether they play you or not, that team is going to do as good as its going to do. And I felt like that often. I  could certainly contribute to winning a lot of points, but if I didn’t, any of the elite veterans around me would have went in and did that same job. I have never wanted to be a superstar, but I think there is a part of any competitor that wants to know he is coming to a team and really contributing. That his name could be called for the clutch situations. So going deep into Sunday all season was an awesome experience, and I learned so much from the teams mindset while going into it. But being part of the entourage to one of the bands makes you feel like “of course we are on this list” when you get there. It’s expected.

This semi finals moment felt truly new, and insane. Because it was due to each of the 8 of us. We all had to play. Everyone got spins, and everyone came in and produced when they were called. Instead of a core of veterans getting there with some bench guys along for the ride, we each were directly responsible. We were what got us here. And I’ll remember that moment and realizing that forever.

Finally, we played Impact in the finals. A top caliber, world championship team. A guy that has been back stage and knows the bands first hand dozens of times over by now. They had been here and they knew Sundays sets of rules well. The players executed extremely well and we had met our match. Excellent break shooting and a level of teamwork and game plan flow that we had not yet reached. One last time, I could go into detail about the specifics about this game, but they are not what stood out to me.

We lost the first two points in very close fashion. A 1v1 and then a call not going our way. After that it seemed we let the wind out of our sails. In every other match a point or two being lost did not even phase us. Our collective mindset was that nothing was going to stop us. We were going to win the match. We never once got flustered or out of focus, and our energy stayed positive. However this match, we allowed frustration to set in. We also had fatigue finally catch up to some guys, with players having cramped up calves from dehydration bench them a point or two in a row. These two factors seemed to make our overall vibe go from “we are going to win” to just trying to hang with them. The collected unit of a pit broke from an assuring feeling of guys bringing you up, to guys looking around for answers. Breakouts were not working, survivability went down. It was more than one issue to figure out, and because of this we lost that supreme confidence that had gotten us this far.

And maybe that was just the thing? We had said that “We’ve never been this far before”. Maybe we had ridden a wave that carried us as far as we deserved to go. Maybe adrenaline got guys through the fatigue and excitement to make semi-finals fueled us. however we would have to become even better to go the next step. We need to develop that event stamina to actually make it all the way through with the same sharpness.  Riding a high won’t get you to the finals or win the event. Only truly being ready for that will make it happen.

I believe when you get into that mid to late Sunday, you are now playing a whole other meta game within the event. Those top teams are not just throwing everything they have to win games up until now. They already know that they can typically get this far on just bread and butter plays. Now they start showing their next phase of preparation. They bring out the plays that they had saved for these moments. A field layout always typically plays a certain way. By Sunday it’s playing a little different. Maybe a little shorter on the breakout, a little slower, or with a little more emphasis on the side that is most crucial. But elite teams see the chess moves and create plays to beat the go to play. You run what you should be running, they run an unorthodox looking play to beat it. There are non-plan factors that are strategized too. They sometimes give everyone reps, even if it means making alot of the games closer. Because they know it has saved the starters some energy for the long haul. This event will be a marathon, and they planned for that. Half the teams in the league will make Sunday several times. There may be a team here and there that finds a fitting layout and plays out of its mind to make semis or finals. But those are typically almost lucky, factor dependent and one off events. The teams that consistently sit on the podium do so because they are not just prepared to compete at the event. They are prepared to compete and win in game 6, 7, 8. 

A Loss filled with Lessons

So we lose the match. They outplayed us. A storm of emotions crashes over every player as we realize the ride is over and its time to get off. Nothing sucks more than getting that far and losing. If you lose in that first match of Sunday, you typically see how far you are from ready. You can dissect several mistakes and a wheel barrel of things the team needs to work on. But when you get that close, close enough to almost reach out and grab it, man does that hurt. You can fairly quickly see the turning point, the momentum swing, the one mistake, or the one moment that mind state shifted and you lost control of the match. And when you go from riding that high and feeling like this is the one, to throwing your sweaty gear in your bag and letting the air out of your tank, its a quiet and lonely mind of self reflection and instant replays. 

Walking out of the pro pits, you are of course met with congratulations and shows of support from fans, friends and anyone who watched. They tell you that the team looked sweet and you should be proud. We fake a smile and thank them. In all reality we could care less about placing. You either win a tournament or you lose.

After the event, I had time to look back and think about the big picture. I realized we did quite well by making it to the semis in only our second event. This is pretty solid progress in most anyones standards. And so I am content with our improvements. I am ok with the fact that we bring it back when we start cold. A team that is resilient is a good sign. But I am no way satisfied.

Something I learned well from my time with Damage was this mindset. When we would take 3rds or a 2nd, I felt as if it was such an achievement at the time. They all seemed to be taking it like we went 0-4. They expected to win and anything less was failure. Black and white. Close does not count. Having this mindset is just as crucial as all the practice and preparation.

Playing in pro the last few seasons, I would have been proud to just make Sunday. I’d have been ecstatic to make it out of the first round. I worked hard and kept a hopeful attitude, but did not expect to win. And my team and I and 75% of the league don’t actually do what is needed in preparation to win. 

A wise mentor of mine always tells me something when I return from events in Mexico with frustration about easily fixable issues. He says “95% of people are really in this sport for the comradery and the experience. They stopped playing sports after highschool and needed something they enjoyed for teamwork, friendship and bonding. They play, they say they want to compete, but they don’t really want to do what is needed to be the best.” And I see why he is correct.  A divisional team that drinks the night before is clearly not at the event trying to be the best. They are in another city, having fun, and if they happen to do well then so be it. But the problem doesn’t only come in this form.

A divisional or even a pro team that does not have honest players and coaches that hold each other accountable does not want to be the best. A team that would rather protect each others feelings and boost each others egos then rip each other for costing each other points is not a team that wants to be the best. A team that is content with doing well and not winning, will never win. And a team that gets far, and believes they can put in the same amount and get further, is not ready to be the best. 

I am not satisfied with what we have done yet. Until you’ve won, you haven’t done anything. However there is one thing I’m proud of looking back at this event. I got to see a bunch of individuals come together to become something greater. Cheese, veggies, sauce, dough, these are all decent things. But together they make pizza, and that is far better. The whole is greater then the sum of the parts! 

I am proud to of seen the pieces click together to assemble the San Diego Aftermath that Mike knew still existed. We all bought in, we all stepped into the roll, and we all found it in us to become SDA.  In sports and in life, you don’t just work hard for greatness. Greatness is already within each of us. It’s like gold buried in a rocky river bed. We just have to figure out how to bring it out. Sometimes that takes a catalyst who is always demanding you to dig deeper. But it’s still up to each of us to believe we can and do the digging.

This event was about much more than just this event. It taught me the most important lessons and ones that I hopefully articulated well. It revitalized my motivation to chase victory, showed me what more is needed to get there, and yet also assured me that it’s not out of reach. And lastly, it created a much needed fusion of characters. 2 coaches and 8 players showed up to Philly. 

San Diego Aftermath emerged before it was over.