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Warshaw: They say playoff games are unlike any others - you have no idea

I’ll never forget the one time I could barely tie my shoes in a locker room.

My fingers fumbled with the laces, tying together loose, flimsy knots. After a couple tries, I gave up. I lifted my head and looked around the locker room. Everyone else’s fingers seemed to have similar amnesia. I wanted to say something motivational, or perhaps funny, but nothing came to mind.

For the first time in my career, I couldn’t muster anything to say. My stomach felt heavy and my throat turned hoarse. I looked at my teammate next to me and he looked back. We stared into each others’ eyes and I couldn’t deal with the tension. “%^&*, man.” I said. “I’m nervous.” He nodded. “Me too.”

Nothing compares to a playoff game. I don’t need to explain the emotional exhilaration of playing for a trophy. Every little kid kicks a ball in the background envisioning lifting a trophy with confetti falling into his or her face. But, as a pro, the playoffs take on extra weight.

The playoffs bring higher stakes and plenty more attention. With more attention comes extra pressure, and with pressure comes opportunity.

Visions of success ... and failure

As I sat in the locker room stumbling over the laces of my boots, I wasn’t just thinking about the gratification of becoming a champion. I thought about my future. I thought about the raise I could get; the contract extension; the bonuses.

Heroes get remembered, but more importantly, heroes get paid. I could secure my future with a single performance. I’d never played soccer to make money, and yet my rent and retirement fund depended on my kick of the ball. My kick of the ball that night could get another bedroom in my place and maybe another digit on my 401k.

As I sat in the locker room stumbling over the laces of my boots, my mind started to wander. I envisioned the impending incoming offers from bigger clubs or better leagues. Being on a championship team always draws the attention of new suitors. Teams assume a good team consists of good players.

I wanted to win to lift the trophy, but a trophy is never enough. Nothing’s ever enough. It’s one of the default settings of a person who makes it to professional sports. Every accomplishment is great, but there’s always something more. I valued the crest on my jersey, but I’d always wanted to wear a Manchester United jersey. A good game tonight would be the first step to Old Trafford. I thought about what the next two, five, 10 years of my life could look like, the possibilities, the glory.

Then with every blink I also thought about the alternatives, the failure, fading into oblivion. I’d spent my whole life driven by dreams of grandeur, and every piece of my reality seemed to teeter on the upcoming 90 minutes.

As I sat in the locker room stumbling over the laces of my boots, I started to get angry at the guy across from me. He still hadn’t changed into his uniform. He remained in his street clothes, hunched over his phone, playing a game with witches and demons. The teammate didn’t care if we won or lost. He wasn’t going to play. Any trophy we won would hardly be his. If anything, he’d prefer we lose. He’d checked out weeks ago. He just wanted to start his holiday. I’d been killing myself for 10 months to get to this point, and this loser just wants to get to the beach. I thought about grabbing the phone and smashing it into the wall. That would break the silence in the room.

As I sat in the locker room stumbling over the laces of my boots, I started to feel envious of our captain in the corner. He didn’t feel any of my nervous ambition or the apathy of the guy across from me. He simply wanted to win. He’d been with the club for most of his life. He didn’t want to leave for somewhere new; he didn’t care if he made more money. He just wanted this thing he cared about to succeed; he wanted the supporters to feel joy; he wanted to cement a legacy. His night was about more than money or pride. How amazing it must be, I thought to myself.

... And then the whistle blows

The playoffs create a weird intersection for a player. In one way, they are the embodiment of everything that matters to an athlete. Playoffs represent a higher level of competition, focus, intensity, and skill; the best of the best competing for superiority; each game is a step closer to the fruition of decades of hard work. They create this glorious sense of heightened focus. On the other hand, it’s the burgeoning of the antithesis to the beauty of sports. Playoffs bring the undeniable presence and reminder of money, ego, and resentment, and with them, a distraction from the game itself.

I’d love to tell you I tied my shoes perfectly and went on to play an excellent game. Some players thrive on the implications. But my laces came untied in the first five minutes. Too ashamed of myself to knot them again, they flopped around on the grass for a few minutes like a pair of size 5’s on a kid in the nearby park in his first rec league game. I clearly couldn’t deal with the steam engine of thoughts barrelling through my brain.

A playoff game isn’t like any other game. There are new emotions and incentives and fears that haven’t crossed your mind for the first 10 months of the season. It feels like you now have a new board game in front of you. You can spend your whole life preparing for the moment, but you can never fully appreciate what you’re preparing for.

I don’t have any advice. Everyone deals with it differently. All I would offer is to double knot your laces. Just in case.

[Editor's Note: The author was on the matchday roster for a 2011 MLS Cup Playoffs match and has featured in a relegation playoff with Norwegian side Bærum SK in 2014.]

Bobby Warshaw is a former professional player who played in MLS (2011-2013) and in Scandinavia after an accomplished college career at Stanford. A columnist and podcast host for Howler magazine, Warshaw is a published author and has also appeared on ExtraTime Live and ExtraTime Radio.

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