Ryan Conrad and the Waterdogs prioritize mental health and connectivity
When the Waterdogs played the Archers in the final game of the 2022 regular season, they lost their identity, said Ryan Conrad. They were arguing calls and focusing on things they couldn’t control, trying to squash the deficit all at once, and lost 16-12 because of it.
After the game, Conrad said head coach Andy Copelan blew a fuse.
“You don’t typically see coaches in the PLL yell at the players that are all-stars or veterans that have been in the league a long time, so I really appreciated that and that was refreshing,” Conrad said.
A lot of times, anger has a negative connotation. It’s only positive when the recipients have respect for the criticism and the person who’s dishing it out. This speech was a time bomb that went off at the exact right moment.
The Dogs are 12-3 since that mental reset entering last year’s playoffs, and are 11-0 with Dillon Ward in the lineup. They’ve punched tickets to two-straight championships with a 5-0 playoff record, and have barely trailed in this playoff run.
All the dirty laundry gets aired out, even mid-game. Everything is always on the table and all opinions matter. Copelan can even be heard asking players their opinions on matchups during huddles. That level of accountability can only be effective in a mentally healthy and connected locker room. Conrad said, in talking to Copelan, his philosophy for keeping the team mentally linked is similar to how Conrad maintains his own mental health.
“It really is more manly and shows more strength to actually be able to own up and ask for help and air out those issues,” Conrad said. “I think that the parallel to a lacrosse team is, the best teams that I’ve been on, the best players that I’ve played with, have been extremely communicative and extremely open and we’ve aired out all the issues that we’ve had.”
When USA Lacrosse reached out last year about an opportunity to support their “Make Mental Health Matter” campaign, Conrad was immediately interested.
The program aims to provide readily available mental health resources to people in the lacrosse community. There are links to live chats, clinical professionals in the sports field and messages from different entities communicating the important and vast nature of mental health issues. Conrad posts on social media and shows support for the cause.
“It’s something that personally I think is really important,” Conrad said of mental health. “Throughout my life, I’ve definitely had some exposure to it through family and friends.”
At Virginia, Conrad participated in their annual suicide hotline fundraiser, which made him want to be more active in the mental health sphere. Former Virginia lacrosse player Will Barrow died by suicide in 2008, and the program has done a fundraiser to keep mental health resources prevalent at the school ever since. It’s something that “means a lot” to that program and made a big impact on Conrad.
Since then, Conrad has been a huge advocate for mental health, on and off the field. Because of how physical the sport of lacrosse is, there’s often an inclination to be more traditionally “manly,” and that isn’t receptive to vulnerability. Conrad wants to flip that narrative around.
“There’s a stigma around mental health, but there’s a bit of a stigma around lacrosse as well,” Conrad said. “Trying to be the cool guy or tough guy, for some reason there’s gotten to a point where talking about your emotions and your feelings and any issues that you’re going through in your life is now stigmatized as not cool or not manly. I would just challenge that.”
When Conrad has a personal issue, he talks about it with the people close to him – his “team” so to speak – so they can tackle the problem together. Everyone should be able to rely on their support system, he added, and that should include teammates. Trust off the field can build chemistry on the field.
This year, Conrad struggled heavily to start, tallying zero goals through three games. Instead of trying to make up for his lack of production, he dialed in on what he could control: the next play. Everything that happened before then or might happen after was irrelevant.
He hit his stride toward the end of the year, scoring four points in each of the final two games, including a four-goal performance against the Archers. Both Waterdogs-Archers games this season were decided by one goal. In a league where the talent is so evenly distributed, a team’s mental prowess becomes even more significant.
“The margin between being great and being average in this thing is honestly pretty slim, so we just have to keep the focus on being as connected as possible as a team,” Copelan said.
In clutch situations, Conrad credited his mental bandwidth for tunneling his vision, and he’s succeeded plenty in that context.
Conrad was the third-leading scorer in last year’s playoff run and scored two clutch goals during the third-quarter championship comeback. He also led UVA to a national championship in his senior season. Conrad said the key to clutch performance is staying present and confident, and that’s what the Waterdogs do. It’s led them to three game-winners this season alone.
“A lot of players, when you get into these big game moments, they just grip their stick a bit too hard,” Conrad said. “I’ve kind of prided myself on getting a bit more confidence going into those situations, so taking advantage of the opportunities as they come.”
The Waterdogs are a “special group,” Conrad said. All six free agents returned to the team, despite having the opportunity to make more money elsewhere.
Charlie Hayes, who didn’t play in a single game in 2022, returned to the Dogs and has contributed to an elite season from the short stick unit. Back in May, before the season started, he said returning to the team was a “no-brainer.” After living in that locker room for a season, there was no reason to leave.
“Team expectations are to repeat and win another championship,” Hayes said. “I think winning a championship in any sports league, especially a league with this much talent, is very hard and repeating is even more difficult.”
The Waterdogs have a chance to achieve that goal on Sunday. In a championship context, Conrad said a team’s mental state can decide the outcome before the starting whistle even blows. If teams are gripping their stick too tight and letting the nerves get to them, it’s easy to take advantage.
“More often than not, it comes down to who keeps their composure, who relies on their game plan and who plays within themself and essentially relies on that culture and that team camaraderie more than anything, wins the game,” Conrad said.
Last season, the Waterdogs needed that jump-start speech to get hot at the right time. This year, they never let off the gas. The defending champs are riding high mentally going into championship weekend.
“We’ve got a great feeling and we feel like we are hitting our stride at the right moment,” Conrad said.