Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Playing time - the big fat elephant in the room

No matter what level of athletics you are dealing with, the big topic that is discussed, avoided, and argued about more often than any other is playing time. It is the giant elephant in the room.

Most coaches don’t like to talk about playing time with parents. Most parents don’t really want to broach the subject with a coach. But, inevitably, they do. The majority of programs, from little league on up through college, have rules in place that state that discussions of playing time will be taken up only 24 hours AFTER a game and usually in the presence of more than one coach or administrator. That is Ballistic’s policy, and it is the policy of the two high schools at which I’ve worked as a head coach. 

A cooling off period.
There is a good reason for this policy. We coaches want parents to calm down before they speak to us. Nothing makes rational people more irrational than a perceived slight to their children. So, we prefer to talk to you after you had time to sleep off your anger and upset and come to some reasonable conclusions on the situation before you speak with us. 

The worst case scenario for these conversations comes during the summer travel season, when parents and coaches are away from home with the restrictions that“home town” civility inevitably place on people. Let’s face it, you are less likely to be well-mannered when you are far from home. And, frankly, the decision to confront a coach about something that happened during a weekend tournament game MIGHT be fueled by a little more than your usual moxie. It may just be fueled by a bit of alcohol. Or a lot.

In any case, sports and alcohol seem to go hand in hand. Unfortunately, sports, alcohol and constructive conversations rarely do! After a long day in the sun, when you sweated out quart after quart of fluid that you may have replaced with wine coolers, it may not be the best time to discuss things of any importance. So, better to sleep it off before anyone says something they won’t really remember the next day but will probably regret nonetheless.

Playing time by type of program

In the high-stakes sports, such as college or pros, it's understandable that some players get to be on the field more than others. Coaches have to win games. It is their job. Likewise, high school coaches are under the same kinds of pressures, the most people don't realize it. The job of head coach at a high school is just as precarious as that of a head coach in a college or professional setting. The administration wants victories. A school's reputation in the community is based primarily on its academics and its athletics. School principles and administrators want the best foot forward and both of those categories.

Knowing this, it should not be surprising to parents that high school teams play their players according to how good they are and how likely they are to contribute to a victory. While it is undeniably true that most coaches want to play all their players as much as possible, it is impossible for them to do this uniformly and consistently. Put another way, The concept of "as much as possible" is not the same to the coach as it is to the parent. It may be, to the coach, that he played the “B” level players as much as he could in that game because had he played them more the team would have lost. That definition of “as much as possible” may not jibe with a parent’s equal-at-all-cost concept, but that is the way it goes. 

The bizarre world of Little League

In recreational sports, often called Little League, the issue of winning and losing a game or tournament does not typically mean the coach will keep or lose his or her job.A Little League coach is most often a volunteer and is there to share his or her love of the game (or, very often, because no one else wanted to do it). Winning is nice, but, ideally, coaches are there to teach young players the sport and sportsmanship. Anyone who has been to a Little League game in any sport will be quick to point out that the concept of victory is every bit as important to Little League coaches as to any other coach and that sportsmanship has not been seen in Little League games for the past several decades. I would agree. But, I am being idealistic on this point. 

To add to the stress of the volunteer job that no one else wanted to do and that gets no support from other parents, the fact is that the pressure on coaches to win is just as strong in Little League as parental pressure to see all players on the team get equal time on the field. Depending on the team, these two goals may be incompatible, yet coaches make themselves sick over trying to do it—and parents find themselves correspondingly furious when it doesn’t happen.

As a coach, you want to win. You want your players to experience the joy of victory. At the same time, you also are duty-bound to prepare them for losing. Sportsmanship involves not only being a good winner but also being a good loser. Sometimes, the pursuit of the victory can overshadow the desire to get all kids on the field.

Many recreational sports programs require that all kids play an equal amount of time. That makes it very easy for a coach. You just make sure that every kid plays.

Travel teams

In a travel team situation, things get more complicated. Ideally, players in a travel season are going to be better than those in a rec season. However, no matter how good the average player is, there will still be those who are better than others and those who are at the bottom of the pile. When the game comes down to the last few minutes and the team is down by just a couple points, the coach will always play the best players, leaving those are less talented on the sidelines. Travel programs need to win to maintain their status among other travel teams, thereby getting players the next season.

No parent wants to see his or her kid watching the game from the sidelines. Everyone wants their child to have as much fun as possible. Many parents are unrealistic in their estimation of how good their child is at baseball, football, or lacrosse. But even the most realistic of parents who have invested money in a travel season want their child to play if only to get their moneys worth!

Before the first tournament of the year, I tell my parents that I cannot guarantee all kids play the same amount in each game, but I will try to get all kids a substantial amount of play over the course of the tournament weekend. Even then, it’s not always possible. Like every coach, I want to win. And when it comes down to the wire and we are in a close match, my best players are going to be on the field. If the game was a tough, back-and-forth struggle from the start, the best players will probably be in the whole time. I do notice that there are other players who are not getting in the game. I do feel bad about it. It does bother me. It bothers my assistant coach, as well.

Coach's side of things
On my current travel team, The majority of the players are quite capable. I have a few that are new to the sport and do not have the skill set the others have developed over a few years of play. I recently had a parent ask why I do not play all the kids the same amount of time on the field. Here is my rationale:

1. While all the parents pay the same amount for their kids to be on the team, the entire experience of travel lacrosse is not only the tournament weekends. Our practices and training are every bit as important as tournaments in the development of young players. More, in fact. In truth, there is no coaching in a game, there is only directing and reminding. It is virtually impossible to actually teach something in a game setting. Consequently, I spend much more time in the practice setting working with lesser skilled players than I do with the players who are among the best on the team. During games, the better players do play more but more is expected of them and they are under greater pressure than the lesser skilled players. The kids who are not yet at that level could not, frankly, handle the pressure for long. In truth, as far as learning goes, the lesser skilled players are getting a better education relative to their skill set. It is simple physics—it takes more effort to raise the lower end to meet the higher end than it does to raise the middle. Personally, I put more value on the learning experience in practice than in a game. Whether parents feel that way is entirely up to them and outside my control. The key question they need to ask themselves is whether their child is a better player at the end of the season. If here she is, it is not because he played in tournaments but rather because of individual time spent with the coaches at practice.

2. Even if I were to put all players in the game for the same amount of time, it could prove counterproductive to those players who are not as skilled. In the case of, say, a defender who is playing in his first or second year against very good opponents, playing a full game and being repeatedly beat by the opposing players is not going to teach him how to be a better defender. It will probably leave his self-confidence in tatters and he may want to quit. After a series of mistakes, I can take such a player out, talk to him, explain what he should be doing, and put them back in. Since we are still playing the same team, there is a strong likelihood that he will face a situation similar to that which he goofed up on earlier. That is a powerful teaching tool. Taking the players out of the game can be a positive learning experience.

Allowing a player to the repeatedly defeated by an opponent is entirely counterproductive. While his parents may be pleased that he has had the same amount of playing time as other players, I am quite certain that he is far less happy having been beaten by his opponents endlessly during the day. Psychologically, which is worse? That's impossible to say, and is probably dependent on the child and his mental attitude, but I would lean toward the idea of being constantly beaten is worse for the psyche. 

3. Playing kids that are not of the same caliber as other players causes a de facto leveling or segregating among the players on the field. The better players will not pass the ball to those that cannot catch it or make a shot on goal. This destroys not only the self-esteem of the player being ignored but also the effectiveness of the team as a whole. No one learns. No one wins. As a coach, I can mandate that they pass the ball to him, but in reality it is self-defeating to do that. The team will undoubtedly lose, and no one will gain any experience that's positive from such an experiment.

We've seen this countless times with programs that do not allow a leveled team structure. Rather than have an A-team and a B-team, they mix all the kids together. The idea is that leveled teams make the kids on the lower team feel inferior. In practice, however, leveling happens on the field as play progresses. Better players ignore those that cannot play well, and cut them out of the action on the field so that the team can succeed. It is not selfishness, it is actually a team oriented mindset. The result is a team that plays only half a game.

What actually happens with level teams is that the players on both teams progress at a pace faster than they would if they were mixed together. The best players on the B-team will play far more than if they were on a mixed team. By leveling, players with less skills are raised to the level of starters and have to take on that responsibility. Magically, because they take on the duties of the best players on a team—simply because they ARE the best players on the team—they grow faster and learn more rapidly. 

Beyond the matter of player ability, playing time off and is dependent on a number of different factors that change during a game. There might be injuries, man-up or man-down teams, penalties, or special circumstances to the coach needs to adjust for due to situations with the other team. What parents don't often understand is that, quite often, kids do not want to go on the field because they feel they are unprepared, they're not ready to go on the field because they're not paying attention to what's happening in the game, or they do not know their plays the way they should. 

The question of fairness in playtime becomes much more complicated when one considers whether it is fair to allow the team to lose simply to get one or two players on the field for more minutes. And do players who do not play much on a championship team feel they wasted their time? Or do they enjoy being on a winning team even if they didn't play that much? It depends on the kid, but in my experience as a high school head coach I find that many kids would prefer to be a once-in-a-while sub on the varsity team rather than a starter on JV. Others, who are not interested in status, would rather play than watch.

As a recreational, travel and high school coach, it is always in the back of my mind that there are players were not getting on the field and who would really like to have participated. My assistant coaches and I at all levels discuss this, and at all times try to put the right combination of players on the field. It does not always work out as we plan. But don’t think we don’t agonize over it. 

If you do have concerns about your child playing time, make an appointment with the coach to discuss it. Try not to accuse. Understand that there maybe factors into a decision about who to put out in a game at any given time that you are not aware of from your side of the field. Before you talk to the coach, however, talk to your child. Ask him or her what he feels about the situation. Ask if he feels he should be on the field more than he is. Ask if he feels his skill level is commensurate with his playtime. I think you will be surprised at how many kids are acutely aware of their abilities and their expectations for themselves in a team setting. The impetus for these conversations is very often the parents thinking their children's apparent upset at not being on the field when it is actually the child being upset that he is not being good enough to be on the field. So, ask him or her. The answer may surprise you—and guide you to make some decisions on training that might help.

Once you've had time to think, do some research, talk to your child, then talk to your coach.

Be nice to referees!

Part of the American experience of sports is the competition between two teams. And, of course, there is the all important role of the fans. In football, they are often called the “twelfth man.” A third element to the game, referees, have been viewed almost as a necessary evil, rather more like weather than something to be hated outright. 

To attend a recreational league game of almost any sort these days is like walking into an exercise in exaggeration and excess. Parents, coaches, and players are increasingly vocal from the sidelines when, really, there isn’t that much to yell about. I actually give a speech to our travel parents before the first tournament of the year telling them that the referees are there to serve a valuable function on the field. And they do their best. Well, most of the time.

In every game of every sport it is possible to point out missed calls and calls that went the wrong way. Every parent feels the referee is against their team. Unfortunately, some parents are completely happy to tell the referee exactly what he did wrong and how much of an idiot he is. I’ve been at games where the parents have been downright ferocious, carrying on and yelling at referees (some of whom are half their age and aren’t yet old enough to vote). 

There are several major problems with this. 

First, most of the time, the referee DOES make the right call. No, I am not kidding. The biggest problem with the calls are that they are against YOUR team or, worse, YOUR kid! I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had a parent come up to me after a game to complain about a call against his or her son only to have me say, “Yep, he slashed him. No question about it.”

Second, this is a rec league. Do you really think the refs are playing favorites? WHY? Think about it. Try to picture a ref saying, “I really want THIS group of ten year-olds to win today instead of THAT group.” That’s non-sensical.

Third, many of our rec league referees are new. They are testing the waters as a referee, seeing how they like it. It’s stressful, they are performing new duties, and they are constantly being screamed at by 30 sets of parents who sound, to be honest, insane. They are doing the best they can do. If they are good, they will be equally good for both teams. If they are bad, they will be equally bad. 

Let’s get this out in the open now. Refs miss calls. But I am willing to bet that they miss them just about equally. You just don’t notice it when it is against your kid. 

Be quiet and let the kids play. I am certain that for every time your son got slashed without a penalty being called is more than offset by the number of times he crosschecked a player but didn’t get called. It happens. To both sides.

Lately, however, I’ve heard the referees in lacrosse games referred to as the “eleventh man.” Sadly, this is NOT because they are perceived to be impartial, fair and evenhanded. Quite the contrary, very often it is alleged that the referees are unabashedly biased against one team or another. 

Is it true? Sure. It does happen. But it isn’t common. In the rec league format, it is almost never seen. Most of the referees are not friends with the players or even the coaches. Many of the referees are new and young. What we DO see is the result of inexperienced referees making bad calls. In other cases, we’ve seen referees being badgered and, I would argue, bullied by the crowd in to making calls that they didn’t really see or didn’t personally believe were infractions. You can always tell when this happens because the ref almost never knows the number of the player who committed the foul and/or there is a huge lapse in time as the fumbling referee tries to apply a rule to an infraction that he didn’t really observe in the first place.

The official viewpoint

(This article was originally written and appeared on our old blog in 2014. Since then, due to some staffing changes, we’ve seen substantial improvement in officiating at the high school level in SWFL. The situation has not changed in tournament play, however. It's not just my opinion but a shared one among program directors around the state that partisanship and poor quality of officiating has made tournament play at times an unpleasant experience.)

Anyone who’s attended a lacrosse game in the past year or so has undoubtedly been frustrated by the officiating. Consistency and quality of refereeing has been the top complaint we’ve received from players, parents and coaches alike. noticed that there is a dearth of good officiating. Whether it’s travel tournament or rec league games, there seems to be a dearth of good officiating. 

Fan (and coach and player) criticism of officiating is probably as old as sport itself. Realistically, no matter what the call, no matter how flagrant and obvious the offense, someone will disagree with it. That’s part of the game. However, there is a consensus among most in the lacrosse community that the quality of refereeing in Southwest Florida is not to the level it needs to be. 

I am sure that many referees who read this will disagree. Unfortunately, they are likely to be in the minority. That’s not to say there are not good refs-there are, in fact many of my  former Lee County Men’s Lacrosse Club teammates have gone on to be exceptional referees. Those that are good are very good and extremely fair. Those that are bad tend to be, well, horrible. There were several high school lacrosse game--and, in fact, one playoff game--decided by unquestionably bad calls on the part of the referees. Between bad calls and inconsistent interpretation of the rules among the varying referees (is a slash to the head a one-minute slash or a major, flagrant penalty? Depends which head ref you have on the field.)

The big questions is WHY? 

The next big question is HOW CAN WE FIX IT?

To answer the WHY, we have to look at a little history, a little economics, and a little physics. In our area, lacrosse referees are NOT, surprisingly as it may be (it certainly was to me when I learned it), US Lacrosse certified. They are certified by the Florida High School High School Athletic Association (FHSAA). What’s the difference, you ask? US Lax refs have a more stringent training program and annual certification. Unlike FHSAA, US Lax has levels of referees ranked by the amount of study they’ve done and their proficiency. FHSAA does not level their referees, nor is the study and training requirement as demanding. 

Economically, it is a simply equation. FHSAA certification costs less and does not require annual certifications that also cost money. It is also an easy path from, say, football referee to lacrosse official, allowing referees to make money in a season other than that of their main sport. Many parents and players complain that it seems that the referees have never played the game of lacrosse. And they are correct. Many have not. That in itself is not a deal-breaker. You don’t have to be a player to be a referee, but it helps. The bigger issue is that many of the referees do not have a passionate interest in the sport even on a spectator level. So, not only have they never played the game, they don’t watch it and really don’t understand it. That translates into poor understanding of the flow of play, the traditions of the sport, and the culture of the game. Simply put, lacrosse is nothing like football and lacrosse players are not simply football or soccer players with sticks. 

As for physics, we need to look at momentum. We’ve had years of the FHSAA-only refereeing, and the momentum of that trend is hard to overcome. Many of the refs have said they do not want to pay to get US Lax certified and will quit refereeing if there is a requirement for them to do so. 


If it was as easy to fix the problem of refereeing as it is to write (or complain) about it, we’d have solved the problem already. But it is a complex issue and will require a comprehensive and cooperative solution. 

First, the rec community (Sharks, Gorillas, Coyotes and Redskins and the overarching “governing” body, FLYLAX) has to form a united policy that simply states that we require our referees to meet the highest standards possible and that our games are officiated as professionally as possible. That is US Lacrosse certified. This is not an unprecedented demand. In fact, referees in the northern half of our US Lacrosse Gulf Coast Chapter are all required to be US Lacrosse certified. So should we. And we CAN use the concept of  “professional” without being inaccurate: the referees are paid and, therefore, are professional, and have to live up to expectations reasonable for their level of training. 

Admittedly, we can’t reasonably demand that referees be US Lacrosse certified instantly. Classes have to be scheduled and taken after a body of potential referees have been identified. And that is after the current referees are brought into the tent, so to speak, and given the chance to buy in to the plan--or choose not to.

So, second, we need to identify a pool of new referees and recruit them to a referee training class. As a board member of US Lacrosse’s Gulf Coast Chapter, I can attest to the seriousness of the Chapter’s plans to help make this as inexpensive and accessible as possible. 

While it would be wonderful to have all this happen overnight, it isn’t really reasonable. No amount of foot stamping and demanding will change the basic reality that referee classes cost money for the new referee. They are logistical beasts to put together--locations have to be secured, training refs need to be scheduled, and there has to be enough demand to make it worthwhile to do it. 

It is reasonable to give a three year deadline for ALL SWFL refs to be US Lax certified. During that time, all new refs should be required to go through all the US Lax officiating classes while existing referees can get their certifications in order.


That leaves the door open for lots of parents and players at the high school or college club level to decide to jump in with both feet! With two active rec programs in Lee County and one in Collier, the opportunities to officiate lacrosse are much greater than they were just a few years ago. And referees make between $50 and $75 per game. That’s decent extra cash for a parent and great spending money for a high schooler or college student. 

But, with our new crop of referees, we have a responsibility to make their jobs worth doing. Sideline etiquette is something that we, as a lacrosse community, need to think a LOT about before this coming rec season.

By the way, the answer to the slash to the head question seems to be best answered by the US Lacrosse certified referees in the northern half of our Chapter...it’s a slash. One minute. Releasable.

If you are interested in refereeing, please get in touch with Todd Shulz, President of Gorillas Lacrosse and cofounder of Ballistic Lacrosse. He is spearheading the move to make our local officiating better by advancing the move to US Lacrosse.

The downside of startup sports

When I was a kid, there was no soccer. At least not where I lived. We had no soccer teams in my area. None. In fact, we had only ONE soccer PLAYER—a kid who moved to our neighborhood from Saudi Arabia, where, at 13, he played semi-professionally. My exposure to soccer was through him, and I mistakenly thought that ALL soccer players were as good as he was—and I could never be that good (he was amazing)—so I did not pursue a sport that I would later learn to play as an adult and love. 

Soccer was slow to catch on in the frozen north. We played it in gym class indoors in the winter, between wrestling and floor hockey. Kids who were not good at baseball (or found it too slow), were too small for football, or who didn’t want to get up at 430AM for hockey practice, took to the new sport. You needed no gear—just a ball! And soccer started to grow.

Eventually, some little leagues formed. Since no one in Buffalo grew up playing, soccer was an approximation of what we saw in the rare television coverage available. The “soccer dads” stepped in to coach. Most had no idea what they were doing but were able to fumble through it enough to get the kids running and  having fun. In the end, the sophistication of the players and coaches improved, new coaches and clinics came into the area, and the sport became mainstream. Kids got scholarships to good colleges. People watched the games and understood what was happening. 

When I was around 30, I moved to Southwest Florida. Lots of soccer. No lacrosse. No hockey. But, I came here at an interesting time, as both of those sports were about to take off.

I moved here to help start a new university. A wealthy and very clever guy donated 760 acres of essentially useless land to the state on which to build the new institution. He shrewdly held onto the land around it, which he later sold for a LOT more than it had been worth to people who wanted to capitalize on the new university. In the end, the sleepy, cow pasture backwater that lay between San Carlos Park and Estero became a bustling expanse of expensive neighborhoods, sprawling shopping malls, and big box stores.

And an ice hockey arena.

The presence of a place to play hockey resulted in an explosion—slow to start, but eventually a real explosion—of hockey players. Kids whose parents grew up in the north were funneled into newly created recreational hockey leagues, where they learned to skate and play. The level of play was, understandably, not very good.

As is usually the case with rec sports, a few dads stepped in as coaches. They did the best they could do, but they were volunteers who had little experience at coaching. The kids played an approximation of hockey that lay somewhere between what the dads remembered from growing up and what they thought was possible. There were a few kids who did well, but for the most part the play was well below the levels one finds in places where they have, well, winter. They waited for the next big leap forward.

That came in the form of a former college and pro hockey player took over the rec league. He lured in other former hockey players to help coach. Soon, the kids got even better and played hockey more like they do up north. Today, SWFL hockey players are competing nationally, get scholarships to prep schools in New Hampshire and Vermont, and go on to play in college.

A decade later, the same thing happened with lacrosse, albeit more slowly. There was one club team for boys and another for men, both with too few players and no place to play. Over time, a rec league started. Interest was slow at first, but eventually picked up. Coaches were, again, dads who hadn’t played the sport but were willing to put in the time to teach the kids something that would make the sport fun. And it worked! Players started playing, started to really enjoy lacrosse. Some of them had good skills. Understandably, team play—just as it was with soccer and hockey—was not on the same level as it was in other places. There are a few good coaches, but often than not, most are not lifelong players. Many have never played the game at all. That created a hit-or-miss environment for lacrosse development.

Before you send me hate mail, let me say that those people who take on the job of coaching a sport they don’t know very well just so the kids can play are my heroes. It’s not easy! Having experienced the same thing as a soccer dad-cum-coach, I totally understand the situation. Had I coached past U7, I am sure my lack of knowledge and experience would have harmed more than helped my better players. I know that I would never have become a very sophisticated soccer coach. I just don’t have the years of exposure to the game and was not, until my late-30s, a player. But I tried, just as do all the moms and dads that step in to steer the ship when no one else will do it.

What I found when I took my first job as head coach of a high school lacrosse program in Southwest Florida was that the players had physical skills but very little “lacrosse IQ,” the deeper understanding of the game that kids “up north” learn on the playground and in early youth programs.

I’ve noticed that the kids improve their individual skills a lot fast than new coaches learn the game. As a result, kids develop an incomplete understanding of team dynamics, strategies and tactics. While the players often had terrific raw skills, they were not being tasked to play a disciplined style of lacrosse that was in keeping with the de facto standards of the traditional lacrosse hotbeds of Long Island and Maryland.

In one sense, it was a lack of sophistication and experience among coaches. One local rec program taught the defenders to clump together in front of the goal and, when a ball carrier came near, one would chase him. What the coach called a “zone” was more like a “dispatch” system. As a result, defenders had no idea how to slide—some had no idea that such a term existed let alone the movement of players that it entails. More often than not, teams played man-to-man. The resistance to zone defenses is still so pervasive among some teenage players that they openly argue with their coaches when it is implemented. They continue to argue even after the zone shuts down outside shooting and most motion offenses. Old habits learned young die hard—or not at all. 

It wasn’t any better on offense. The standard play (often the ONLY play) was to give the best midfielder the ball so he could iso from the top of the box. Passing was done simply to get the ball up top for the inevitable iso. Coaches often taught a 2-3-1 offense—the most common formation in lacrosse—with some motion at the top. And that was about it because, according to some coaches, the kids aren’t old enough or sophisticated enough to learn more than that. 

As coaches, that is a situation we need to fix NOW! Some of our coaches are working to do that at the rec and travel levels—and it is working nicely. We are in that stage that hockey and soccer went through a while ago, where the coaches need to step up their level of sophistication so that our great athletes can be seen in a positive light by college recruiters nationwide.

To that end, there are changes happening. One of my summer coaches taught his U11 rec team a double motion 2-3-1 plus a man-up play that scores them tons of goals. He is a lifelong player from Maryland and he has the same high standards for team play that I do—and that all coaches up north have as a matter of course. My U13 team travel learned 2-3-1, 1-4-1, and 2-2-2 motion offenses plus a 2-3-1 multi-phase man-up play in two weeks. They run them well, and they understand the dynamics of what cutters do to a defense and how motion creates opportunities.

In the 2014 high school lacrosse season, my high school team played only ONE team that ran a zone defense. In 2015, all but two ran one. Teams played a backer zone, a brown zone, a few slide-adjacent zones, and a hybrid zone. Very few man-to-man defenses. 

These teams are rising to a new level. Let’s hold ourselves as coaches to the highest standards of education and experimentation so that we can lead the boys and girls to new heights!

Putting the play back in playing

I live in a place in which lacrosse is a new sport. It’s been a varsity sport for only two years and a a club sport for only a half-dozen. The few rec programs for youth players are only about a decade old. 

I have lacrosse sticks twice that age!

By contrast, I grew up in a place that has had varsity lacrosse for well over thirty years. And the sport was played by the nearby Iroquois for a few centuries. My first exposure to lacrosse came from a friend whose family played for hundreds of years. On weekends, twenty kids would show up for pick up games at the elementary school at the end of my street. We walked there, carrying our gear over our shoulder. 

Here in SWFL, kids meet up to play at practices and games. There isn’t a lot of play in between formal events, and if there is it is just a couple of guys hanging out playing video games and shooting at a net. There are no street games. Everyone is spread out, with not more than a few players in any one neighborhood. To get together, a kid needs a parent to drive him. 

The result is a lack of organic development. While there is a lacrosse culture of sticks, gear, haircuts, and colorful shorts, there is no culture of play. You don’t have five guys getting together to shoot on a hockey net in front of a garage, making up plays and stick tricks as they go. The impromptu laboratory of after-school trial and error is not available, so there is very little of that organic aspect of play that cements in players the basics and encourages the extraordinary. That is the organic aspect of sports development: skills and playing style develop naturally as part of non-serious play among friends.

We see this in soccer. Kids often meet up at a playground to “kick the ball around.” They do it for hours, having fun but at the same time practicing the skills required for play in a game. I used to work in a Mexican neighborhood where literally dozens of kids aged 5 to 18 kicked the ball around or played pickup games. The mixing of ages and skill sets created an organic development laboratory in which kids could experiment with different aspects of the sport that they can use—or not use—in more formal settings. No coaches. No drills. No uniforms except the smattering of Real Madrid and other pro teams. There was a culture of sport. That is what we had where I grew up, and what is missing in local lacrosse here in SWFL.

We have kids who are great shooters here in Florida. They can pick corners and top-shelf shoot better than many of the kids back in NY—as long as they are stationary and no one is bothering them! Kids here practice shooting in the backyard, sometimes for hours , but they don’t often practice dodging and keeping the ball away from each other or playing pickle-in-the-middle. I have coached several players who could shoot brilliantly, provided they were right in front of the goal about 15 yards out. I had one player who could shoot nearly 100 miles per hour both underhand and overhand, but couldn’t run and shoot, couldn’t dodge, and couldn’t pass to a teammate. He was so used to playing alone that playing on a team was nearly impossible for him.

Without the organic, learn-as-you go culture, sport becomes an orchestrated event with coaches as the conductors. The best thing we could do as coaches is to all kids to just play, goof around, make themselves familiar with what they are capable of doing on their own. But that approach would infuriate parents, who often have the same approach to youth sports as serious athletes had a couple decades ago to the Olympics. It has to be scientific, regimented, organized and orderly. Is it possible that that makes it less fun, more oppressive, too serious?

Maybe, we should let the kids play more. Get them together on a Saturday and let them run around like fools, call them in for lunch, then send them back out there. It worked for centuries. I bet it would work again.

What kind of Sideline Parent are you?

Anyone who has a tournament or two has noticed that not every parent is the same. As in any group, it takes all kinds. I’d like to share with you something that was part of our Ballistic Blog. We are in the process of moving and adding to the original blog, but we thought this entry was particularly appropriate for this point in the season.

When you are on the sidelines of your child’s lacrosse (or any other sport) game, what kind of parent are you? Over the years, we’ve come across five major categories of parents: the Drop-off Parent, the Gossip, the Wallflower, the Cheerleader, and the Coach.

Which are you?

We had so much fun with this blog that we made it into an online quiz! Take it here and see how you fare. 

Here is a helpful guide that might give you some idea as to which you are and how you affect the team. 

The Drop-off Parent.

This is an easy one. Your kid practices at 6pm. You drop him or her off at about that time. You go shopping, get some food, make a few phone calls, play Words With Friends. Just before the end of practice, you reappear to pick up your kid. For games, you probably morph into one of the other four categories because you typically do go to the big events.

Pros: You get your child to practice on time. You pick him up on time. Your low profile doesn’t ruffle any feathers, and you don’t get involved in sideline politics, so most people either like you or are indifferent to you. Your kid gets to participate; you get to kill some time and do a little solo shopping or hanging out.  

Cons: When your son or daughter wants to share what happened at practice, you have to rely on their narration skills to paint a picture of what their life is like when you aren’t there.

Advice: You know, some kids don’t care if their parents are there. Some do. As a coach, I think it is nice to be able to walk over to a parent during practice and share with him or her something that just happened or discuss a behavior that might need fixing or to celebrate a great achievement. If you aren’t there, we can’t do that. Many sports sociologists advise that kids prefer their parents to watch them do what they love. Ask your child. He or she knows best.

Things the Drop-off parent will say:

“I just don't get that much time on my own to run errands, so I have to do it during practice.”
Translation: I am really busy and, while I know everyone is really busy, I choose to drop my kid off and get caught up.

The Gossip.

Sporting events, like all social functions, are a great place to catch up on the latest gossip. You can tell the Gossip parent because they don’t watch the game or practice and are always chatting to the person next to him or her. For many people, youth sports are not all that interesting, so the chance to meet up with other similarly bored parents is a positive aspect of your kids’ participation.

Pros: You are there. Your kids can see you and they think you might be watching them, too. You are putting in the effort to show support.

Cons: The Gossip often fuels or taps into the negative energy that some parents bring to every event. They absorb complaints about coaches, play time, other players, the organization of tournaments and share the info as if it were undisputed fact. The problem is that there are always disgruntled parents in every youth sports organization, and they often blow out of proportion the smallest perceived slight, inequity, or unfairness and paint the whole organization with a broad brush. It’s not fair to anyone, really, and can cause morale to plummet as everyone looks to find evidence of the perceived wrong in their own experiences with the organization. 

Advice: Life after high school really is no different from high school. Have you ever heard of positive, supportive, and constructive gossip? No, me neither. So, maybe talk about the weather. Or the kids’ amazing play. It might make the team family more cohesive. Remember that half of what you hear from anyone who is gossiping is either unsubstantiated or just plain made up. The other half is, at best, questionable. 

Things the Gossip parent will say:

“Didn’t you know that the coach is best friends with #34’s parents?”
Translation: My kid isn’t playing as much as his kid OR #34, so it must be because of a friendship thing not because of skills or abilities.” (The obvious question to ask is WHAT coach would play a kid—his or anyone else’s—who is not able to get the job done. Coaches want to win, too.)

“I heard from someone who shall remain nameless that…”
Translation: This is my theory and I made the whole thing up, but I am going to pretend it has a real source…

The Wallflower.

These make up a large number of the families in most youth sports. These are the people who sit watching the game but don’t say much. Maybe they aren’t the cheering types, maybe they are new to the group and don’t feel comfortable yet. Some just don’t understand the sport all that well and are not wiling to yell out when they aren’t entirely sure what just happened. 

Pros: These are the backbones of many teams. They are the parents who will bring extra drinks and snacks without being asked. They will always help out and tend to be respectful of everyone. They will tell kids after each game how well they played, but quietly and without a lot of fanfare. They don’t complain about play time or if their kid got the ball enough. They are observers of both the team and the parents. 

Cons. We coaches don’t get to know them well. Neither do other parents. They seem nice, though, and we’d love to talk to them more than we have so far. If you don’t want to know the REAL answer to a leading question, like, “Don’t you think #34 gets to play more than he should since he isn’t all good, anyway?” or “Don’t you think the coach is an idiot?” then don’t ask these parents. They may come out and tell you what you don’t want to hear.

Advice: Speak up. Get to know the other parents around you. Avoid the ones that are negative. Keep saying positive things to the players when they walk off the field after the game. That means more to them than you can ever know.

Things the Wallflower parent will say (if they talk at all):
“That was a great game!” 
Translation: I am not sure what the rules are but the score was close and it was a lot of fun to watch the kids play so hard.

“The kids played with a lot of heart.”
Translation: We got our butts kicked, but the kids never quit. I applaud them for that.

“That parent certainly is enthusiastic.”
Translation: The guy in the red shirt is screaming at his kid, the referees, and the opposing parents and he is embarrassing himself and us.

The Cheerleader.

These are the parents that everyone hears on every sideline. You can often hear them from the next county, as well! They are loud, passionate, sometimes even correct in what they are saying! They are the ones that know all the kids by name and will be vocal about bad calls…well, bad calls against their team. That’s because ALL calls against their team are inherently bad. These parents get the other parents revved up but, honestly, tend to embarrass the players to the point where they can’t look in their direction. You will find these guys sitting in the front row of every game, their folding chairs placed for the best view. 

Pros: Who doesn’t love it when someone has spirit? The Cheerleader parent will always yell supportive things at our players, call for them to get the job done, and play well. We need those parents to keep the other parents positive and upbeat. The kids don’t often hear them. Truth be told, kids don’t hear anything on the field except their teammates and their coaches, the former because they want to and the latter because they have to. Parents are like gnats in their ears, slightly annoying but if you move away they will stop buzzing.

Cons: Sometimes, the Cheerleaders get a little too rambunctious. They might yell TOO much, and at the wrong people. They sometimes get into it with referees and other parents. Sometimes, cheering FOR your kid sounds a lot like yelling AT your kid.

Advice: Cheering is great. Make sure your cheering is positive. Too often, the yelling at the players and referees turns ugly, and the nonstop chatter can start to cause conflict among players, referees and other adults watching the games. We’ve seen kids pick up the negative vibes from the overly vocal parents and get chippy on the field. 

Things you will hear the Cheerleader parent say:

“Good idea, Billy!” 
Translation: ‘Good idea’ is a universal sideline parent sports term that means a range of things, but generally implies that the player did something that, on paper, was plausible but in the real world was not gonna happen. The translation has varying levels of meaning, starting with “Nice pass, too bad it didn’t get there” and moving on to “Wow, that was colossally ill-advised” to “What snapped in your brain that made you think that was possible?” This term is only heard when the Cheerleader’s team is ahead or close to the other team. 

“Come on, ref?????” 
Translation: The referee is the biggest idiot every spawned.

“Come on, boys, you gotta hustle!”
Translation: You are a team of slugs. Please go faster.

“Let’s go!” 
Translation: The ball was just picked up by our team and is moving in the right direction. 

Translation: I can’t believe there was no penalty called there.

The coach.

Invariably, the Coach Parent will be start each game standing up on the sidelines. He (yes, it is usually a dad) will pace the sidelines for the duration of the game, yelling until he is red in the face, and waving his hands like one of those guys at the airport who direct the planes into and away from the terminal…but sped up 8000 times. The Coach Parent does not watch the game but rather attempts to control it from his position on the sidelines. His means to do so is his son or daughter, to whom he yells incessantly the directions he feels the coach must surely be missing or have forgotten. Well, no, the coach is an idiot, and THIS is how the team should be run. Forget the fact that the Coach Parent never actually PLAYED the sport, is not a coach by profession or avocation, and has no real idea what the plays the boys or girls have spent weeks learning actually DO. These guys almost always have a player on the team who is good, but whom the Coach Parent feels A) is not recognized for his brilliance by the team/coach/universe; B) is under-utilized by the idiot coaching the team (i.e. he is not given the ball every time it is possible), and C) should be the kid in FRONT of the goal and ALL times so as to maximize his scoring potential. These are the parents who want their kids to be the top goal scorers despite the fact that the player actually wants to play defense! They may have played a sport in high school, or possibly college, and they are usually reasonably successful in their profession, which seems to translate into expertise in ALL professions. 

Pros: Well, none. Seriously. None.

Cons: They disrupt the enjoyment of the game for the other parents. First, this is because they yell too much and spoil the atmosphere; second, because they generally cuss out or hurl insults at the REAL coach, the other players on BOTH teams, and the referees. They often confuse the players on the field by telling them to do something that will bring personal glory but is not in keeping with the game plan or set play the real coach has prepared. 

Things you will hear the Coach Parent say:

“Shoot!” (to his son or daughter)
Translation: Do NOT pass that ball, dammit! YOU keep it and YOU run to the goal and YOU shoot it. 

“Give him some help!” (to his kid)
Translation: You need to go to your teammate who has the ball and take it from him because, clearly, that kid is sub-par compared to you.

“Play your game!” (to his kid)
Translation: Ignore your coach and play MY game…the one that I am yelling to you from the sideline…the one that has nothing to do with your team or what you’ve learned at practice.

“What are we doing out there?” (to all other parents)
Translation: This team is obviously being coached by someone who has been lobotomized and has no grip on the boots-on-the-ground reality of the situation (which is critical). How do we call for DefCon Five or maybe a military coup that will unseat the negligent madman at the helm?

“Are you watching the same game as me?” (to the referee)
Translation: You suck. 

So...which one are you?

Travel lacrosse as a teaching environment

When one typically thinks of travel teams in youth sports, the implication is that the players are at a higher level than the majority of kids in that age group. Broadly speaking, that’s true. The typical travel sports program makes a point of piecing together an all-star caliber team to go to tournaments to win. Winning is the desired end.

That is perfectly fine for the families of kids that are of a better caliber of player than the average. What about the kids who are, in fact, average? What do they do during the summer? In lacrosse, the answer has been clinics and camps. I have another blog on clinics and camps, so I won’t get into that here, but they may not be the best alternative to travel programs.

Why not have a summer travel program that is NOT geared to winning tournaments. That would mean, obviously, that its focus is on teaching the sport to the kids who join. If a program focuses on teaching and training individuals while also instructing them on how they fit into the overall team structure, miracles can happen!

When we started our summer travel lacrosse program, it was a time when there were lots of other travel lacrosse options out there. None of those, however, made anyone particularly happy. If you weren’t on the U19 Select Team you didn’t get much in the way of training. You got a handful of plays, a clear, and a coach who was more interested in getting through the games on the weekend and into the hotel for dinner and drinks. The parents of the kids on my high school team were tired of that and asked me to start a “real” program for them in the summer. So, with a partner, I did.

My organization emphasized teaching. We took our kids, ranging from those who had very little playing experience up to those who had more than most, and taught them the right way to play lacrosse. They learned the hows and whys not just the whats. 

Let me tell you...teaching is hard work. It's a heck of a lot harder than letting kids just go out there and scrimmage. A field is no different from a classroom: it's easier to get the kids to watch a movie than it is to get them to ALL get the right answer in a lesson. Kids learn at different speeds in different ways. That's just a basic fact of teaching and learning. 

Nobody said this was gonna be easy. But we did it.

The result? In the first year, we had 11 top-three finishes in tournaments. Fifteen top five. Many of our kids were first- or second-year players who were competing against kids from other parts of the state who had been playing for two or three times that. 

Why were we competitive? We didn’t always have the best talent to start out the season. It took a lot of effort, but we taught the kids the game and had high standards for what they were expected to learn. If you build a team from the individuals on up, you will probably lay the groundwork for a successful program.

The next year, we did the same thing. Interestingly, my partner left to form his own travel program. He dropped the educational philosophy in all but his advertising, and his teams went to tournaments playing the same way they had in the rec season. No improvement. No education. They were there to try to win tournaments (and claim bragging rights over the original team from which they spun off). They are usually in the lower third of standings if not last. That is not great for their kids because they are not learning and are not winning. I hope, at least, they are having fun. 

My guys are winning, having fun, and improving dramatically every week. Our youngest team, a U11 squad, had only three players who had been in the sport for more than a season. The rest were newbies. In three tournaments, they went from average to winning the top prize. 

We don’t have a formula. There is no magic bullet. There is a commitment from a few dedicated coaches to do the right thing. The U11 team’s coach is not a lacrosse guy. He is not even American. But he wants to learn and he asks a lot of questions.  And he isn’t afraid to ask for help. For example, he asked me to introduce the same defense I implemented with our successful U13 rec team on his U11 squad. I did. After that, he and his assistant coach worked on it repeatedly. It worked. Their defense is extremely good—and it features mostly new players!

When coaches learn from each other and ask for assistance, they learn a lot, too. It’s fine to have an ego but recognize, too, that you can learn from someone else. Sometimes, the person you learn from is someone you wouldn’t expect.

One of my recent high school graduate player works with my team as an intern. Compared to other players, he is uncommonly adept at seeing and understanding the mechanics of the sport. Honestly, he sees things I miss. Too often, the “head coach” looks at the big picture and misses the smaller details. Thank god for Josh! I don’t ignore him, or pretend I saw what he is telling me. I encourage him to keep his eyes open and keep telling me things he sees. He has a different perspective than I do, and that can be extremely useful. 

If there is a downside to a travel program that focuses on education it is that you don’t win a lot of tournaments. Hard work and patience will get you good game wins, though. And you have to let your parents and kids know that your focus is not on winning trophies but rather on teaching the kids to be better players. In the end, when the expectations are established and the kids are doing well and themselves say they are better players than they were the year or season before, then you have done your job. It works for us, and it is extremely satisfying.