Tuesday, June 9, 2015

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.