Tuesday, June 9, 2015

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!