Tuesday, June 9, 2015

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. 

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