Monday, February 4, 2019

Picking Captains

Picking Captains 
The difficult search for leaders in high school sports

Most teams have formal captains. All teams have informal, de facto leaders whether assigned or not. These two facts are sometimes equivalencies, and sometimes they are in opposition. 

The question of how to select captains for a team is tough to answer. For youth teams, the decision is somewhat easier than for high school programs: pick the more mature kids and those who are better players. The former will be less likely to throw a tantrum in the middle of a game or run away crying for no reason, while the latter will be a good example for the other players. Ideally, anyway.

Once you get to high school, though, such simple parameters are not quite good enough. High schoolers are as complicated as full-fledged adults, and often come with more turbo-charged drama! But, captains must be named if only to fulfill the formality of when referees call out the pre-game “Coaches, send in your captains.”

As a head coach, I’ve wrestled with this over the years. I’ve eliminated a few captain selection traditions that I feel are just arbitrary. For example, I don’t think captains need to be seniors. I don’t think there needs to be three. I don’t feel it’s necessary to represent each major discipline (attack, midfield, defense), and I don’t like elections by the players. In my own high school, the coach allowed the team to elect the captains. As a junior on varsity, I was surrounded by the seniors and told who to vote for. We all were. I would have voted for those guys regardless, but I know some others might have gone a different direction but felt they couldn't. Plus, it’s a popularity contest, like a vote for Homecoming Court. That’s a great way to pick a smirking, smug kid who dabbed often when dabbing was cool, but no way to choose leaders. 

At one school, my assistant coach and I selected a sophomore who was probably the best player, a junior homeschooled kid who was the most mature and certainly a talented player by any measure, and a dynamic football hero type kid who had the swagger and confidence of a traditional captain. We had a little pushback on the first two. A few of the older players didn’t want to have a captain who was younger than them. There was some question of why a homeschooled kid should be the captain when the other kids “paid their dues” in the hallways (an actual quote from an actual parent, who apparently mistook this suburban high school for the set of West Side Story), but it actually worked out in the end as the boy selected was a humble but serious leader whom everyone liked and respected. It didn’t hurt that he was an absolute beast on the field. The team got behind them. The other guy was the heart of the team and pushed them with his indomitable spirit. Our final game was a playoff loss to the best team in the league. The opposing coach came up to me and commented that “Number ten…what an incredible player…he refused to quit. I’ve never seen anyone play like that before.  That was incredible to watch.” That was the third captain. He was the best captain I’ve ever selected.

The next year, hot off our banner captain year, we picked our goalie, who was an absolute wall, and a midfielder who could fire the ball at 106 miles per hour. The goalie turned out to be a petty, jealous, vindictive kid who actually tried to start a fistfight at halftime of our first playoff game—with our own player! In fact, he tried to fight the young man who we had named to replace the fast-shooting midfielder who, about halfway through the season, took off his helmet and threw it on the ground in the middle of a game, yelling, “I don’t care about this f***ing team!” The replacement went on the be the regional Player of the Year and could have played in college, but chose not to. 

So, bad choices.

Last year, we picked a kid as captain who was probably the most talented player on the team. He was a stereotypical “lax dude.” His long, curly flow protruded behind his helmet, he used the word “dude” to start every other sentence, and he reportedly blazed up some illegal substances on his free time. He was amazing during the tryout period: supportive, helpful, uplifting of his teammates. Once named captain, he became petty, blaming, and a selfish ball hog. If you didn’t pass to him, he’d yell at you. If you shot, he’d say he was open. He wouldn’t pass to you, though, and he would always shoot regardless of his location on the field. One day, he skipped practice, claiming he was sick. He wasn’t. Kids saw him out. His mom sent in a note to cover for him, so there wasn’t much we could do. Then he skipped a game to play hockey with his buddies. He was stripped of his captaincy immediately. 

Bad choice, again. The other players told us—after the fact, of course—that they all hated him and didn’t want him to be captain. That’s not great to find out when it’s too late. 

This year, we tried an experiment. We didn’t name anyone. We told the team to get together at 4pm to start practices, stretch, warm up, and be ready for the coaches to take over their part after that. We coaches sat back and watched. Four or five boys attempted to lead. Some barked orders. Others tried to psych up players. What was fascinating was that a few of the boys had commented that they wanted to be a captain this year and attempted to assert their will on the team. Generally, the team ignored them. They'd say, "Let's set up over here!" and the team would just walk past them to a small cluster of other boys who did not call out or command. The team just wanted, it seemed, to be where they were and to do what they did.

This organic approach showed that groups naturally want to be led, and that there are always some people who will take leadership roles. It also showed that, often, if given a choice, the group will not follow those it doesn't feel fit to lead. In a few days, three boys quietly took the lead. More importantly, all the others followed them. None is the yelling type, but all three are solid players…probably the three best on the team. All three are the ones who coach on the field, arrange the other players, and help correct errors. All are polite. None are mean or bossy, yet they certainly command the team’s attention and respect. I would argue that the team feels these boys have the team's best interests in mind while some of the others just wanted to be captain, possibly for the prestige, maybe for the resume clout it would give them. 

Yesterday, we named these three interim captains. By sheer chance, it happens that they are an attacker, a midfielder, and a defender. We will see how they handle the official job and how the team reacts to the declaration that these three are in charge. What will the others who expressed interest in being captains do now that they know they are not getting the job? Will there be grumbling? Will there be factions? 

We will see. Teams are a lot like companies, but the difference is that the emotions run high and stress is rampant in a team format. Cracks can develop quickly under that kind of strain. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. I wish them well. It’s a tough but rewarding job for any young person. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The downside to playing up in U13 and U15

Every year, I hear of and see young players in U13 and U15 who make the decision to "play up," (that is, jump an age group) in competitive lacrosse. Every recreational and travel sport is divided by age groups. This keeps kids of similar physical capabilities and size together. Short of comprehensive and exhaustive skills testing, age is the best way to stratify a group of young players for recreational or tournament play. 

As a father of three athletic kids and a coach of U7, U11, U13, U15 and high school teams in various sports, I can attest both personally and professionally to differences in emotional development and maturity among those groups. While many parents like to say that their kid is very mature, it is most often the case that they are not as mature as a kid who is two years older. Let's face it, a nine year-old reacts to the world differently from an eleven year-old. And a thirteen year-old, barely pre-pubescent, is not the same as a fifteen year-old emotionally even if he or she is the same size as an older player. Very often, the stress of moving up to a new group that is older can be frightening and/or counterproductive for a younger player. 

There are exceptions to this rule. I am sure Wayne Gretzky played up. He was a phenom from a young age. A real prodigy will often so far outclass his age group that playing in the correct age group is almost like cheating! On the flip side, Paul Rabil, the great lacrosse midfielder who dominates the professional game, says he was not himself particularly good as a young player. For the most part, I haven't found it negative for younger players (ages 7-11) to play up one age group as long as they have exceptionally good skills. It's really when the kids enter their teen years the differences in psychology and physiology become impediments. 

Physically, kids within an age group can be anyplace on the bell curve of development. I last coached U13, where we had baby-faced kids with baby fat playing against kids with more facial hair than me. They were "playing down," at best turning 15 after the cutoff date--but BARELY--or actually cheating down a level (that happens often enough to be an issue in tournaments). In any case, a 14 year-old is a very different animal than an 11 or 12 year-old U13 player. He's a teenager. He has testosterone in his veins. He's turbocharged. 

Size is not the issue. I had one boy on my team who was almost as tall as me, had great physical size and development, but was prone to throw tantrums and was the owner of the worst case of "field rage" that I've seen in years. He was constantly penalized for losing his temper on the field, resulting in wild slashes and hits from behind. He was a funny, delightful kid but only moderately coachable--he tended to think he knew best and, while respectful of me and my assistant coach, he did not pay much attention to our instructions. Emotionally, he was young for his age. Physically, he was big. Should he play up? No. Absolutely no. Is he playing up now? Yep. 

So, since it is ultimately their decision, why would parents want their kids to play up? 

Excellent question. For the most part, it is a mistranslation of the semi-truism in American sports culture that playing with better players will force a weaker player to improve. There is some evidence that this is, in fact, true--but only for the most inner-driven players. Those who take their cues as to their likelihood of success from external sources (e.g. teammates or game stats) will be more likely to fail than succeed. The mistranslation comes when the parent replaces "better" with "older and better." That is not a one-to-one swap.

"It'll toughen him up," the parent will say. Conceptually, that sounds logical. While that may be the case with kids playing with more skilled players of their same age, it is not, in my experience, the case with U13 and U15 players who are bumped up from one age group to another. 

Most of the time, it's the parent who wants the kid to play up. Nothing makes a proud dad even more proud than seeing his kid rise above his age group and play against older kids. Any dad can be proud of that. It speaks volumes about the gene pool, the masculinity of the boy, the prowess of the girl, and by extension, the dad. I've heard and seen this happen so many times, and each time it does I can point to a Type A personality dad and say "That is the reason this kid will get his clock cleaned this season." (You know who you are. And if you don't, I suggest that if that last line ticked you off then you ARE that guy.)

Moms, on the other hand, seem to get it. While dads will say that the nurturing, cause-and-effect thinking of moms is nannying, there is a lot to be said for creating a safe and age-appropriate environment for kids, whether that is in sports or school or any activity. Dads don't think that way. Moms do. Unfortunately , Dads usually win the argument when it comes to sports.

Here is the part that parents don't want to hear. Most of the time, a child is happy playing within his age group. If she is a dominant player, she will thoroughly enjoy her success. If she is not dominant, she will be happy because her skills will improve and her game steadily ratchet upward. 

Sure, there are some kids that think bigger, older, fast is better. My step-son has his dad buy him size 11.5 tennis shoes. His foot is in the size 8.5 range. For some reason, my step-son thinks it is cooler/more adult/more mature to wear bigger shoes. It's bragging rights. His dad doesn't puzzle through this silliness and challenge the logic, instead he just buys the shoes. Similarly, playing up gets a kid nothing except bragging rights. And there is nothing logical about bragging rights.

The negative effects of younger players playing with kids emotionally more mature and whose bodies are stronger, faster and more trained may not come out right away. Often, the younger players feel they aren't good at their sport (even though they are) and they find sometimes find it harder to connect and build relationships with children up to two years older. Even if the younger player is able to keep up on a skills level, there are many aspects of the game that he or she will not be able to do as well. As noted above, the emotional component is part of that. 

Rec teams vs travel teams. I should say up front that I am less critical of the decision to play up in a recreational sport setting as opposed to a competitive travel environment. Kids in rec programs represent the broadest spectrum of abilities. You can get some very low-skilled players and excellent ones in the same age group. In rec, age is not necessarily the best predictor of success or ability. In the younger ages, say U7-U13, kids can slide up a level in a rec environment without a lot of worry. A dominant player (as in "totally controlling the game and of exceptional physical ability compared to others the same and competing teams) could safely move up to challenge both himself and allow other players in his correct age group to actually get the ball! 

In a travel environment, typically the teams cull from the larger body of rec players to create an all-star team. I've seen it happen too many times to shrug it off as a rare, one-off poor decision. It's actually a cultural problem within sports. We push our kids to go higher, faster, and longer than they should. The logic is that if a child shows talent in a U13 rec or travel program then the OBVIOUS way to improve his skills is to move him up to a U15 travel team. Better competition will improve him, like a crucible heats all metal in it to the same temperature.

Sometimes, yes, but most of the time, no. As is the case with many things, our culture--especially in sports--is wrong. We must not equate moving up--and moving up FAST--with being successful. We do it in business, sports, even relationships. Even if a kid bumped from U13 to U15 manages to hold his own, even score a few goals, is that REALLY what he should be doing? Most of the time, the moved-up player is NOT a starter and, in some travel organizations, is not on the field much at all. Hey, but at least  he played up with the big kids!

Wouldn't it be better to have him improve with his peers, becoming a dominant player? Wouldn't it be better for him to be on the field the FULL game instead of part of it? Wouldn't it be better for him to see the rewards of a well-executed roll dodge against an age-matched player instead of being closed down by someone with two more years of experience and more physical ability because of age?

You would think so. Unless you were one of those parents who doesn't think things through and subscribes to the culture of Faster Is Better.

If this is such a bad idea for U13 and U15 players, why do travel coaches allow it? And here is the point where I tick off all the travel coaches. Simply put, coaches should not allow this except when they are dealing with a DOMINANT young player. (See my definition of "dominant" above.) A travel team wants to win, and it plays its best players to do so. The goal is to get victories so you can get sponsorships and recognition and build your travel brand. That is why most travel teams play kids as far down as possible, giving us those kids with full beards playing in U13. Why? Because they want to win. Whenever there is cheating on a roster, it is because a kid is playing down too low. Some coaches do that--and try to get away with it--simply to win.

So, what's the advantage to a coach who brings a bunch of underage players up to a new level? Shouldn't that be an obvious disadvantage? Yes. 


It's a money-maker. The travel sports game is a money-maker. My own organization, a not-for-profit that uses volunteer coaches and that operates on the edge of solvency, has itself been accused of profiteering by having a lot of kids on one team. Parents start doing math and come up with the idea that we are making money hand over fist. We aren't. But the programs DO. Some make hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits annually, and some coaches get a commission on registrations. Our group charge $200 less than the nearest quality competitor for a summer session and $500 less for the fall.

Over the past few seasons, some of my former players have been lured to play up from U13 to U15 and U15 to high school by a large national program. The boys who choose to go are never dominant players. They are good, but not ready to play U15 or high school. When I've worked with them again laster, NONE of them have improved at a faster rate than kids who did not move up. In fact, their field time was less so they actually were behind in the overall game sense and understanding. 

Anyone who is in the travel lacrosse biz knows that U15 is the hardest age group in which to field a team. Half the kids want to play on a high school team, so your market is automatically smaller. The only way you can really do it is to fill your roster with U13 players. In the tournament setting, they won't be as good as the hard-driving U15s. Indeed, some of the toughest games I've seen in tournaments have been at the U15 level. 

The way the luring happens is that the coach recruits one player and then leverages that to get his friends. Then it's peer pressure from the kids and, shockingly, from the parents. There is always one who is the pusher. Frankly, of all the young players from my organization who have left to move up, there is not one I would have allowed to do the same with us. They simply were not equipped for that. As a coach, I think it is counterproductive to have kids fail to succeed on the field. What lesson does that teach? I'd rather he or she learned plays, executed them, beat their opponents with age-leveled skills, and learned the game of lacrosse.

Sadly, the parents believe the hype from the large national teams. They do an excellent job of selling their product. These will be the same parents who shell out $1500 dollars at least to get their kid on a recruiting site that says it will get the kids a scholarship. 

Final analysis. Let your kids be kids. Don't rush the process. There is no prize for aging fast. It's a natural process, aging, that allows us to gain more insights, learn more skills, and meet new challenges as we are able. But, it's just too tempting for parents to say, "Look! He just took a few steps! I think he is going to be good at this! Let's enter him in a 5K NOW!"

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’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.