Use Fun to Develop and Keep Players
By Kate Leavell
The pressure to be like “ Maryland” is driving kids away from lacrosse in many developing areas. I grew up playing in Maryland, so I’m familiar with the difference between my home state and the developing lacrosse states I’ve lived in more recently as an adult, as a parent and a coach.
My boys started playing lacrosse at around age 9 in a developing area. That’s also the year they stopped playing lacrosse. I signed them up for a winter interest program that was held for them at an indoor gym in attempt to get kids to sign up for the spring program. It was the first year they were old enough to participate and I had waited for this day to come. My boys were so excited! (ok I was also embarrassingly excited!) We bought and borrowed them gear and sticks and padded them up and sent them in to learn the sport that I have devoted my life to teaching and growing. I was more than a lax parent that night, I was a lax enthusiast in heaven!
Unable to control my curiosity, I peaked into the gym, excited to see them having fun. But what I saw instead was a high school like practice with drills, over coaching, long lines and local high school player “helpers” playing at 100 percent over top of these little guys instead of helping them. One of my boys was standing over on the side looking lost. My heart sank.
Being the direct person that I am, I asked one of the people leading the event if they considered making it a little more fun centered since the goal is to attract these kids (9 year olds!) to the sport. The response I got was one that I would hear echoed in almost every new developing area I have been. The belief is that these kids are so behind the Mid-Atlantic states, we can’t afford to have them just play, we have to catch them up so they can compete and we can get as good as the kids in Maryland. They have to start earlier, practice more, we don’t have time for anything else. The kids who can’t handle it will weed themselves out.
Is this a youth sport or a professional lacrosse league training program? We are still talking about children right?! My kids climbed into the car and I asked them how it was and they both said they were bored, it was too hard, and they didn’t really want to go back. And I watched the sport I loved die out of my house for 7 years until this year when both my boys, now in high school, are finally finding a love of lacrosse on the JV team together.
I played in Maryland as a kid, high school athlete and college athlete and I started learning by running around the yard, playing in silly lacrosse games with my older siblings in the backyard, and digging dirt with my dads lacrosse stick. I fell in love with the game before I ever set foot inside any official team. I wasn’t in an area that was lacrosse dominant because we started doing high school drills as kids, it was because we had the opportunity to play with fiddle stix in Ocean City, and PE lacrosse at school , had parents or relatives that let us lug around their giant stick and play with it, and we were exposed to the fun earlier. It wasn’t forced down our throats, we grew into it as part of our culture and lifestyle and we considered it play. Then when we found our teams to play on, the love of the sport was already there and the drive to improve came naturally on an already solidly built foundation.
Whatever area you are in, no matter what age the kids are who come out to play for the first time, they have to fall in love with it first. For some kids, they haven’t even fallen in love with the idea of sports yet, let alone any specific one. US Lacrosse shared a video, by ‘about the kids,’ of little boys running around penguins and then trying to put the balls into the net and I realized, this program has got it right! The intensity and the high level skills will come, no matter what age they start playing, but ONLY if they first learn to love the game and grow the desire to move on.
Our job for our new players (regardless of age) is to foster love of the game, confidence, and the opportunity to participate in fun competition (rather than waiting in line or sitting on a bench) and then our job as coaches becomes easy. Kids who love it will come to us and ask for guidance. If we build the foundation, they will pull the sticks out on their own and go play on their own time, show up for practice anxious for what’s coming next, and develop on their own timeline – as they develop physically, emotionally and mentally – but to their full potential. If I find myself struggling to get kids to work on their skills the first look I have is to my practice plan – am I making this sport fun or a chore. No one wants to go home and practice chores!
Our drive to compete with the mid-atlantic states is back firing on our kids as we try to rush them into skills that have to naturally take place at a pace that is right for them. It’s not a race to outdo a state that’s had lacrosse for as long as I can remember, but a journey to grow quality options that start right where we are. The patient teaching and reinforcing of fundamentals and the fun will drive the development faster than any other method.
Recently I was observing a practice and I overheard a coach yelling to a small kid to hold onto his stick, that it isn’t a toy. Immediately I felt defiant for this kid. It most certainly IS a toy! PLAY ON!
Kate Leavell is a high school varsity and youth girls’ lacrosse coach in Atlanta. A US Lacrosse Coaches Education Program trainer, she is the author of the Coaches Emergency Practice Guide. Read more of her thoughts at kateleavell.com
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