We talk about elite teams, wall ball routines, workouts and combine-type skills a lot on LAS. But there is another kind of training out there that many of the best lacrosse players on the planet have engaged in, and it doesn’t get nearly enough play or coverage. I’m talking about backyard lacrosse here, and it can be a total game changer.
Lacrosse has become more and more of a coaches’ game at the college level, and we are even seeing this change at the high school and the travel elite club levels as well. More than ever, players are expected to know their roles, and do certain jobs on the field. Specialization has become common-place and it’s not rare to hear a high school today describe themselves as a d-middie, FoGo, or even a man-up specialist. College lacrosse hopefuls are working hard to get recruited, and as specialization increased, so too did the drive to specialize.
But as more and more players have become position-specific athletes, an old gap has once again opened up, and players who can do it all are of the highest value. The NCAA has been experimenting with new rules as well, and all of these rule changes keep players on the field longer, and allow for less specialization. So not only has a gap in all-around players been created by coaching, but a reinforced NEED for all-around players, via potential NCAA rule changes, could be just around the corner.
I have no doubt that a plethora of camps and coaches will come out preaching that they offer the best all-around player training, but this shouldn’t be the first step to developing all-around talent. The first step is right in a player’s backyard or on the local playing field, and it doesn’t involve coaches or drills. It just involves playing the game with friends in a competitive manner as much as you can. And some people out there might be shocked to learn some of the ways this style of play can help.
One of the biggest things lacking in the college lacrosse world right now is creativity. Players are bigger, stronger, more skilled and faster than they have ever been (at least in my opinion), but the style of play that most teams utilize rests upon isolating a shortstick, dodging, drawing a slide and moving the ball in a somewhat predetermined manner. It used to be that defenses were the most predictable thing on a lacrosse field, but it almost seems like the offensive sets have taken over that dubious distinction, and this is true for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is that like I said above, offenses have simply become more predictable. But another reason for this is that defenses have become less predictable. If you look at some of the more complex man-zone hybrid defenses out there (Virginia, NY Tech, Wesleyan) it can be VERY hard to determine from where, or even if, a slide is coming, and basic man-to-man defense are quickly becoming a thing of the past. A third reason for offenses getting less predictable is stick widths and pocket depths. One would think that it would just allow players to go the cage harder and in more ways, but it all comes back to coaching, and the value of a long possession is just too much for most coaches to pass up.
We saw a similar thing happen in the NFL, as defenses got better and more organized (and therefore harder to read), offenses responded by scripting plays even more and this was most in evidence with Peyton Manning and the Colts and Tom Brady and the Patriots. But I really don’t think that this approach is going to work in lacrosse. A missed connection in the NFL usually results in an incomplete pass, but a bad look in lacrosse often results in a turnover. And as I said above, good possessions are just too valuable.
If the NCAA rules allowed for more substitutions, and more specialization, the NFL offensive approach could actually work. But as we’ve seen, the trend seems to be heading in the opposite direction. Now even if the NFL allowed less subs per play or game, Brady and Manning could still wreak havoc on defenses. This is true because not only do they know their scripts, but they are both extremely creative players. They both have a lot of control over play selection at the line, and they are almost like an extra coach who is playing the game. Their ability to read and decide what to do in complex, ever-changing situations is the biggest strength.
Since lacrosse seems to be getting away from the massive amount of specialization, the approach isn’t necessarily to run a more scripted offense, so the approach must be to find players who are creative, and who can run a team’s offense from the field. And where do you find these players? Oftentimes in the backyard, playing against their siblings or other kids from the neighborhood.
I used to play a little bit in my sideyard growing up with my brother, my friends and his friends. We had a cheap goal and a home-made rebounding wall made out of plywood, and I definitely think that those were the moments when I most improved. My brother and my friends all knew I was a lefty, and even though I was fast, they could overplay me, and force me to find new ways to beat them. They knew all my tricks, and things that would work on the field in high school, wouldn’t work in the sideyard. Looking back, the only thing I regret is not playing like that more!
I also knew their tricks, so when my brother would try to take the ball away from me, I knew what he was going to do… at first. But he learned knew tricks out of necessity, and we both improved because of it. There was no pressure other than the kind I put on myself, and we were more than free to try whatever we wanted. The drive to win was enough to make us good hard, and sometimes it ended in a fight or argument, but overall it also brought us close together as brothers. At least I think it did!
The other big thing that it did for me was to toughen me up a bit. Always playing in full pads, and with coaches and refs, gives kids a certain expectation of not getting hurt. When they do take a good whack on the arm, a lot of players today think that it should automatically be a slash. But sometimes you just get hit hard, and playing competitive games against your friends is a great way to get used to it.
I’ve coached a lot of kids in the past couple of years, and I’ve seen them on the playing field, and I’ve seen them on the training field. When they’re fully suited up and playing in a game, they actually tend to whine more about getting hit. But when I do lessons with two or more kids and have them play one on one, they go at it just as hard, with less pads on, and there is rarely even a whimper of complaint. Sometimes kids take a pretty good whack to the head or hands, but they bounce back pretty quickly. I’m certainly not advocating for kids to just go to town on each other, but a little rough play with friends at a young age is great prep for the rough play that these kids will find at higher levels of the game.
The game needs creative, tough and skilled players at every level, and the repetitions one will get playing in the backyard against friends could be the difference maker they need to go from good to great. If you were to check in with some of the best players in the world right now, you would probably find this is how a good number of them got their game. So what are you waiting for?