Hot Pot: Rethinking The Game


I don’t know what it is about the year 2013 for me, but something is different. Maybe it’s just that I’m older now, or that I’m coaching and writing more than ever. Perhaps I’ve just been exposed to “enough” lacrosse at this point in my life. The point is, I can’t help but look at the game a little differently now, and this becomes more true day by day.

I’ve played in, and still believe in, complex team systems, like zone defenses. I don’t knock them, especially at higher levels. I’ve also seen kids develop and focus their skills in specialized areas, and seen these kids become some of the best FoGos, shooters, d-mids, etc in the country. I can’t knock their success, or the methods they have used to get where they are.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t still believe there is still something better out there… for everyone.

However, when it comes to preparing players for complex systems, better competition, and potentially specialized roles, I don’t know that drilling and specialized training are always the best way to get there.

Instead, I am beginning to believe that nothing prepares players better for in-game success than a focus on just playing the game. Sliding, feeding, dodging, winning face offs… all of that can be drilled and practiced. No question about it! But all of the above can also be learned by simply playing the game, and it is now my belief that this latter method reinforces good habits overall, and helps players understand small pieces of the game within the larger framework.

Here is an example of two teams, and how they prepare. Which do you think will see better results?

Team A

Team A starts practice with a warm up lap, stretching, and then line drills. Everything is done together and is regimented. Then the team breaks into one on ones, structured fast breaks, some six on six, and finishes with man up vs man down, and some sprints.

Team B

Team B begins practice with 5 minutes of partner passing in two lines, then moves to a more chaotic throw around, where players pass in groups of three of four, trying to avoid each other as they move around the playing surface. From there, the team does one shooting drill, where longsticks also participate, and then the team plays a game for an hour and calls it a day. The coach works on man up, man down, fast breaks, etc as they come up in the pace of play.

For years, I wanted to push players and teams I was involved with into Team A’s Model. I thought structure bred success, and that everything could be planned for in advance. However, I am less sure of that than I have ever been before.

I’m not saying line drills are useless. I’m also not saying man down work isn’t important. Or that sprints can’t be good for a team. All of those things can be really good.

What I am saying is that a team can work all of those things into just playing the game, AND get an added benefit.

Want to work man down a lot this week? Call penalties when the kids play. Call a lot of them. Call penalties that weren’t even there. Now you’re also teaching your kids to roll with the punches and bad calls that are sure to come your way. Want to focus on fast breaks? I can guarantee some will develop during the play of practice. That’s a perfect time to coach kids up in real situations. Take advantage. Want to work on feeding off the dodge? Make a rule that assisted goals count for twice as much. Losing team is on post practice ball hunt and trash pick up duties. See how fast the players start passing the ball then.

Sprints and conditioning are worked into the play. Trust me, if your kids are playing games of lacrosse five days a week, they’ll be in great shape to… play lacrosse. Exactly. Stick skills get tuned up right away with partner passing, but skill development outside of practice is a requirement. An addiction to wall ball makes all the difference. Preach that point, especially when kids are frustrated. “Wall ball makes it better”. Say it with me.

The new college rules have pushed the game back to its roots of an up and down sport at that level. The men’s post collegiate scene has long been that way. And now we’re seeing it again at the high school level, and at much younger levels.

The teams with kids who can just PLAY THE GAME are some of the best out there right now, and that trend is not going to change. It’s not about component pieces anymore, save for a couple guys here and there. It is about a true team collection of overall lacrosse players and athletes. So how do you develop players that can simply play? Let them play.

Which Approach Do YOU Think Works Better?


  1. I like a lot of what you have to say and agree that playing is the best way to practice. Look at U of O football, they never condition but drill their high speed offense all practice. One problem this style poses to most teams who need it (non hotbed teams) is lack of players on the roster. A roster must carry at least 30 to comfortably scrimmage real games scenarios like fast break, LSM box subs and even keep the pace of play up. Most of these small non-hotbed programs carry closer to 20-25 players and thus must drill these scenarios in a controlled manor such as 6 on 6, man up and clearing drills.

  2. I have to ask which teams you are referring to that “just play the game” and don’t drill specific skills, techniques and situations.  I believe you need to use both to become a great player or a great team.  There are things that are best learned through well designed drills that mimic games situations and more importantly game speed.  They allow you to give athletes lots of reps in these critical skills and situations in a short period of time and correct mistakes immediately after they are made.

    Even if players have mastered the basics like catching, throwing, shooting etc (all of which are things best mastered through high reps) there are still lots for more intricate and team based skills and situations that need to be drilled.

    However, playing the game is equally important.  We all have seen the guys who are great at drills but for some reason just cant transfer it into game situations.  Getting the flow of full field play both as an individual and as a team is vital to success.

    Let’s look at fast breaks.  I think this is a good example of something that needs to be drilled through high repetition but also needs to become part of your natural game flow.  The fast break is essentially a quick set play within the flow of the game.  Teaching your players how to line up, what their looks are and getting them both comfortable with those positions and precise in the execution of their responsibilities is best and most efficiently achieved by doing it lots of times in a short period of time.

    However it is also important that players learn to anticipate the break, communicate what is happening get to their spots and execute the break in an “unplanned” situation, this is what happens by “just playing the game”.

    I believe there are a few critical elements to effective drills and their execution in practice:

    1.  Make them game like.  Don’t drill things that don’t really ever happen in games.  There are lots of ways to get repetition on stick skills in practice, line drills may be the worst I have seen.

    2.  Push players to play at full speed all the time.  Obviously new skills need to be moved through at a slower pace first but the goal is to get to game speed as quickly as possible.  This makes the drill more effective, more fun and hopefully reduces the need for additional conditioning.

    3.  Use three 10 minute drills rather than one 30 minute drill.  

    4.  Be creative.  Find drills that are best for you teams style of play and what you want them to do on the field.  All drills were made up by someone if you have something you need to drill and don’t know a good one, ask other coaches or sit down and figure out something out yourself.

    5.  Always give the kids a chance to “just play the game”.  While drills are great for mastering specific elements in the game, this is not football.  In the end you need to get comfortable in the full field flow both as individuals and as a unit.  Not to mention scrimmaging is lots of fun.

    • I think brian is right. As a coach, I see the benefit of both approaches. Yes, you do need to see how the team reacts to a real game situation, and they need to be in a real game situation. But if you notice that there is a specific aspect of the game that your team struggles with, it is extremely beneficial to do some drills which highlight and focus on that aspect. After you’ve drilled that, you can practice in a more full game atmosphere, and you will see a significant improvement.