I don’t ever remember seeing a lacrosse combine when I was growing up playing the game, but recently it seems like lax combines are popping up all over the place. They measure a player’s testable lacrosse skills in the best ways we know how, and focus on shot speed, strength, endurance, quickness, overall speed and athleticisim. Combines are far from unique to lacrosse, and basketball and football have been holding combines for many years. And while combines definitely give coaches and players more information to digest, the statistics generated probably shouldn’t be looked at as the end-all, be-all of a player’s worth on the field.
For decades, baseball had used a certain set of statistics to judge players, and those stats were the golden rule of a player’s potential. The stats and abilities were then further divided into 5 “tools”, and a player who did well in all 5 aspects of the game statistically was looked upon as a complete player. But as anyone who has read or seen Moneyball can tell you, statistics can often be misleading. Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics developed a new set of stats to evaluate talent, and they proved the effectiveness of their method in the one place it mattered most; Wins.
Now I don’t expect lacrosse combines to immediately determine the optimal set of testing standards and methodologies, but it is something they should all be working on, because this is the type of thing that will separate the pros from the guys just following the crowd.
When Barry Marenberg took a look at a lacrosse combine on Long Island, he noted that an event like that could definitely help a player determine where they fit in on the lacrosse talent ladder, and I think that to a certain extent this is true. As Barry noted, the combine is NOT the ultimate predictor of success, but if offers another important glimpse at a player, and in a controlled setting, where everyone is playing under the same conditions. And this is valuable. The fact that the combine Barry spoke with is finding new ways to test athletes is also promising. In fact, this fact makes them at least as valuable as any other combine out there right now.
Barry’s piece was interesting and honest, and very much in-line with the type of stuff he’s written before. Of course not everyone saw it that way. GreatLaxState.com called the piece a “not-so-thinly-veiled advertisement”, but since we weren’t paid, and Barry isn’t involved with the Next Testing guys, it was a pretty unfair criticism. Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Barry honestly thought they were doing something different that was worth talking about, and I shared his belief. But we appreciate the conversation GLS! People might not like it, but combines are here to stay.
So the question persists; how can a combine truly elevate itself above all other combines? It’s simple, they have to supply better data. Next Testing is already thinking along these lines, but I’m not sure they go far enough! If lacrosse combines are truly the future, there is still some evolution that needs to take place.
Supplying better data is simple, but finding the correct way to collect that data is not. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Let’s take a look at how most combines judge a player’s speed as an example, and see if we can’t come up with a better way to test that aspect of their ability as a quick case study.
Most combines have some sort of speed test like a 40 yard dash, or something comparable. Players may also run a longer distance, and some combines add in a 20 yard dash as well. Many also offer T-run testing. All of these are good measures of footspeed and quickness, but how do they really relate to lacrosse? On any given football play, 3-4 players will touch the ball (on average), so testing those guys purely as runners make some sense. But in lacrosse you’re carrying a stick, and using it constantly. So literally ANY running test that doesn’t have a player carrying his stick in intrinsically flawed. Pure speed doesn’t matter. If you can’t run while holding a stick in your hands, forget about it, your speed means nothing. So have a 40 yard dash without the ball, a 40 yard dash with a ball, and a 40 yard dash where you have to pick up a gb 5 yards from the start. Those tests might actually tell you something about a LACROSSE player.
And that is just the beginning. A combine that TRULY wants to make its mark will also create its own standardized drill where players are given an overall score, based on their time and how they performed in the other portions of the drill. It could be set up like an obstacle course, and a player could be instructed to run through a zig-zag of cones while cradling and switching hands, he then has to make a pass off a rebounder to his right (with targets painted on them), then to his left, then he runs through the football practice aparatus where running backs focus on ball protection and the player has to keep the ball in his stick, and then he takes a shot on a net that has targets on it in the corners, and then he picks up a ground ball to the left of the cage and sprints back to the starting line. Seconds are added for dropped balls, dropped passes and shots that miss the cage. Seconds are subtracted for hitting corners on the goal or for hitting the target pained on the rebounder. There would also be someone behind the goal taking down the player’s game-situation shot speed.
This is a standardized test to judge a players overall skill set where speed is key, but skill is also paramount. Everything is looked at together, and it provides a more specific picture of a player’s overall ability. To make it even better, have players do the test 10 times, then take their average time as an indicator. This will ensure consistent, conditioned athletes rise to the top. If a player shows really good scores AND really bad scores, you know they have potential but need work. The possibilities for extrapolating data are really endless.
And there you go. We just revolutionized the lacrosse combine. All in a day’s work!
I still think we’ll see more and more lacrosse combines in the future. But those that find ways to provide truly compelling and useful data will rise to the top, and those that stick with the old “5 tool” assessment strategy will start to fall by the wayside. Lacrosse combines haven’t been around for that long and they are already evolving… because to stay competitive, they will simply have to. This is not the last time we’ll hear about combines.
So what do you guys think? Are combines useful? Do they need to evolve still? How could we best test potential collegiate lacrosse players?
Main Photo courtesy IMG Academies