One of the biggest issues in American Youth Lacrosse right now is body contact. When I was a kid growing up, hitting pretty much started right away, and the 2 on 1 ground ball concept of “man-ball” was taught from a very early time. I can remember playing my first summer of organized lacrosse back in 4th grade (my brother was in 2nd grade!) and we were out there hitting each other quite a bit. If you go out to a youth practice or game today, it’s a very different scene.
US Lacrosse recently released a position paper on Youth Participation in the States, and one of the many topics they covered was body checking and hitting for young male players. US Lacrosse’s stance on the issue is pretty clear: they want to limit hitting as much as possible, and their reasoning is almost completely grounded in increasing safety for youth participants. US Lacrosse’s paper covers a number of other subjects as well, including hydration, burn-out, de-emphasizing “all-stars” and winning, emphasizing skill building and fun, but the topic of eliminating much of the contact in the youth game is definitely one of the most thought provoking. So we’ll stick to that! But reading over the whole paper yourself isn’t a bad idea!
The following portion of the position paper was what I found most intriguing:
Basically, US Lacrosse seems to believe, via this paper, that young kids are not prepared to give or receive hits for a couple of reasons: they aren’t trained for it, their bodies are still growing and changing, there is a large potential gap between players’ developmental stages, and younger kids simply don’t have the peripheral vision skills to anticipate hits.
I can buy all of that. Most kids today don’t get great instruction on how to give and receive a hit. That much is definitely true. Kids are definitely still growing and changing, and certain kids definitely develop faster than others. Again, no argument there. And I can totally buy that younger kids don’t have the same peripheral skills. Just watch a youth player try to find an open teammate and you’ll see what I mean. It can be taught, but it’s far from natural. So if I agree with all this, how could I possibly disagree with US Lacrosse on limiting contact? It’s a fair question…
US Lacrosse has drawn the conclusion that older kids have better peripheral vision and that they are more developed. The combination of these two studied theories results in the conclusion that contact should be delayed until kids are older. Or does it?
Peripheral vision may have increased with older kids, but I don’t know that having the kids develop, and THEN hit is the best idea. If you have two 11 year olds running into each other over a ground ball for the first time, they might fall down, and they might even cry. But I have a hard time believing these guys are going to seriously injure each other. It’s probable that they will both be a little timid but they can learn together, and see what it takes. The kids are low to the ground, relatively weak and relatively light. So while the younger kids may be much less developed, they are also capable of inflicting much less damage through force.
Now think about two 15 year olds running at each other over a loose ball and being able to hit for the first time. You’ve got two developed athletes who have never hit in this sport before, and have probably never received much training in the skill set, simply because it wasn’t even legal. They are bigger, stronger and faster than their 11 year old counterparts, and capable of delivering a much more significant force of impact. Sure, they might mentally prepare themselves for the hit, in that they will know it’s coming, but unless they’ve been taught how to take one, it’s unlikely that they’ll be perfect their first time.
If hitting were allowed at the youth levels there would definitely be injuries to the little kids. Let’s face it, they’re little kids and they get hurt all the time. But isn’t that part of growing up? I could be wrong here, that’s why I’m asking. I’m not advocating for 8 year olds to be taking each other out. I think take out checks can definitely be illegal until kids are 12 or 13, or even older, but beyond that I say let the kids play and hit each other a bit. I definitely took my fair share of big hits as a kid but it made me realize contact was a part of the game from an early stage. I learned how to take and give a hit so by the time I was 14 or 15, and playing in HS, I actually knew what I was doing to a certain extent.
Imagine if I hadn’t been allowed to hit until then though. Under these new guidelines you could be a freshman on varsity who has NEVER hit before, playing against seniors who are FULLY developed and have been hitting for years… to me THAT seems truly dangerous.
I can appreciate that US Lacrosse is concerned with the safety of the youth contingent, and I believe their current system of limited hitting works quite well, at least for the most part. However, if the trend of paring back hitting continues much further we run the risk of putting 14 and 15 year old players in harm’s way, and in a potentially much more catastrophic setting.
US Lacrosse proposes increased coaching as a solution, but why are coaches going to teach their kids how to hit and be hit if it is illegal? Most will just push it down the line to the next coach, and all of a sudden you’ll have a team full of 8th graders that aren’t used to contact. Sure, some programs will teach it well, but they will be few and far between. People tend to focus on what’s on tap for the next year. Coaches are NOT going to teach 5th graders how to hit so they’ll be prepared for 3 years down the road. It just doesn’t make any sense and is an unrealistic expectation.
The solution is to gradually increase the amount of hitting that is allowed from U-9 through U-15. Under 9 lacrosse features only poke checks and body position. Under 11 lacrosse allows for bumping and two handed checks. Under 13 allows for hitting but no take out checks. Under 15 allows take out checks. Called closer to a HS game standard. And then the kids hit high school. They’ll be prepared for what is coming, will have gradually worked their way up and been coached on technique (because it’s legal!) and will be full blown lacrosse players ready to play a physical sport safely and intensely.
I’m concerned about kids just as much as the next guy. But at a certain point we have to realize that men’s lacrosse is a physical sport, with lots of contact, and that there are going to be injuries. Limiting contact at the early ages seems like a good idea, but I fear that the result will mostly be a lot of ignorant freshman, and that the risk on injury there could be even higher. Pushing a problem down the line never solves anything. Dealing with a problem in increments however often yields success.