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Coaching Lacrosse With 20 Players Or Less, Part 1

When I look down the roster of most established NCAA college lacrosse programs, I often see over 40 names listed.  There are exceptions to this rule that have under 30 players on the roster,  like Whittier College in California, but the vast majority are well stocked. These teams have plenty of players for practice, and they can easily create game-like full-field situations.

However, when you get to the newer or lower levels of NCAA lacrosse, and portions of the MCLA, NCLL and NJCAA, you begin to see smaller teams with fewer players. At the high school level, you will also see a huge range of teams. As an example, the high school team I coach now brings 17 guys to games. We recently played against a JV team with 35+ players.

Eagle Academy Lacrosse Ocean Hill
My freshman/middle school team in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn

As I began to think about the topic of team size, several questions popped into my head, particularly about strategy for smaller teams.

How can small teams practice effectively? How should they prepare to face larger sized teams?

Furthermore, do small teams have any advantages over larger teams? How small is “too small”?

Small Teams CAN Prepare for Anything

I often say you have to train hard, but training smart doesn’t hurt either! In the case of teams with smaller rosters, smart training is absolutely key.

Not every drill will work for your team, and many will need to be tweaked to fit your needs.  Coaching may have to be more involved and “hands on” because of a lack of players.  Being able to recognize important aspects of the full-field game, and then create practice situations to mimic them is vital.

The goal here is to teach kids general concepts, since going through specific plays for clears, rides and other full-field practice drills are almost impossible with small numbers. It’s all part of training smart.

Since I work with no more than 17 players on my team, I’m going to use that number as my basis for most of these drills and concepts.  If your team is larger or smaller, you can scale many of them up or down.

Assess Your Team Immediately

First, you need to recognize what aspects of the game your team is good at and what aspects it needs to improve on the most. My team accomplished this by holding a very early season scrimmage, so that we could fully assess our team.

In our case, we found our guys were pretty solid one-on-one, but they didn’t play great help defense. We also found out that our guys seemed to lack a real hunger for ground balls, especially in the open field.

There’s a Solution For Every Problem

Problem Area: Poor help defense.

Drill Solution: We used a simple 3-on-2 or 4-on-3 drill to help solve this problem. In this lacrosse drill, we ask our defensive players to extend on the ball carrier and then drop in the hole when off ball. If the kids do not get back inside quickly, the offense scores an easy goal.

By rotating our players through the drill, they have all learned the importance of help defense, and sliding out on a man from the inside.  We run 15-20 small sided man up sets, and every time the defense makes the offense connect on 7 passes or more, we count it as a win for the D.

This simple small numbers drill has had a transformative effect on our defense overall, as the lessons learned translate directly to the field.

3 on 2 lacrosse drill

The offensive player moves the ball in the first screen to the player at X.  The pole on the crease goes to cover X, and the other pole drops to the hole to split the other two attackers.  When the X attackman moves the ball to the player on the right, the defender on the crease goes and plays him, while the defender who was at X moves back to the crease to split the remaining attack men.

Problem Area: Lack of tenacity in the open field.

Drill Solution: We simply made one small tweak to our six-on-six sessions at practice.  Because we have small numbers, when we can run six on six, we always do.

We still want to make sure our guys are focusing on ground balls and how to react after someone gains possession. So, instead of just giving the ball to the offense, we roll the ball out and make them fight for it. If the offense gets the ball, they get a possession.  If the defense gets it, they have to clear it.  It creates game-like situations and works on a key skill.

6 on 6 lacrosse ground ball

Problem Area: Field vision while clearing.

Solution: When we learned that we also had issues with clearing, we broke down what our clearing issues really were, and it all boiled down to vision, or in our case, a lack there of.  Our guys were too eager to just run the ball up, and not looking for the easy pass, so we simply stress that concept now on every clear attempt by yelling “OPTIONS!” as an immediate reminder.  To our team, hearing “options” means they need to pick their head up and look to pass the ball either because of a double, or because a teammate is super open, and they are not seeing him.

We also yell this out to our players on offense, and our players are quickly learning that “options” means you’re getting in trouble by carrying the ball, and that someone is open.  Our kids even yell it to each other now!  By staying away from too much structure, we are allowing the kids to truly learn the game on their own.  We are simply making a concerted effort to push that point at all times.

Identifying the areas you need to work on the most, and then incorporating them into everything you do is a great way to work concepts into the kids’ heads.  By focusing on small side drills, and not getting too specific with set plays, the general concepts will sink in, and with small numbers, this is ideal.

Do you coach a lacrosse team with 20 players or less? What are some solutions you’ve come up with for getting the most out of practice? Share your knowledge in the comments section below!

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of Coaching Lacrosse With 20 Players Or Less!