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Hong Kong, Japan Use Friendship Games to Propel Growth in Asia
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Hong Kong, Japan Use Friendship Games to Propel Growth in Asia

Everyone is gearing up for the 2018 FIL Men’s World Championships. Guys are in the weight room and they’re out there running – all in preparation for July’s games in Israel. Individual improvements are only a small part of the greater good, and whole teams are participating in friendlies and scrimmages all over the globe. I’ve been fortunate enough to see tournaments made up almost entirely of teams in training for the games, but this weekend was a little different. This weekend I made my way all the way out to Hong Kong for the 2018 HKLA (Hong Kong Lacrosse Association) x JLA (Japan Lacrosse Association) Friendship Games to see what the good ole boys from the island have been up to in their preparations for Israel.

This was my second trip to Hong Kong. Why? The Hong Kong Open is the premier tournament in Asia, and I was fortunate enough to play last April. During the Hong Kong Open, I really got a great feel for what other programs from around the area can play like, but I really didn’t get to see all the good things that the host program has been up to.

That’s definitely been the downside when visiting some of these larger events. You don’t get a qualitative feel for a team or how a program has progressed, you’re simply inundated with all the different teams and games to watch.

Living, Breathing Hong Kong

This trip, I was able to get a real feel for Hong Kong this time. I had gotten to know Scott Browning over a conversation at the 2016 European Championships, continued later in Singapore, and of course we spoke a couple times when I was in Hong Kong. Scott is Hong Kong’s Head Coach and when he asked if I’d be interested in coming over to see a small 3-game series to be played with a Japanese team, I figured this was a much better way to get to know Scott and understand Hong Kong’s program.

Getting to Hong Kong isn’t hard, but it’s going to take you a minute to get there. I’ve gotten to a point where 6-10 hour flights don’t even phase me. They’re going to be long, I understand that. I’ll sleep and I’ll watch some fun movies I meant to see in theatres, but didn’t want to spend $7 on (Thor: Ragnarok and The Shape of Water on the outbound flight).

I met Scott right in the Central Station just as planned. We went out and grabbed a bite, then it was time for my brain to crash. The next day would have Hong Kong playing their first game in the evening, but the day was mine to explore the city and do with the day as I pleased.

Hong Kong, Japan Use Friendship Games to Propel Growth in Asia
Photo: Karin Hata

I couldn’t honestly tell you where I went or what I saw. I don’t know what I ate, but I liked it. I don’t know where I went, but it was a beautiful blend of a modern city and a jungle landscape that refuses to be tamed. Scott had suggested taking the Peak Tram to the top of the mountain that overlooked the city. I walked to said tram… but I’ve never been one to wait 90 minutes in line just to buy a ticket, to then stand in an additional line, so I just kept walking.

I kept walking until I promptly got lost, per usual. When you’re lost, you’ll see the things you couldn’t find if you were looking for them, and it’s on your way back from being lost, you really look and examine your surroundings, trying to make sense of something foreign. When foreign becomes familiar, you (usually) find your way back.

Time for Lacrosse

The evening brought the first of three games between Hong Kong’s Representative Team and Team Nexus.

Team Nexus was a combination program of promising younger players from Japan, formed by the Japan Lacrosse Association. The team had players from different regions of Japan, but the general consensus was that most guys either lived in Tokyo, or in the surrounding area of Tokyo.

Hong Kong was cool, collected and would be playing with systems and chemistry developed over months and years. This hybrid Japanese team wouldn’t enjoy that same chemistry, but these were Japanese players nonetheless, and Japanese players certainly know how to play the game at a high level.

Hong Kong came out and their team-focused game was a blitz that caught Nexus off guard. Nexus responded to the 3-0 deficit by making a five-goal run, making it 5-3. Hong Kong regrouped at the half, and whatever corrections Browning and the boys made, they denied Nexus every opportunity for the remainder of the game. Day one’s final was 11-6 in favor of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong, Japan Use Friendship Games to Propel Growth in Asia
Photo: Karin Hata

The Hong Kong team was the cleanest and most efficient of the three times I’ve seen them since my first exposure roughly eighteen months ago. Clear and focused offense with a variety of looks, and controlled and responsible defense in the backfield.

Nexus had become deflated in the second half, and I (as well as HK) wondered if the second day would be a correction or a continuation of that play.

I’m Here for More Than a 3-Game Series

Tomorrow would have another game, but it would also have a couple stops along the way before Hong Kong and Nexus would face off again. Scott wanted me to see more than just the Men’s Representative Team, he rightfully wanted me to see the PROGRAM that Hong Kong has worked so hard to build.

A program is so much more than just the top team. I think that’ll be one of the big topics of the World Championships – successful and sustainable National PROGRAMS versus exceptionally talented National TEAMS.

First stop was to see the YMCA where Hong Kong has their box league. A four-team league plays a brief box season in an 85% scaled box. It isn’t glamorous and certainly could use some upgrades, but there are guys in Hong Kong playing box lacrosse. Box really hasn’t enjoyed the same success in Asia that it has in Europe, due mostly to facilities, so to see box lacrosse being taught and played by a good number of players is phenomenal.

Second stop was to the women’s practice. Women’s Head Coach Travis Taylor was out on the field just behind the box facility. Scott and I caught the tail end of the Women’s Development Academy practice, in which 15 or so new university-aged recruits were being instructed by a number of Hong Kong’s Women’s Representative Team.

Again – as a program observation, this is SUSTAINABLE. Domestically grown players who have achieved success are now instructing the next generation!

Those same women instructing the new recruits would have their own HPP (High Performance Program) practice on the same field following the developmental practice’s finish. The HPP program exists for both men and women, and is for anyone interested in playing lacrosse at the highest levels. This of course includes the National Representative Team, but is not limited to those players.

This is an asset to the program as a whole, because if you’re that 24th – 35th guy on the chopping block, you should still have some avenue to improve and play at higher levels. Without this, you see a retention problem with a lot of different programs around the world. “Oh, I’m not on the national team, so there’s nothing for me, so I’ll go play something else…” being the issue.

Game Two of the Series

We made our way out to the Stanley Ho Sports Centre, the same fields that I had played on in the Hong Kong Open last April. It’s always fun to come back and see what looks familiar and what you remember about a place. The second game was unfortunately a continuation of Nexus’ second half woes from Game 1.

Hong Kong came out of the gate with improvement on the mind and Nexus was ill-equipped to stop them. A final score settled at 14-2.

I took some pictures, and I thought. I took some video, and I continued to contemplate the situation. I didn’t really want to watch a third game if I had already seen the high points. If Nexus was going to continue in this downward trend, surely it wouldn’t be a great game on a Sunday morning.

Hong Kong, Japan Use Friendship Games to Propel Growth in Asia
Photo: Karin Hata

I had the idea, maybe I can help. Not as a player, honestly I don’t think I could have done anything better or differently. Instead, I pitched theidea to Scott that I would man the sidelines and give the Japanese guys some orders from the coach’s box. They hadn’t brought a coach, and so I thought MAYBE if they had one person calling some shots, maybe that scoreboard would tighten up and the play would improve.

I asked Scott, Scott liked it. We approached Karin, Team Nexus’ manager and the representative from the Japanese Lacrosse Association responsible for assembling the team. Karin liked it. So it was decided that I would coach team Nexus against my gracious host, Coach Browning.

Taking the Japanese Reins

That night, we all met at a restaurant. I don’t know if it was traditional Hong Kong cuisine, or traditional Chinese, or what the specific classification of culinary style it would fall under, so I’ll just say that it was a lot of food I’ve definitely never seen before.

Nexus and Hong Kong all shuffled chairs so that everyone had to meet someone new. We had six or so big, round tables with a turntable for dishes to be placed on in the middle. One table was actually in a separate back room and we found out later it was a room for noisy children. True to form, that room had the other five tables turning heads to try and get a peak at just what on earth those guys were laughing so hard at.

Photo: Karin Hata

Note: One of Hong Kong’s managers, Luis, is forever banned from telling me what foods I have to try. I drew the line after fish heads, and before chicken feet. I like to think of myself as a trooper and that I’ll try just about anything twice, but I’ve eaten my last fish head and I don’t think I can ever bring myself to eat a chicken foot.

The meal was a lot of fun. Guys got to meet each other, we talked lacrosse and showed videos and pictures from all over. We found out that most of the Nexus guys have only been playing for 2-3 years, therefore making them much better players than you’d expect from guys who just learned the game. That’s right, all of these 20-22 year old guys were more or less brand new, and a lot of how they had played now made sense.

Hong Kong, Japan Use Friendship Games to Propel Growth in Asia
Photo: Karin Hata

They were better than I was after 2-3 years, I’ll tell you that. The skill and ability to throw and catch wasn’t the issue. The issue was IQ, and simply, that isn’t something you can obtain from the number of games and practices that occur over that period. You can spend that entire time on the wall and you’ll get great hands, but the game is so much more than stick skills.

Game three was played on a third field in as many days. This last meeting was definitely the most impressive visually. The Harrow International School is the most expensive International School in Hong Kong, and I believe it. The semi-circle building wrapped around a single field in the middle of the quad. It was like being surrounded on one side by the White House or the Pantheon. Impressive was an understatement.

Hong Kong, Japan Use Friendship Games to Propel Growth in Asia
Photo: Karin Hata

Spoiler Alert: I Can’t Work Miracles

I’ll save you the anticipation, my coaching ability did not miraculously result in a win for Nexus. A combination of a re-energized team, a couple few key points of emphasis, and a couple wrenches strategically thrown did overall improve the quality of the game, however.

Two or three simple corrections in the Nexus play style changed the balance of the game outright. Nexus’ defense had been weathering the Hong Kong storm, and our correction was simply to stop waiting for them to dictate the play. Let’s go out and deny some passes to see if we can’t force their hand. If they run by us and score? Not ideal, but at least we gave it a shot.

The final came out to be 13-5, but I think the Hong Kong team and the Nexus boys will both agree that it felt tighter than that. We missed shots, they didn’t. Both goalies made a lot of saves and both teams forced turnovers. It was a battle, and I think that was what Hong Kong wanted to get out of the weekend. A chance to play together, and a chance to bump hips with new faces.

Lacrosse Makes Friends

We took pictures, guys traded gear and swapped contact information. This is new knowledge to me, and I’m not really sure how official it is, but what I’ve come to understand is that one of the Japanese Lacrosse Association’s primary slogans is “Lacrosse makes friends!”

I love that. It’s true. These weren’t national team guys, they were just normal university players. I’m sure that for some of them, they’ve never played in another country. Now they have Hong Kong friends. Now they have me for a friend. Now Hong Kong knows some additional Japanese players in addition to the ones they already know. Lacrosse. Makes. Friends. So easy. I’ll buy that shirt.

Hong Kong, Japan Use Friendship Games to Propel Growth in Asia
Photo: Karin Hata

The games were over, but I still had a couple days in Hong Kong. Scott and I talked about the World Championships, development models, and how different models work for different countries, and how best to grow our small community into the world presence we aim to be.

Hong Kong has between 500 and 600 players presently. I honestly did not know that before I came. That’s a great start if you ask me. Hong Kong is enjoying success in the same way that countries like Japan and Norway are. Recruitment at the university level is a two-sided coin, but the benefit of just raking in the numbers and constantly having new recruits to fill teams is an amazing way to build quickly.

The halls that students stay in actually require them to play two sports, and lacrosse is inherently attractive to a new student looking for a new sport. I’m told that these halls are like small communities, with each team bringing a cheer section that does choreographed dances and cheers for their lacrosse teams on the field during half time.

Nobody ever danced for SUNY Brockport. I’l tell you that much.

In addition, full-time employees of the HKLA are going into schools and teaching lacrosse to kids. School A on Mondays, B on Tuesdays, and so on. This is also amazing, and youth teams are starting to come together.

Come Up With a Plan and See It Through

What works in Hong Kong might not work in Denmark – where there’s virtually no culture of university-backed sports. Australia and England traditionally have prolific clubs that have all the teams, however neighboring New Zealand and Scotland (respectively) have had troubles with clubs and gone the university route as well, with varying degrees of success – but degrees of success nonetheless.

I think what’s most important is the culture of inclusiveness with growth being very vocalized. This isn’t a revolutionary thought, but I do think we’re putting a heavier focus on the nurturing aspect of these developing programs (and that’s great!).

Admittedly, I think of the examples I know best when I speak about growing and developing nations. Until now, those nations have mostly been in Europe, where I’ve spent the majority of my travels. This inside look at Hong Kong’s program was an excellent opportunity for me to see another prime example of a different nation with different strengths and different challenges, and most importantly how each are being approached.

Hong Kong, Japan Use Friendship Games to Propel Growth in Asia
Photo: Karin Hata

Lacrosse is growing at different rates in countries all over the world. The exciting part is that those who fall behind are not doomed to stay there. As other nations develop and grow, so too do their resources that can be allocated to helping their neighbor up as well. That greatest resource being time and people.

Hong Kong has had the resources to help build with Taiwan. England helps Wales and Scotland. Germany helps the Netherlands. Uganda has aided Kenya.

It’s growing. Your nation’s model isn’t identical to any other nation’s model… and that’s probably a good thing. There are so many different ways to go about expansion, development, and inclusion. However, the single most important key to this whole movement is what our Japanese companions reiterated this past weekend: Lacrosse makes friends!

When it stops being fun, it’s going to stop growing. Keep it fun.

A huge thank you to Scott Browning and his wife Marie for hosting me in their apartment. A thank you to the Hong Kong Lacrosse Association for taking care of me, and for putting on these 2018 Friendship Games.

You can’t have games without an opponent, so a big arigato to Team Nexus, Karin for organizing, and the Japanese Lacrosse Association for sending such awesome guys!

The gears are turning faster than ever as we head into the warmer weather. July 12th and the 2018 FIL World Lacrosse Championships are just around the corner and this train isn’t slowing down from now until then! If you don’t have plans to make it out to Israel to see Hong Kong and the other 47 nations, it’s time for a change of plans.