How important is fall ball, really? Could a program go without it completely and still see success? Do the best teams at the end of the year do similar things during the fall? Is there a “right way” to do fall ball lacrosse? What are some common pitfalls of an overly structured or relaxed fall ball season?
How important is fall ball?
Personally, I am of the opinion that fall lacrosse, especially for college level players, is incredibly important. This doesn’t mean that teams need to practice six days a week, lift every morning at 5am, and run a full schedule, but it does mean that doing very little (or nothing at all) is simply not an option if you truly want to compete and improve year over year.
Fall ball is really nothing more than a great opportunity to build. It gives coaches the chance to evaluate talent, it gives talent the time and space to develop, and it gives any team or program the chance to come together, bond, and create a positive atmosphere for when the games count. This opportunity can not be overlooked so yes, fall ball really is important, but when fall ball is overvalued, it can also become a negative. There is a fine line to walk here, and it’s not as simple as it may seem.
(For more on fall ball fashion, Click HERE)
I have talked to a number of D1 players over the years and I often ask them about fall ball. Why would I do that? Just to write this article. That was a joke. I ask them because at Wesleyan we couldn’t have coaches present until February 15th, or after the season ended. There were no out of season coaches’ practices, ever, due to NESCAC rules. All of the teams and athletes did their own thing (I’ll get into that), but it always had me curious about how others experienced the fall. The responses I have gotten from other former lacrosse players are always interesting!
Some coaches hit the fall ball season running and their teams go hard. At the D1 level, they can be lifting and running in the mornings and then practicing again later in the day. Some programs keep to the NCAA rules on offseason practices hours (or even go well below the limit) and others push the boundaries. That happens in almost every college sport, but for lacrosse, I have my doubts as to whether that all out approach really works.
The vast majority of the guys I talked to who experienced the above approach hated the fall. The workouts and practices can easily become monotonous. There is a feeling of tightness and little chance to blow off steam. Lacrosse begins to look and feel like a job. You don’t ever take off your lacrosse sweatpants because you’re too tired to change, and you have practice in 2 hours anyway. Or you just came from practice. It’s not a good look.
Guys can certainly get into great shape, but they also begin to wear down, and by the end of the semester, a percentage of the team just wants to go to sleep for 3 weeks. Everyone then goes home for break, and does nothing but eat and watch football on TV and see high school friends, and they come back feeling bloated and terrible, weighing in at +15 pounds from when they left for break. Then the preseason starts and coach decides to help them lose the bloat with lots of running. Injuries pop up and nag the team for the rest of the year. I’ve seen it a million times…
In the example above, the hypothetical program went too far too early and as a result, their players felt as banged up at Christmas as they usually feel at the end of May. I can’t imagine playing another season of college lacrosse after a season of college lacrosse, but some programs pretty much aim for that approach. It’s a GRIND, and if you don’t have a team full of supermen, it’s going to be long and painful road.
Now, on the other hand, can a team not go far enough?
Sure! Say a coach is on the way out, or just took over the program, or doesn’t know what he is doing. These things can happen. Maybe the coach is just a really chilled out guy… who knows? For whatever reason, some D1 teams have really taken it easy in the fall, and this is especially true back in the day. Older former college players will look at today’s fall ball schedules and be shocked. Almost all of them agree that the lazy fall ball approach of yesteryear would not work today. At the very least players should be focused on skill development, improved flexibility and athleticism, and a solid conceptual understanding of team. Without that the general consensus is that programs will fall too far behind to compete at the highest levels.
A great example of this is the NESCAC, where I played in college. Even at this liberal bastion of educational haughtiness, fall ball is for real. While the coaches can not attend a practice (not even to watch), a lot gets done during fall and winter captain’s practices, and kids are forced to step up in to leadership roles. Even if it’s a small thing like bringing a bucket of balls or setting up cones, they players have to organize it all. The captains often base portions of their practices off of previous seasons’ practices and then scrimmage for a good portion of the time. Some programs (Middlebury always had this reputation) hold more organized practices, while others more closely resemble a pick up game (This was true of Trinity in my time)… but everyone is doing something.
The days of truly relaxed fall ball lacrosse are dead and gone. Even in a league where coaches can’t coach in the fall, there is fall ball lacrosse. But is there a middle path as well? Of course! So let’s look at that.
I always think of the fall as a great time to build. And if Duke is still building during the season, you can bet they do the same all fall. They won the last two D1 titles by the way! And Danowksi is all about building:
The first couple of sessions are used for assessment of skill, athleticism, team chemistry, strengths, and weaknesses. The atmosphere is organized but loose, and coaches do their best to truly evaluate players based on their raw abilities. The next step is identifying areas that need improvement, and creating a plan to systematically work on those particular skills and needs. An important factor here is team chemistry, and this really can not be overvalued.
Every team changes year to year. Even if you have both captains return as grad students, and lost no seniors to graduation, your team will be different. New freshmen have joined the ranks, every player is a year older and so are the coaches, and every team you will play will also be different. Nothing is truly the same, so ensuring that team chemistry remains a top priority is immensely important. I think Notre Dame does a great job with their annual fall trips in this regard as an experience like that can really force players to re-bond with one another.
The athletic workload is another issue altogether. If a team is made up of already well-conditioned athletes, a slow and progressive build up of work is excellent. It doesn’t strain the athletes too much, but keeps them working and improving after getting back to form. Running a well-conditioned group into the ground won’t help anyone. Of course if your team is not as well conditioned you’ll need to take a more drastic approach, but again, running your team into the ground will only hurt the program in the long-run.
With a less conditioned team it is important to really work hard but the build up has to be there as well. A plan to have guys in great shape by April is probably better than a plan to have them in great shape by November. The latter is rushed and doesn’t take into account what happens over the winter. By building slowly in the fall, a team can be prepared for the winter workouts instead of nursing injuries from overuse. Getting in shape takes time. Rushing it only hurts you in May.
Fall ball is important. It is an opportunity to take important strides for any program and it allows for the team to create an identity. Without the pressure of games, it allows coaches to take their time in building players up and stripping away the bad habits we all develop. Even without coaches, fall ball presents this opportunity. Just look at Tufts. They play in the NESCAC, have no organized fall ball, and have won two national titles in the last 5 years. Do they put in the work and build up during the fall? You bet! But they also don’t run their fall like they run their spring.
You’re not prepping for the fall tournament or scrimmages. You’re not prepping for the alumni game or the annual red-white scrimmage. You’re prepping for the season, you’re revving up the engines and making sure they run smooth. Fall ball is incredibly important, but it’s probably not for the reasons you might think. Wins and losses mean absolutely nothing when it’s done right. Gear is inconsequential, even if we talk about it. All that matters is heading in the right direction, and doing so with a sustainable method.