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Youth Club Lacrosse – An Uncertain Future

Youth club lacrosse has become a booming business over the last two decades, and has greatly changed the way our sport operates. For a thousand year old sport to see this kind of change in only 20 years is, quite frankly, amazing.

Youth club lacrosse programs were rare in the 1990s, and most players got on the field for their town or school during the Spring, while camps and loose leagues ruled the Summer season. Fall and Winter lacrosse existed, but it was a thin offering, and these “teams” or groups of players were mostly run by high school coaches so they could get more practice time with their kids before the season started.

Once the idea of fall lacrosse blossomed a little, many coaches actually had to stop coaching their kids in the fall, sometimes because of conflicts, but also because some states do not allow coaches to coach their players outside of the official season. In some states, high school coaches can’t coach youth players either, so all of a sudden, there was a desire for year round lacrosse, but no way for the high school coaches to coach their kids.

Youth club lacrosse programs began to proliferate to fill the gap. Many were started by friends or volunteer assistants of the high school head coaches, so programs found a way to stick together during the offseason, and coaches could still dictate what was being practiced, even if they weren’t directly involved. For the most part, it was just a work around to get teams together more during the offseason, while complying with state athletic association rules.

Somewhere along the line, things started to change.

The Uncertain Future of Youth Club Lacrosse

The youth club lacrosse programs began to grow, and some of them began to overshadow their high school programs. Some started picking up kids from up to an hour away, and building blue chip laden rosters. Others expanded to have multiple teams per age group, and still others began to separate kids by class more and more. One way to separate yourself was flashy gear, and almost overnight these club programs started dressing as well as most college teams with custom uniforms, helmets, gloves, bags, and more.

Eventually, most of the club programs out there adopted all four of the above program aspects, and many became big organizations, which had multiple teams, covering a range of kids from 2nd grade to Seniors in high school. Tournaments swelled in size, and there were soon club program in almost part of the country. That pretty much brings us to the here and now, where too many kids talk about their club team more than their high school and where committing early (and then bragging about those commitments) means everything.

This is a big time production now. It’s a numbers game, it’s big business, and it’s really nothing new.

The explosion of youth club lacrosse is nothing new? Where have we seen this before? A better question is where have we NOT seen this before?

Soccer, hockey, baseball… all of those sports have large “club” arms, and each of them is a lucrative business for coaches, brands, and youth programs. But for me, the sport to look at is basketball, and how the AAU scene has completely taken over the game, while really not providing all that much benefit to the players and families who are paying big time dollars to be a part of it all.

My high school had an excellent basketball program. We won the state title when I was a Junior, and almost all of the starters played AAU basketball for a very well-known and respected program out of Boston. When I was in high school, I was sure that our basketball team was so good because these kids all played AAU, but now that I look back on things, I’m not sold on that idea at all. Hindsight is 20/20, so I’m going to trust my perspective now more than when I was 18.

The fact is, we had a really strong class of athletes in my class and the class above me. Our school won state titles in a multitude of sports over those three years (my Soph, JR and SR years), and other than basketball, we had very few kids who only played one sport. A couple of the basketball guys played other sports, but only 1-2 of the starters really did, and only a couple of the key back ups. Many were just too busy with basketball to do anything else.

You know what though? These guys would have been really good at other sports, PERIOD. One guy would have been the best soccer player at our school and with him on the roster we could have been much better. Another would have been a superb multi-discipline athlete for our track team. A third, my closest friend on the team, should have played lacrosse. He would have been amazing. One was an excellent baseball player, and another was a tenacious football player. But everyone else just played basketball. All. The. Time.

Most of them bought the lie that in order to be good at basketball, and in order to go D1, you simply HAD to play AAU, and play year round. Basketball had to rule your life, and if you weren’t playing in Vegas over the Summer, you had no future. Looking back, I can now see how ridiculous that was, and still is.

NONE of the kids on our team went D1. A couple played D2, and a couple played D3. Some had good college careers, others never really got going. They had spent thousands of dollars, and put in thousands of hours (thousands of just travel hours even!), and I would maintain that any of them could have ended up where they did had they just played more against each other and other good players from our area in Massachusetts in a local gym. All the added fanfare really didn’t bring that much to the table except travel and cost.

Of course my high school did send a couple kids off to be D1 athletes, and a couple years later in my brother’s class, a kid did go D1 after years of playing AAU basketball, but even for him, I don’t know that AAU was the reason. He was grounded, knew what he wanted, and put in the work on his own to constantly improve. Honestly, I think he could have done it without AAU, and he could have continued to play soccer for the school. He was just that kind of kid who was going to see success because he put in the work and had a passion for it.

So was my friend who played D1 lacrosse. He wasn’t huge (5’11”), but he was an athlete. He had never wrestled or played lacrosse before high school, but when he picked both sports up as sophomore, he voraciously attacked both disciplines, and soon became one of the best on each of the teams. He was also a stellar football player. And this guy never played club ANYTHING. He just moved from football to wrestling to lacrosse and worked on all three during any down time he had however he could. If he had focused exclusively on lacrosse in high school, he may have been a better high school lacrosse player, but I’m not sure he would have been a D1 athlete. Football and wrestling (and basketball before that) were, in my opinion, what got him to D1 lacrosse. That may seem counterintuitive, but the combination of skill sets gained from multiple sports made him better in each.

I am not the natural athlete that my friend is, but I also played multiple sports in high school, and did not play “club” anything, ever. It was all through youth town sports organizations. When I got to college, I was athletically ready to compete, and my general sports instincts helped me adjust to starting as a freshman. I switched from offensive mid to LSM because that was what the team needed, and I know that playing basketball my senior year (for the first time ever) helped me make this adjustment. I’m not sure that more lacrosse would have done the same. I was also able to walk on to the Wesleyan football team as a senior, and while I was absolutely terrible (another sport I had never really played before, but had to try it), I would not have made the team at all had I not played a number of different sports growing up like hockey, soccer, and wrestling. Each helped me play football, for the first time ever, at the NCAA D3 level.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept says that you can master a craft by doing it for 10,000 hours, which basically stole the idea of “practice makes perfect” and attached a number to it, but the point stands: practice does help. But what sort of practice are you doing? Does it really have to be all lacrosse, all the time? College coaches almost always say they want “athletes over pure lacrosse players” on their rosters, don’t they?

So if 10,000 hours of lazy wall ball won’t get you to D1 lacrosse stardom, then neither will 10,000 hours of just doing stick tricks, or stringing lacrosse heads. So how will 10,000 hours of youth club lacrosse get you there? Honestly, I don’t know that it guarantees any success whatsoever. After all, lacrosse is an overall athlete’s game. Those who are tough, can run, play with intelligence, put their team first, and possess great skill will see success. And you don’t need to play year round organized lacrosse to be great at ANY of those things… You really don’t.

The first two are easy. Toughness comes from many places. Other sports, working a job, getting outside to practice on your own when it’s early, or cold… all of those things breed toughness. And anyone can run! Find a hill, or a field, or a course through a city and run. It’s free and no one will stop you from cradling a ball when you do it.

Now when it comes to playing with intelligence, and putting the team first, youth club lacrosse can make some claims. Both offer team atmospheres, and plenty of lacrosse experience. But so do other sports, and so does town team lacrosse. If you can understand a triangle pass or give and go in soccer, you can understand it in lacrosse. If you can learn a play for football, you can learn one for lacrosse. When your coach talks about spacing in basketball, that transfers too. When your hockey coach talks about back checking after a turnover… you get the point.

You do not need to only be playing lacrosse to learn these things. In fact, it even works the other way, as lacrosse can teach you how to be a better football player. Don’t trust me, trust an NFL player, Or two.

Skill development is slightly different because that is actually something you can, and should, be working on using your own time. Players who want to get better put time in on their own, youth club lacrosse or not. There is no way around it, but with all the resources out there online, any player can get better if they want to put in the time and effort required. The idea that you only get better by playing against and with other “great” players is a myth. I have seen it busted time and time again. Good athletes rise to the next level. It’s part of being a good athlete!

Contrary to what I have laid out above, lacrosse is heading towards specialization, and creating its own AAU-sized monster. After looking back on my own experiences, I am starting to think this is a major mistake.

The World Series of Youth Lacrosse is one example. Instead of teaming up with traditional “town” programs or leagues, they chose to partner with youth club lacrosse programs. While this may have been an easier option for the WSYL, and I don’t mean to doubt their decision, it does show just how deeply embedded the youth club lacrosse world is in our sport. Clearly, it was easier to work with a select group of club teams than a large group of town programs.

Now there is another “big event”, run down in Bradenton, Florida, where 2019, 2020, and 2021 players from some of the top club programs will get together for a large combine/camp style event, where 20+ D1 coaches will be in attendance. Supposedly, the coaches will be there to coach the kids only, but to me, this is an absolutely bizarre set up, and it only furthers the “early recruiting craze”, even if that is not the intention. There is absolutely NO EVIDENCE that getting 120 talented 2021s will do anything for their future success. And while college coaches are great with college kids, does it really make sense for them to be putting 12 year olds through the college paces? For me, an event like this likely raises more serious early recruiting issues than any benefit it could possibly offer.

Out of all the 2021, 2020, and 2019 players who will attend this, I am sure that some of them will play D1. But I am also pretty sure those kids will play D1 no matter what. They will probably also be stars on their basketball or football teams in high school. But the kids who are good at lacrosse now, but not playing other sports? I worry about them, I really do. I worry that they are putting their eggs in the lacrosse basket too early. I worry that they will peak, as athletes, in high school, and will not fully develop an overall ability set.

So am I totally against youth club lacrosse?

For those of you out there wondering if my opinions can mesh with club lacrosse, I know that they can, because I actually run a youth club lacrosse team in New York City, called LC New York, and we are trying to take a number of the above ideals to heart. I do believe club lacrosse has a place in youth sports, and my goal with this program is to prove that is not only possible, but beneficial. It is a constant work in progress and by no means do we have it “nailed”. But we are working to be different, and for a tangible reason.

Our guiding principle is to “let kids be kids”, keep lacrosse fun, and foster an environment where kids want to get better at lacrosse because they enjoy it. I run the program with Rob Pannell, Max Seibald, and Mat Levine, and all three men believe in this formula, because it is what drove EACH of them to be an NCAA All-American and in Rob and Max’s cases, a Tewaaraton winner. All four of us got better as players by playing other sports, being overall athletes, and working on our game because we loved it. THIS is what breeds success in players. It always has, and always will.

Does LC New York struggle at times to stay on the right path? You bet we do. Our first two years were run very much like other programs. Lots of swag. A high price point. Everything was mandatory, we went year-round, and we tried to offer an all-in package. Quite frankly, it was not the best set up for the kids, or the families, but it seemed to be what people wanted. At first we thought we needed to just be better at what we were doing… then we realized we may have been going about things all wrong. So we changed things. We got feedback from people. We then changed a lot more things.

Now, we encourage kids to miss fall or winter skill sessions or practices if they have other sports going on, or need to stay on top of their school work. We stress small group play for the kids on their own time, and want players to find partners they can work with on their own schedule. Small side games are taught and played. We advise parents whose kids want to improve at lacrosse to start playing football, soccer or basketball. We offer box lacrosse for one group of kids as a total departure from the monotony of field. If it goes well, we will offer it program-wide next year. We reduced the number of tournaments, and scheduled more full game scrimmages. We made the program work for people more efficiently, lowered our costs, and kept the instruction level as high as ever. All this and by the end of June, we are done, so kids can go off to camp or families can spend some time together doing family things, and not do lacrosse 24-7.

ALL of the changes were driven by the idea that kids should be allowed to be kids. If they continue to show a passion for lacrosse, we will give them more, but we will not allow lacrosse to take over their lives before they are even 15 or 16 years old. Full-time lacrosse may help them now in a game against other 12 year olds, or tomorrow in some large youth club lacrosse tourney, but in the long-run, we do not think it will actually benefit them.

The response from most parents and players has been nothing short of stellar. Kids have started to work on their own more and more. A number of our players came back from the Summer having improved notably. Some played a lot at camp, others just picked up their stick every day. But youth club lacrosse had not DIRECTLY been involved. Parents now talk about recruiting, or what brackets we will play in, less and less. When they have to miss a practice for soccer, they just tell us, and everyone moves forward together. Kids focus on improving, and enjoying the game with all its struggles, and our practices have an energy to them that I had yet to see in the NYC area.

Our kids are improving. The ones that can show up do so with a smile on their face. The players enjoy practice, and they enjoy playing the game, however it comes. Our parents are thrilled to see their kids happy and improving. Our coaches are dedicated, passionate, and want to coach kids who want to learn. We still do some fancy gear, but give me time, I’m working on that! The point is that there is not ONE way to run a program. There are many ways, some of them are just a little less obvious right now.

(I thought it was important to include my experiences in the club lacrosse world, to 1) give additional perspective and 2) to let readers know that I do have a vested interest in youth club lacrosse. Transparency is key in any discussion or editorial comment.)

All of the above has reaffirmed my belief that what youth club lacrosse needs is LESS, in many cases, and NOT more. Youth club lacrosse should focus on development, teaching the game, and enjoying your time on the field while working hard. The scene simply does not require all the travel, year round commitment, or cost that it currently creates.

I do believe that youth club lacrosse has a place in our community, but it should be standing side by side with town team lacrosse and school lacrosse, not trying to grow into some national monster like AAU basketball has become. I simply do not see the point of all that if our goal is to look out for the best interests of the kids and future success throughout life. Does AAU make it easier to recruit kids? Maybe. Does AAU make some people a lot of money? Yes. Does it give added exposure to the sport? I guess so. Does AAU basketball help the vast majority of kids who play in it? I really don’t think it does.

Why do we want to bring this model to lacrosse again?

I would love to see the NCAA step in here, but I am not holding my breath. The NCAA, in many ways, is like the AAU, where they serve as the organization that bonds programs together, and in the process, make a good profit. I also don’t think NCAA coaches will step in either. Those guys are all fighting for their jobs, and many want an organized system from which to recruit. Those who recruit outside the box do not want to ruffle feathers, so they remain quiet. As one D1 coach said to me last Summer, “where is the incentive for change in recruiting? There is none.”

Since that conversation I have thought about this a number of times, and the ONLY possible incentive I can see would be if all of the colleges started offering multiple “prospect days”, and invited players based on their high school coaches’ recommendations. For this to change anything, recommendations would have to be limited to high school coaches though. This would allow college coaches to cut out the middle man, control their flow of recruits, and offer high school coaches a chance to get back in the recruiting game. Many colleges do host prospect days, but most coaches still rely heavily on club coach recommendations, which really continues to feed the importance of the youth club lacrosse scene instead of detract from it. So again, the incentive is simply not there.

Parents and players could be the impetus for change, but when one looks at how competitive the GENERAL college admissions process has become, I don’t expect to see much change. People are fighting for spots in schools and on teams, and the “well it worked for me” mindset often takes over. It is natural, and expected. I do not see a large group of ever-changing parents and players continually banding together year after year to affect change. It seems highly unrealistic, and I don’t think it’s fair to ask the group of people going through the process to change the process as they are going through it. That is a tall order.

So who can change the youth club lacrosse and early recruiting cycle?

US Lacrosse could step in. It’s possible. They could create a US Lacrosse “Recruiting Seal of Approval” and hand it out to coaches each year who meet certain requirements. Those requirements could vary, but something along the lines of “didn’t recruit any HS freshman or below, honored all viable verbal commitments, committed zero recruiting violations, and is in good standing with the USILA”.

US Lacrosse could also provide a framework for showcases, tournaments, and recruiting sessions, where certain standards needed to be met, but if they are going to do this, it needs to happen now. Why? Because club programs are already organizing themselves into cabals where only their clubs will play in certain tourneys or attend “blue chip” style events. Once those gain traction and respect (and they will), US Lacrosse would have a hard time pulling back on the reins.

So the only option left is the least rational option out there: the youth club lacrosse programs themselves. Some number of programs will have to decide to try something different, and to swim against the tide. AND these programs will have to see success. In this case, success does not mean winning tournaments, or competing in high end showcases. It means taking good young lacrosse players and helping them become better than they originally thought possible. It means instilling confidence in kids, and ensuring that they enjoy all the years in your program. And THEN it means that through word of mouth, truly gifted players will seek out your program because of its positive reputation, and you will consistently send kids off to all the big name schools, and finally prove that your method works just as well, if not better, than the AAU style programs. This process would likely take 10-15 years in total.

OR, one of the existing big-time youth club lacrosse programs out there could make all of these changes to their existing program. If they retained their top players when doing so, the results could create an avalanche of change. There are some VERY smart people behind most of the top club programs out there, and they are always looking to differentiate themselves while remaining competitive. If one of those programs started pushing kids toward being full-time athletes instead of full-time lacrosse players, and STILL saw success and plenty of D1 commitments, they could change the game in a two year span, possibly even less. Success breeds imitation, even at the highest levels.

I am sold on the idea that a youth club lacrosse program should offer a strong community vibe of inclusion. The atmosphere should be positive, and focused almost exclusively on improving, and enjoying the game. It’s less about drawing in the best players, and more about drawing in local families who want to learn the game, and work with what they have. If a kid is borderline D3 material when you get him, the goal should be for him to play at a NESCAC or Centennial school, and get playing time. If a kid is a low-level D1 player, maybe you should push them to spend less time with the club, and more time on their academics, because maybe they could goto Tufts, or Union, or Wesleyan, if they get their grades up. It can’t be about who is committing when… that’s a recipe for disaster.

I don’t think you do this through more and more lacrosse. Encourage kids to play Rec. basketball every winter and tell them to join a fall soccer team. Make sure kids aren’t burning out, or worrying about which college coaches they should talk to. If a kid hasn’t stepped into his high school yet, it is DEFINITIVELY way too early to even worry about that. DEFINITIVELY. There is simply no way around that.

If you live in a developing region, consider doing one big trip per year. Head to a hotbed and play in a tournament if your program can afford it. Try to tack on an extra scrimmage on one end if you can. But don’t make travel tournaments the whole season, or even for most of it. The idea that you only get better by playing against the best is totally unproven. It’s great to do it to see where you stand, and give kids a taste of high level play, but that is often enough. Long hours of travel is not required to get better. Look at the Thompsons! They played two on two in their backyards and became some of the best to play the game. They all got better TOGETHER, and rose TOGETHER… without a single fancy tournament or club program. They got good coaching and found ways to compete with each other. At the base of the game, that is what it’s all about.

Every parent out there doesn’t have four boys, and some that do aren’t lacrosse experienced. So I understand why youth club lacrosse exists. It fills a void, and allows kids to play more than just March through May. At the same time, I don’t understand why it has to exist the way it currently does. More lacrosse does not always make for better lacrosse. The sport falls under the general umbrella of sport, where being good at many, makes you good at almost any. There is no reason why we can’t see another generation of Jim Thorpe and Jim Brown style athletes again. Guys who were good at anything, and tried everything. Those two guys were truly exceptional, but here is an extensive list of multi-sport pro athletes on Wikipedia that showcases just how often great athletes are not just great at one sport.

Perhaps you have been reading through this post shaking your head, and this last paragraph made you say “ah ha!” I have found a hole in your rationale, Connor. The hole is that not all players are as naturally athletic as Thorpe, Brown, or any of the other guys on that list, so they need to specialize and play all the time, just to keep up. Well my friends, the inequity of natural gifts is simply called reality, and I’m still not sold that specializing or focusing on one sport actually prepares you better for high level success than being a better overall athlete.

The best of the best are not just working on becoming great _____ players, they are working on becoming great athletes, competitors, and achievers, and in my opinion, you should too. Over the long-run, intelligent, athletic, skilled, tough, and well-conditioned athletes see success. This is true in any sport, and no team sport requires full-time participation. Be an athlete, make lacrosse one of your pursuits, and the requisite success will come your way.

I am not saying the current set up for youth club lacrosse is useless, or flat out wrong. It is what it is, and for the most part it’s relatively clean. But I also think it can be much better, and serve the kids and families much better. In the long-run, I believe that will be good for the players and the sport on the whole.

Youth club lacrosse seems to be heading in the opposite direction, but the course is not fully plotted yet. Our final destination could still change. I, for one, hope that it does, as all parties would benefit.