EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally entitled, ‘Youth Lacrosse Problems… And Solutions’ was published in 2014. It has been repurposed to best serve the lacrosse community.
This fall we have all read a number of articles talking about youth lacrosse problems, and problems that face almost all youth sports. The specific topics covered were diverse, and the entire collection of readable material paints an interesting picture.
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard wrote a piece for ExperienceLife.com about putting fun back into youth sports. US Lacrosse posted a story about the 15 keys to selecting a youth lacrosse program. Lacrosse Magazine posted an article about “taking a break to prevent injuries“. Trevor Tierney posted an article about how pursuing wins can hinder development. Even the NY Times got in on the action, and in June they published a story by David Epstein titled Sports Should Be Child’s Play.
All of these articles address youth lacrosse problems in one way or another, and all of them provide useful perspective and guidance for parents, coaches, and players. Give them a read to really get to know what’s going on out there before you continue on below to my opinions and observations on the matter.
When it comes to problems in youth lacrosse, there are many, but the majority of them have been around in one form or another for decades. So what are the major problems facing youth lacrosse?
There are more players today than there are experienced coaches. The same is often true with referees. As our sport has grown, demand has simply outstripped supply. Good coaching is a valuable commodity, and parents and players feel the pressure to find it however they can. Sometimes this means joining an elite travel team. Sometimes it means making weekly road trips in the family car of over an hour for practice under “good coaches”. Sometimes it means giving up the sport altogether to either focus on something else or find something new and enjoyable.
The other major problem with coaching is “big name” vs “not big name”. People are entranced by big name players and coaches, and have been for a long time. Many of the materials that teams send out to prospective players hits on their coaching staff and its many big name players. But that doesn’t always mean great coaching. Sometimes it just means great marketing! Does the big name player coach a lot? Is this their profession? Will they be there for events? Or is their name just being used?
If a club team has 14 teams and seven really big time coaches, are you guaranteed to get one or more of them? Or will you get a local college drop out who is just coaching for now to pay the bills? Maybe that college drop out will be a superb coach… but have you ever heard of him or her before? Could the big name be an awful coach? Could the director never show up to your child’s team’s events? It’s all possible and confusing, and a major problem.
Pressure used to occur in the form of direct head-to-head competition. I wanted to be better than my friend Rob, he wanted to be better than me, and we both played for the same town team, as it was our only option. Nowadays, Rob and I would still be locked in competition, but we would probably play for different club programs, and we would base a lot of our supposed success off of how good “our” program was. We no longer compare two players with peer pressure, but entire programs, their reputuations, tourney wins, famous alumni, and coaching staffs. This latter peer pressure makes everything seem bigger than it really is.
There is also pressure to play “better” competition, and not just in a league with “a couple town teams”. A town league is fine for beginners, but once your kid hits the 4th grade, it’s time for travel lacrosse! We need to travel to play the other best kids out there, right? The peer pressure of today says yes, you absolutely need to do that.
Keeping up with the Joneses used to be about the family next door, now it’s about keeping up with any person named Jones anywhere in the country. Who cares if your kid is better than the Jones next door… there is a Jones in Oregon that is still better! That attitude is simply not healthy in my estimation, as someone out there is ALWAYS going to be better than you in some way. Why extend it so far, and at such a young age? This is one of the major contributors to youth lacrosse problems in the U.S.
The Crush Of Gear
You used to sign up for youth sports and you got your uniform on the first day of practice. It was usually pretty basic (because you’re a kid), and your greatest hope was that the jersey would actually fit you. Didn’t get “your” number? Tough luck, kid. It’s just a number, and you’re 11 years old. I think you’ll be ok.
But now? Forget about it. Kids see basic uniforms, or don’t get the number they want and it’s game over. Parents can be irate that their kids are wearing mesh jerseys and don’t get team shorts. No custom helmets? Well, looks like we’re playing for someone else! Really? REALLY? Since when did youth sports become all about gear and uniforms? Why do more people ask about custom bags than ask about your development plan for their kids?
(The gear in the photo above was picked up over 20 years by a pro player, Randy Fraser. I know of some 14 year old kids with an equally impressive gear collection. Is there something wrong with that? I think so!)
It’s because we are all being sold a false bill of goods. Look good, play good is the bane of my existence, and it’s totally backwards. Play good, look good is the way it used to be. Teams with ugly uniforms that won games looked good. Teams that lost games looked bad, no matter what their choice of uniform happened to be. The focus was on playing the game, not walking down a runway, turning, and sashaying away. Do I blame gear companies for this? To a certain extent, yes. But I really blame the coaches and club team organizers, because they don’t have to buy in to all that stuff.
Look at the Duke’s LC outside of Philly. No custom helmets, no custom gloves, no swag. No sublimation, no team shorts, no silly BS. They wear navy mesh reversibles that say “Duke’s” on them in white and have a number. That’s about it. Their “swag” comes from their talent. Kids want that Duke’s pinnie because it stinks of success, and not fashion. Duke’s has made their mesh pinnie cool, they aren’t cool because of their pinnie! To me, that’s an important distinction.
The Great Scholarship Lie
I still hear parents talk about lacrosse scholarships like they grow on trees. They do not. Many D1 schools offer scholarships, but many do not due to league restricitions or funding issues. If you average it out, there are maybe 180 12.5 total, 3 per class, 67 teams) scholarships per class of kid at the D1 level. With around 1300-1400 D1 freshmen going through the ringer each year (20 per team, 67 teams), less than 15% of the kids are getting money. Freshmen, unless they are highly talented, also rarely get any dollars, so even that 15% is high.
Then look at these scholarships overall when compared to how many potential lacrosse players there are out there in any class on any given year. You have as many as 10,000 kids looking to play college lacrosse, and they are all vying for only 180 potential scholarship spots? You’re down to 1-2% of the players now getting money. The lure of scholarships should not even be discussed! It’s a rare thing, a shot in the dark, and a deep hope. It is NOT why any child should be playing lacrosse.
To me, Quality Coaching (or a lack thereof), Peer Pressure to keep up, a huge focus on Gear, and the Lies of Scholarships are the main problems facing youth lacrosse. They corrupt what should be a fun and engaging experience for kids in many different ways. They detract from the importance of improvement, teamwork, and community and bring unneeded and harmful competition into everything.
So what can we do about it?
Solutions to Youth Lacrosse Problems
When it comes to Coaching, parents need to get re-involved in their kids’ lives. If you can spend countless hours sitting in a car on the way to practices and tournaments, and you can spend additional hours on the sidelines watching, you can find the time to get involved and help your local lacrosse scene. And before you say, “I never played lacrosse, so I can’t coach,” let me tell you right now that this statement is 100% false.
Mike Daly has won two national titles as the Head Coach for Tufts University. He played at Tufts, but he didn’t play lacrosse, he played baseball. Erin Quinn won three straight national titles as the head coach at Middlebury. He never played lacrosse either. Dom Starsia learned the game in college, and so did a number of other top D1 coaches. If they can do it at that level, YOU can learn how to coach 12 year olds. That is a fact.
If you don’t feel like you can coach your own kids, then coach up or down an age bracket. Hopefully, another dedicated mom or dad will do the same thing and coach your kids. Don’t want to coach? Be a team manager and help out in other ways, like organizing. Get involved, and not as a member of the sideline parent cabal. Get involved as a coach or volunteer. Time is your most valuable gift, so give it to your kids!
Peer Pressure can be a little harder to deal with. It takes time to see truly inarguable results, and when the Jones family comes home from a great weekend of tryouts, and you can feel yourself slipping, even if you’re not. In reality, you’re not slipping at all. But you tell yourself that you are.
Avoid this lack of self confidence! If the Jones family just spent an hour in the car, then two hours for a tryout or practice, and then another hour sitting in traffic, and your kid spent ALL of that time playing wall ball, or playing mini lacrosse in the park with friends, the Jones family is actually playing catch up to YOU. Look at the Thompsons, look at the Powells. They all got good by playing the game A LOT, and not just for club teams. The backyard lacrosse they played paid off in a big way, and it can work for you too.
It takes a certain passion for the game to be able to have the drive to play that much lacrosse. A gratitude, if you will. These are the people who can’t stay away from the game even after their playing days are over. Take the Powell family, for example. The Powell’s started Powell Lacrosse, to help provide top-of-the-line gear to the masses of lacrosse players that they knew would need to play well and look good doing it. They love the game so much that they are making their post-playing career work to stay involved in lacrosse.
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Find a local club team or town team instead of traveling to find a “better” team. Spend less time in the car, searching for the best. Spend your time on the field or on the wall, trying to BECOME the best. Have confidence, put in the work, and don’t always jump to the bigger, better deal. Sometimes you need to work to make your deal as good as it can be first.
The Scholarship Lie is the last issue I’ll talk about today, and this is how you get around it… focus on your GOSH-DARNED ACADEMICS! Statistically speaking, you are not going to get a scholarship for lacrosse. Since many coaches only heavily recruit 20 of the 100+ kids who contact them each year, statistically speaking again, you might not even get heavily recruited! This is probably THE BIGGEST issue of all of the youth lacrosse problems we have discussed.
This means you MUST focus on your grades. Get a 4.0 GPA and coaches will look at you more closely. Get a 4.0 and the school might give you money. Get a 3.5 and coaches will be more likely to call you back. Get a 3.0 and they’ll know you can at least do the work. Dip below that and you can kiss a lot of opportunity goodbye.
If you’re willing to spend over $15,000 over four years on lacrosse, you should be willing to spend just (or divide the total in half if you only have $15k for 4 years) as much on academic tutors, SAT prep, and Summer educational opportunities.
Focusing on grades will do FAR more for you than just focusing on lacrosse. Coaches want good student-athletes on their rosters. Graduation rates matter in lacrosse. Since you can only make about $10,000 playing pro lacrosse, graduation itself really matters… for YOU. Focus on academics because you’re going to an academic institution. That makes sense, right?
The other answer here is to focus on having fun. No kid plays lacrosse because they think they might get a D1 scholarship. Yes, some kids may say this is why they play, and if that is true, they will either burn out or quit soon. For the ones who say it, but don’t mean it, they are saying it because they think it’s the right thing to say, when in actuality, they just like their sport. They think that by projecting a higher goal (the scholarship) that others will allow them to continue to play. But don’t turn your kids into liars. Let them play for fun. It’s the parents job to worry about paying for college. It’s the kid’s job to be a kid. Always play for fun, not for college dollars.
The Big Picture
Too often we run to find the “next big thing” instead of working on the big thing which already lies directly in front of us. We see the shining potential from afar, and flock to the newly celebrated answer. In actuality, the vast majority of the clubs and options out there are all very similar, and each will only give back to you if you pay in to the system in the right way.
The keys to making what YOU have work the best is to 1) Get involved, 2) Be confident, 3) Don’t worry so much about appearances and short term commodities, and 4) Keep the focus where it should be; on academics and fun.
This year I have started working for Doc’s NYC Lacrosse along with LC New York. Doc’s is a town team modeled program for NYC youth players. LC New York is an elite training team. Both of these programs focus on the keys I’ve listed out above, and I hope that I am able to help both programs continue to move in the right direction. I also hope that these two programs can become solid examples of how to do things right.
But here is something that may sound crazy… if you live outside of NYC, even if it’s in New Jersey or Long Island, I DON’T want you and your kids to come play for us. WHY? Because then you would spending too much time in a car. You wouldn’t be promoting the game in your own community… you would be looking for the bigger, better deal too. And when you got here, you’d see that things aren’t all that different from what your own town program or elite team could be.
What I am promoting for youth sports is a local flavor of opportunity and dedication.
We need to get back to the days of kids playing sports in order to have fun. You don’t get that with hours in the car every single weekend. You don’t get that with flashy jerseys and team gear. You don’t get that by only having famous lacrosse players coach your kids.
Kids have fun when they play the game. Kids have fun when they want to play so much that they choose to go and play with their friends. Kids get better when they go an play on their own. Kids love seeing their parents giving back to the game. Kids love representing their town and talking about the weekend’s game on Monday in school. Kids love lacrosse. The best way to overcome these youth lacrosse problems? Have well-rounded kids that love a variety of things.
So let’s let them get back to it, and strip away a lot of this silly big time framework we have created. Play local, get involved, enjoy the game, focus on skill over gear, and forget all about the Jones family. Hopefully they are doing the same thing you are and then you can sit with them at the end of year team picnic. If the Jones aren’t doing what you’re doing, don’t worry so much… because soon enough they’ll be trying to keep up with you.