Player Development 101
I’ve been all over the place with coaching, anywhere from preschool intro to sports through college NCAA lacrosse, and the underlying theme is the same – players who have strong fundamentals can be more easily taught strategy and higher level skills. The players who struggle are the ones that are missing the foundation they didn’t get at the younger levels.
When coaching middle school and youth, it’s fun to throw in a play here and there, and to work on strategies at practice, but when the majority of practice time is spent on these items instead of the basics – the players of that championship middle school team are going to lose in the long run.
Often it starts the same way, the first week of practice we do a great job working on throwing, scooping, defensive positioning, shooting, etc. But then the games start, and we start to strategize. If we put these two players here or there, and get the ball to our fastest middie, then get the weak catchers to stand over here…. Aha we score every time! What if we plant two defenders right at the top of the 8 m and they never move, it stops the fast break! If we pass less and run more, (cue in parents and coaches yelling, “WHEELS WHEELS!”) then we have less chance of dropping and we score more. Our team is undefeated, we must be great coaches!
At the end of the season, all we really have are players whose fundamental skills have really not improved, their understanding of the game is not much better and they rely on scripted plays that will be completely different next season with the next coach.
We still get players coming out for the varsity squad, in their 4th or 5th year, who cannot catch a ball and run at the same time. Or who ask what shooting space is…really?
Give me a player that has great ball handling from season after season of a focus on ball touches, understanding of basic defense and offense concepts, repeated opportunities to fail on the field and learn first-hand, and lots of encouraged passing during games, and they can be developed and transition into a higher level player quickly at the varsity and college level.
The temptation to script and focus more on having winning season is a struggle for every coach, even the best of the best intentioned coaches can get caught up in the frenzy as coaches, players and parents get caught up in the scoreboard as confirmation of a job well done. Here’s a check list of necessary foundation items for practices to keep us focused on what these players need to develop in the long run and be better players: (if you have extra time left, go ahead and try out that fun new play!)
- Ball Touches – my favorite recipe is groups of 3. Any ball handling drill can be broken down into tiny groups where each player gets ball handling, has less time to be distracted and coaches can walk around and attend to each group. It also makes for lots of groups and helps us coaches avoid OVER coaching – let them drop it and figure it out themselves a few times.
- Positioning – there should be lots of drills going on without any sticks at all. Positioning has to do with feet: cutting = feet, defense = feet, picks = feet, motion = feet, there’s a theme here… Use a playground ball instead of a lacrosse ball and the focus is on footwork and puts players with different stick skills on the same level.
- Progression- Do it alone, do it with a friend, do it with a competitor, do it in a small game scenario. For example: Instead of just having them pass the ball back and forth -work on catching by throwing the ball up and trying to catch it by the shoulder, then pass with a partner, then pass with a partner while another player is running on to try to intercept, then pass on the run with defense at chase.
- Set up fouls, talk about the rules – a lot: call fouls out in drills or set up a fake foul and explain and demo it. Then set it up and let them play it out. For example on the girls side set up an 8 Meter and show how to clear the arc properly, how to take the shot and how to defend it as well as instruction for the goalie. For the boys side send a player off for an illegal face off and set up the fast break to work on defensive transition.
- Build well rounded players: End every shot with a goalie clear, make your attackers ride, make your defenders keep cutting, have them switch around positions so they understand the whole field. Use a playground ball and let everyone try being in the goal and directing their defense and watching their offense.
- Stick Protection- anytime you can get the players running around and moving their stick with a ball in it you are doing them a huge favor. Whether it’s 1v1 inside a box just trying to protect the ball for a solid minute, or a giant game of tag inside a circle with each player trying to protect their ball, or running through a gauntlet of grounded players trying not to lose the prize on the way through – protecting the ball in the stick and being able to move it around without losing it is going to build you a better team. Think they like a challenge? Have them do the drills with the ball in the back of the stick.
- Move them more, talk less: If it takes more than 3 sentences, it’s too long. If they have been standing without moving for more than a minute, it’s too long. Another downfall of teaching sets and plays is that explaining it takes too long, usually involves lots of players standing around and it’s counterproductive to the goal of developing their skills. Teach things in small pieces, set up stations and have everyone learn every piece of your motion – first the top, then the sides, then low. Then put some pieces together, then another, keep adding until it’s complete. If you have a line of kids waiting, have them do an alternate station of ground balls or another skill instead and then rotate them in. It would be great if they stood by and watched and listened intently so they would know what to do when they go in, but let’s be realistic.. they are more likely to be twirling their stick, staring at the sky, and maybe rolling around on the ground.
- Take a break: Between skills, if they are being set up properly so that they are moving the maximum amount, getting lots of ball touches, and being presented with new information then they need a mental break and a hydration break. A short time to blow off some silliness and spit water at each other can go a long way. Physiologically, kids under 18 don’t sweat properly and regulate temperature quite yet so that water is important, even when it’s not hot outside.
- Fun: I like to end on a fun note, a short 5 minute game, scrimmage, relay race, tag game, head stand contest, stick tricks, anything that reminds us and them that lacrosse is not just grind and train, it’s so much more! Then when they get in the car to go home and mom and dad ask – hey what did you do, they don’t answer: sprints!
- Listen to yourself at the next game, if you notice you are shouting a play by play of non stop instructions onto the field, then your practice plan may need to be tweaked. If they are getting a solid understanding of the game during drills at practice, then game day is like a performance – it’s time for them to try out what they can do and show off their blossoming skills to mom and dad! Grab a notebook and take notes of things they need to work on instead, and after the game you have an ideal list of what to do at the next practice.