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When winning is losing

Their youth program is winning every tournament, every league, they are unstoppable. But their high school team is awful. What gives??

This is a common phenom in developing areas.  It’s called- using the rules of youth lacrosse and relying on early developing athletes to win games, while passing up fundamentals and development.  Sure, they may work on passing, catching and scooping for a few minutes at each practice, but there aren’t any corrections going on. The kids are reinforcing a multitude of bad habits at every practice. Its not about mechanics, it’s just about if they catch it or not. Hello side arm, no follow through, push pass….ugh.  Or worse, coaches that teach the kids that fundamentals are to be done at home, because they want to spend practices working on plays and set ups. That means kids are teaching themselves the bad habits, or not learning them at all. Wall ball is a fantastic tool, but I’ve never seen a wall help correct poor form, that’s a coaches job.

But come game time, as long as they hold the stick above their shoulder where it’s not checkable due to youth safety rules, and if they give it to their fastest player and tell them to run it in and slam it into the net, if the coach yells play by play instructions for them to follow, then they can rack up the championship trophies and t-shirts. Congrats coach…

Sadly, as a high school coach, I get handed a large number of these kids every year.  They are used to winning, playing for years, thinking they’ve mastered the game. The parents have invested loads of time and money on their teams, yet these players have zero lax IQ and their mechanics are a mess. The second I put them on the field against experienced teams playing higher level lacrosse, players that know the game, they fall apart. When pressure stops the fastbreak, they have nothing else to turn too.

They don’t know how to cut, make space, protect the ball, use their shoulders, quick release the ball, throw and catch – especially while running and evading their opponents. What they do know, is how to follow scripted plays, run straight in, and keep the ball in their stick only when no one checks or pressures them.  They know how to plant 4 defenders at the top of the 8 meter who all chase the ball around like a pack of wolves. The attackers know how to shoot, often speaking up on day one of high school tryouts announcing that they don’t play defense. Shortly after the midfielders also announce that they don’t play defense.  That’s when I hold my breath and hope the defense isn’t the next to declare the same.

Sliding? Team defense? Adjacents? Trapping? Double Teams? Stepping to the pass? Resetting? Riding? Popping out? Boxing out? Motion? Changing levels or speed? No idea. None. Nada.

It’s like getting brand new players, only worse. I say worse because these players, who have experienced this style of lacrosse for years, are not generally too excited to learn that the sport they thought they were fantastic at won’t work at the next level. That they have to relearn the entire game. That they actually don’t know anything about how to play. Parents aren’t too thrilled about it either. As a coach, Im looking at a team full of projects that may or may not be willing to put in the work to start from the beginning and learn something as simple and as necessary as…how to cut effectively! If your  run in and score players have never had to get open for a pass, it’s going to be a long ugly season.

Don’t choose your programs based on wins. Some of the best teams and programs lose often but produce the best high school talent in their area.  They are focused on total development of the player. You will recognize these kids because they can think on the field, they anticipate and react in most situations faster than their opponents, they are mentally tougher and feel more confident, their fundamentals are solid, they can often move between positions successfully when needed, and they are what the higher-level programs are scouting for.

Winning isn’t the measuring stick for youth players. It’s too easy to cheat the system and win. Teams that experience losing because they are development focused, are often getting more kids in the game to get playing experience so they will be better later. They are letting the kids make some decisions on the field and then learn from failures. They are spending more time on learning the strategies and reasons behind how to play the game. They are working on small sided situations that teach progressions of defense, offense, midfield and goalie techniques. They are drilling fundamentals as a priority at every practice. They are choosing harder opponents to stretch their abilities and figure out where they are falling short. 

Teach the game, step by step, from progression to progression, covering every aspect of it. Let the scores fall where they may based on how your team is learning the game. Sometimes that means wins at the younger levels, but often it instead means winning at the upper levels and struggling around the run-it-in teams in youth and middle school.  If your team is losing, but focused on development, fundamentals, and understanding the game, then you can confidently tell your players, just wait – your time is coming and it will be epic!

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