As a Maryland native, Im one of many kids that was developed by the Green Hornets Rec program when I began to play lacrosse back in the early 90’s. We had parent coaches who thought of fun activities to make learning interesting, and who were focused on development. I learned more in that year of Green Hornets lacrosse than I have ever seen coached at the rec level in present day, and it fueled a lifetime love of the game as well as a strong foundation for playing and coaching. I came in as a newby who only knew the boys game from my dad and brother, and went on to play high school and college lacrosse with a great understanding of fundamentals, rules and safety. (Thank you Coach Gronkiewicz!)
Now I have kids of my own, and I’m watching the disintegration of rec teams as they turn into selective, specialized, travel teams under the guise of a rec program. Gone are the days of development and inclusion as the trend to recruit local talent for tournaments has taken over. As new parents ask me where to sign up their kids to play, I have found myself hesitating too often. Im wondering if that local program will let this new player get a chance to see the field, to learn, and the ability to mess up and still be allowed to find solutions on the field. My two sons were casualties of rec programs obsessed with recruiting talent, and sadly for me, both of them decided lacrosse was not for them. One quit after spending the entire season on the side line, in 3rd grade. My eldest son quit after his 3rd year, when his small size in 5th grade earned him the spot of being a cone the bigger players would run around during practice. My daughter loves the game and I’ve become very careful about where I sign her up to play, because at 11, all I want is for her to get ball touches and come home smiling and excited to go back.
Have you noticed that suddenly at tournaments there are city/community names on the jerseys? These are often Rec team players that were approached by their coaches to enter this or that tournament. The reasoning seems solid, keep them playing together longer, it’s for the good of the high school we feed into. My suspicion is that sometimes, it’s more about feeding into the ego’s of coaches who, though partially have good intentions to grow the game, possibly also are looking for that winning experience by hand picking their best players for a tournament to accompany their own kid’s talents as well as a few extra dollars.
How about playing time during rec games, has anyone else noticed that the kids farther behind in development are getting out for only small bits of time in each half, usually put in the role of the person that stands behind the goal or stays out of the way? Kids develop at very different rates, if your child isn’t athletically talented right away or their growth spurt is later than others, than the one place they used to be guaranteed a chance to learn and play has been robbed from them.
Here are some questions to see if your rec league is development focused. If your child is not as strong or is new, how often is that team encouraged to throw him or her the ball? How often is passing encouraged when a team is not strong at moving the ball in the air? If you stay and watch practice, are you hearing coaching that stresses mechanics of throwing, catching, dodging, understanding safety and rules, and how to move the ball? Or perhaps you are hearing the same that I hear, plays, set ups for the girls/boys that can run the ball or who already catch and shoot well while the newer players look on.
Weaker and newer players who don’t get ball touches and playing time in a game scenario will remain weaker players because they aren’t given a chance to grow. Stronger players who are encouraged to run the ball “coast to coast” and ‘with “wheels” because no one can check the ball from them, will get to high school with no idea of how to play a team set up. Neither scenario is optimal for our high school coaches who are just hoping get players that can throw, catch and know the rules! With all this growth at the youth level, Im surprised every season at the lack of fundamental skills coming to high school tryouts every year. Sometimes the bad habits have been let go without correction for so long, that the player is unable to correct their mechanics and the end up going from youth super star to high school bench warmer.
My greatest wish for our youth athletes, is that in a sport that’s growing by leaps and bounds, we put the development back into Recreational teams and let the travel teams do the traveling and selective preferences. Too often as a high school coach am I running into the same baffling problem…players who have played for 3 or 4 years that still don’t understand the rules of the game and even more surprising, still cannot catch or throw a ball while running. It’s a disservice to our players and to our sport to cater just to the talented youngsters and not put the time and effort to develop every single player that shows up to practice and to games. I don’t know of any 8 year olds that were signed to the University of Maryland recently, how about we let them be kids and teach them the fundamentals that will instill a lifelong love of a game that has captured our hearts and brought up the confidence of kids all over this planet.
Some of these players may go on to play high school and beyond, and some may just play a season or two, but we owe them the opportunity to play this great game, to succeed, to fail, to learn and to grow as a person, an athlete and become a part of a team that emphasizes the greatness of unity, rather than the need to be superstars.
As coaches, let’s not just take pride in the kids that went on to be superstars, let’s take even more pride in the kids that were a little less athletic, played a few years of lacrosse and then as an adult – still talk about how those lacrosse team moments inspired a lifetime of confidence, leadership, and teamwork.
Rec teams are for development, exercise, learning about how to work with others, how to be a part of something bigger than self and feeling included. I hope we can revive a lost art of growing the game with our kids current joy at heart, and leave the stressful, selective, expensive recruit seeking job, to the many travel teams already out there.
by Kate Leavell