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Hippo!

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Hippo!

Full disclaimer: I have no idea why this pass rule is called hippo. Ever since I was a little kid anytime in practice or in games that our coach wanted us to pass the ball within a set period of time it was called hippo. I don’t think about the name that much, I just go with it.

U9 games are an experience for players, coaches, officials, parents, and other fans. Usually the U9 game is played on a field with smaller dimensions and there are a lot of age-specific rules guiding the game for the younger players. Couple the smaller area and age-specific rules with the fact that most U9 players take a few seconds to figure out what is going on each possession and the U9 game generally becomes an exercise in herding cats.

This isn’t a knock on U9 players. Far from it. I know those players are trying very hard to figure out a complex and fast game while wearing unfamiliar equipment and manipulating a lacrosse stick. Oh, and they’re learning all this while playing an opponent. Imagine how difficult it would be to learn how to ride a bike as a kid if you were being chased by opposing bike riders. It’s tough stuff, and I don’t like making the game any harder for these young players to figure out. That is why AYL tested out the U9-hippo rule this past fall.

In past seasons AYL followed many other programs in Georgia and around in the country in requiring two attempted passes in a team’s offensive half of the field before a shot in the U9 game. This rule makes a lot of sense at this age level as many times one player can run the length of the field and score one-on-one against the goalkeeper. The two pass attempt rule was adopted by AYL to encourage U9 players to look for the extra pass, and while it did teach the young players to look for another pass it had some unintended consequences:

  1. Pass it to you and pass it back to me – This was probably the most common issue. Two players well away from the goal and the opposing defenders would pass the ball to each other to reach the two required passes. Then the player with the ball would go one-on-one. The other players on the team didn’t do much and generally stood around, not getting spread or learning how to move off ball.
  2. I’ve got two passes, no more needed – Another odd consequence was that after two passes were achieved some players would never, ever pass the ball. They’d run through traffic, drop the ball, and a giant scrum would result. The required two passes actively discouraged additional passes after the second pass was attempted.
  3. How many passes? – The two pass rule put a lot of pressure on new adult and youth officials who generally officiate U9 games across the country to keep track of each pass attempt and put two fingers in the air to notify the team with the ball that they could go to the goal for a shot. Many of these officials were rightly focused on safety and occasionally forgot to count or signal the number of attempted passes. This led to frustrated coaches who didn’t know when their team had the green light to go to the goal.
  4. Passes were poorly chosen – Many times after the first pass a player would get defended well and, knowing a second pass was needed for a goal, chose to make an ill-advised pass in traffic that usually got knocked down and another big scrum would develop. The drive to attempt a second pass overrode the player’s natural instinct of holding the ball, running to space, and then looking for a better pass that was further away from the defenders.

Coach Lou and I saw this over two seasons and knew there had to be a better way to still encourage U9 players to pass the ball, but learn how to pass it more effectively and at the most opportune times. So we resurrected hippo.

Hippo is a practice drill where the offensive player must move the ball within three seconds or the whistle is blown and the ball is turned over to the defense. This encourages the offense to stay spread, cut off ball to get open, and make the player with possession understand the importance of moving the ball. As Coach Lou says to our older players, we know you can cradle so try passing the ball.

Now the U9 players are still learning to cradle and get comfortable with having possession of the ball during a game so we lengthened the time to pass the ball to five seconds early in this spring season. As the players get more comfortable on the field we’ll knock it down to four seconds, and if they’re really getting the hang of it we’ll knock it down to three seconds.

With the hippo rule in place there is no attempted pass requirement before shooting, but if a player does not attempt a pass within five seconds of gaining possession then the official will blow his whistle, signal Failure to Advance, and award possession to the opposing team at the spot the play was whistled dead. We used the hippo rule this fall and it cleared up the unintended consequences of the two pass attempts rule.

What I found even more impressive was that by the end of the fall U9 season players were getting the ball out of their sticks within two seconds, and at least moving the ball to an open area of the field if they were under pressure and couldn’t get a clean pass off. The game spread out, scrums (very prevalent at the U9 level) were still present but decreased in frequency, and the players showcased a much improved sense of how to move the ball on offense.

AYL started this past Sunday with a 5-second Hippo count and will likely keep it for this coming Sunday. Once the players have gotten over most of their pre-season jitters, we’ll move the Hippo count down to 4-seconds for most of the season. I still don’t know why it’s called Hippo, but I do know it works very well as long as it’s applied properly.

Cheers,
Gordon

The Crippling Effect Of High Self-Esteem

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self-esteem

When I started elementary school two major things were developing in the world. Coming home from school one day I discovered that the family computer now had an internet connection. That was the more obvious change. The change that took me many years to see was that high self-esteem for children was slowly gaining greater importance than teaching children to deal with disappointment and strive to be better. The idea is that increased self esteem leads to greater achievement because the individual should feel better about themselves. Having worked with young kids for the past 10 years, I consider putting high self-esteem before achievement one of the worst wide-ranging social experiments for developing children.

The dictionary definition of self-esteem is “a¬†feeling of having respect for yourself and your abilities.” I believe we should teach young kids to have respect for themselves as a unique individual, but the second part of the definition is where I’ve seen problems. The idea that I should feel good about my abilities in anything despite solid evidence to the contrary confuses me.¬†This idea filtered into sports with the “everyone gets a trophy” idea. Even if a player was terrible they got a trophy! Most of the average and below average players kept getting trophies until realizing at an older age that they were not very skilled.

I scored a goal against my own team in my soccer league when I was 5. It was the last game of the season and I got turned around on the field. I tore through my teammates as they stood wondering what I was doing and kicked the ball into the net. My parents told me that I was so excited to score my first goal that none of the coaches or parents had the heart to tell me that I sealed my team’s loss. I got a trophy, but I was 5. I barely knew what sport I was playing, and I definitely didn’t know which direction to run to. This had little to no effect on me. I kept playing soccer, tried baseball and swim team, but eventually landed on lacrosse as my go to sport.

I have no problem giving trophies to kids U9 and below for participating for a whole season. I think committing to a full season of their chosen sport is a good lesson for little kids to learn, and a trophy for showing up is good positive reinforcement. Above U9 is an entirely different story.

U11, U13, and U15 kids know who is good, who is okay, and who is bad. Giving trophies to every kid at the end of the season cheapens their knowledge that one team is definitely the best, and some players are better than others. This is not to say that little Johnny is a better person than little Timmy, but that little Jimmy is a better lacrosse player than little Timmy.

Trevor Tierney recently posted “The ‘Best Team’ May Not Be What Is Best For Our Kids” on his blog. He asserts that adults should not rush to create the “best” or most dominate team in an area simply so their players can have the best winning percentage. This is best illustrated by the fracturing of select travel teams at every age level in Georgia. In 2005-2006 there was exactly one travel team in Georgia, but that was a function of the times. As the sport grew it made more sense for there to be travel teams based off geographic location so players didn’t have to travel 2 1/2 hours just to practice. Unfortunately, the drive to give kids better self-esteem through cheap wins has diluted Georgia travel teams (also travel teams across the nation. This is not a one-state phenomena).

Some parents got frustrated when their player’s travel team didn’t post enough wins or hoist a plastic tournament trophy. So splinter groups formed and kids who had years of playing experience were loaded onto teams and scheduled in “B” division tournaments while their worst player could start on any “A” division team in the state. Predicable scored followed: 22-0, 15-3, 25-5 game scores started cropping up more and more in the various youth games I officiated over the course of a year. The parents did this for two reasons: One, the parents wanted to be a part of a winning culture as soon as possible and without putting in the years of effort it takes to get to that point. Two, parents wanted their kids to feel good, which means winning games, and what better way is there than stacking a bunch of U13 players together to play against kids who just learned how to hold a the lacrosse stick? I’ve reffed these games, and it is more than a little demoralizing to watch.

These parents miss the point of athletics. There are times when when one team is going to dominate another. My old high school Pace used to crush some teams. We considered those games “taking care of business,” not “business as usual,” and our coach regularly worked the less experienced players into those games. I rarely enjoyed those blowout victories. Sure they were fun, but the pride in the win didn’t stick around for long. Oddly enough, I have more positive memories from our loses to Westminster in my three years at Pace. My senior year I remember losing to Westminster 4-3, or 5-4. More importantly to me was that both teams came to play and it was one of my best performances as a player I ever had. We lost, but it didn’t destroy my self-esteem. I was more proud of how my teammates and I played in that loss than how I played in every blowout victory my team had that year.

Trevor’s final sentences from his post state: “Instead of finding a better team to play on, find a way to make your team better. This is how you can truly learn to win something of lasting value through the sports.” I have learned far more from losing games than winning them. Most players will have blowout victories at some point in their careers, but the win matters far less than the road to get there. Consider that Peyton Manning currently has an 11-11 playoff record. He is mathematically average in the playoffs, but I would challenge anyone out there to say he is not one of the greatest QB’s of all time (and don’t tell me that he left to another team. Archie didn’t trade him to the Broncos so that argument is moot!). The way he plays the game is more important than his ultimate win/loss record. That is a lesson all adults in youth sports should take to heart.

If you want your child to play a youth sport so they can win lots of games you will always be disappointed because there is always another team out there with more wins. Find a program near you that you like and don’t leave just because the team doesn’t win enough games. Is your kid improving? Is your kid having fun? Those are the questions you should ask yourself when thinking about moving to another team.

As a coach, I want a player who has experienced losing. I don’t like spending time teaching a U15 player who lost a close game that the world hasn’t ended. We all want to win, but losing is a part of life so it is definitely going to be a part of your kids playing experience. If you want to build their self-esteem by seeking out the dominate team two hours away so they can never lose then I say you are crippling your child because they will lose in the future and they won’t have losing experiences from childhood sports where they learned how to deal with it.

Cheers,
Gordon

Breaking Down Average Playing Time

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For many new players, parents, and coaches lacrosse can be a difficult game to find the rhythm. Particularly regarding player substitutions. Football has very defined start and stop periods followed by substitutions, baseball has lineup cards, and basketball has a very loud horn for subbing. The closest sport to lacrosse in terms of substitutions is hockey, but hockey puts six players per team on the ice while lacrosse has ten players per team on the field. More players in a bigger playing area requires a greater amount of managing from the team’s coaches.

To illustrate how to give each player the most playing time possible I am going to create a hypothetical U11 team playing according to our AYL rules and game time regulations. Here are the specifics of our imaginary U11 team:

  • Head Coach: Gordon Corsetti
  • Assistant Coach: John Danowski
  • Substitution Coach: Ryan Boyle
  • Team Size: 20 players
  • Team Breakdown:
    • Two goalkeepers
    • Six defensemen
    • Six attackmen
    • Six midfielders

Now that our U11 team is set let’s dig into the particulars of AYL game time rules:

  • Game Length: two 20-minute running-time halves
  • Halftime: five minutes
  • Horns: substitution horns may be called for when the ball goes out on the sideline

If you want to coach youth lacrosse players properly you need to take the mystery out of substitutions. That starts with having a written list of players and the lines that they are in for your next game. For the above team a coach will have two lines of attack, two lines of defense, and two lines of midfielders.

I do not use the designations Line 1 and Line 2. I like to use Red Line and Blue Line.

  • Red Line – Good player, decent player, learning player
  • Blue Line – Good player, decent player, learning player

In recreational youth lacrosse I like to split all of my available players into Red Lines or Blue Lines and to make the lines as balanced as possible based off of each player’s ability. Having a good player who may be more experienced and understands the game on each line is important because you ensure that there is always a player who can perform lacrosse moves on the field. Having a decent player who can become better through more work on each line is needed because the decent player will get better playing with the good player on his line. Having a learning player on each line lessens any negative impact that the learning player may have on the game because he is covered by his other two teammates on the line who have a little more experience, but the learning player also gets better by playing with those better than him.

This Red/Blue Line set up turns every better player into a de facto mentor for a less skilled player:

Good Player > mentors the Decent Player who mentors > Learning Player

Now that you have your list you need a cheap wrist watch or stopwatch for your substitution coach to use. I hate worrying about substitutions as a head coach. I need to be focused on what the on field team is doing, and I need to know from my substitution coach when it is time to sub. I also need to know that a player is ready to sub if I need to give an on field player a rest before our regular substitution time comes up. All of this should be handled by the substitution coach to free the head and assistant coaches to deal with game strategy.

When To Sub:

  • In a game with twenty-minute running-time halves these are the approximate times to substitute per half using our made up team:
    • Midfielders – sub every four minutes (4 line changes total each half)
    • Attackmen – sub every six minutes (3 line changes total each half)
    • Defensemen – sub every six minutes (3 line changes total each half)
    • Goalkeepers – sub every half (One goalie starts first half, other goalie starts 2nd half)
  • Call for a horn if the ball goes out on the sideline to do a full substitution
  • You may substitute everyone after goals, after penalties, and after timeouts
  • All other substitutions must be done on-the-fly through the substitution box

When Not To Sub:

  • Here are the times when you should not substitute:
    • Do Not substitute while your team is on defense. If your players are tired they need to learn to stick it out until the next available sub opportunity
    • Do Not substitute everyone when the ball goes out of bounds on the endline. You may only substitute through the substitution box in this scenario

Admittedly, what I have laid out in this post is a substitution plan for an ideal youth recreation team with balanced numbers and an equal number of good, decent, and learning players. This ideal team appears rarely at any youth level, but the model that I’ve set forth can be adjusted based off the make up of your team. Try and get as close to this model as you can and you will be able to provide your youth players more equitable playing time in all of your games.

Cheers,
Gordon