Tag Archives: elite

We Are Not On The Same Skill Level

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I spent the last part of my post The Stopwatch Parent stating that I do not like applying the term “Elite” to any youth player ages U15 and below. I have seen these elite teams as a lacrosse official and I do not believe any of them are elite. I came to this opinion not through my travels as an itinerant lacrosse referee or from coaching various youth teams over the years. I developed it at sixteen years old in a jiu-jitsu gym.

I’ve always loved training in different martial arts and I’ve written about some of the lessons I learned on the gym floor, but one of the biggest lessons I ever learned was that I was not nearly as good as I thought I was. I spent two years in the kids/teenagers class learning the basics of kickboxing and jiu-jitsu, but I wanted more. I took private lessons with one of the younger instructors and my technique and skill rapidly improved over a four month period. After those four months I was both a kickboxing and jiu-jitsu force in my young adults class.

My speciality in kickboxing was my rear leg kick and I got so good at turning my hips over that I started leaving bruises on the forearms of my younger training partners even though they were holding four-inch thick kickboxing pads full of absorbent foam. I got so skilled at pulling off my favorite submission, the triangle, that I submitted every other teenage opponent in class every week with variations of that same move. At the end of those four months the head instructor of the gym asked me if I could be mature enough to train with the adults even though I was only sixteen and he typically only let eighteen year olds train with the adults. I told him I would do whatever it took to take on the challenge of training in the adult classes.

Now, I told you that story to prepare you for this story:

When I entered the adult class I immediately realized it was a different beast. Classes were paced faster, went longer, and I was holding pads for adult men. Many of whom were current or retired military and policeman who used kickboxing and jiu-jitsu to stay in combat shape. For the first real time in my life I was challenged physically and mentally as I learned ever more complicated combinations and fighting strategies, but I still thought I was pretty good because my body is built well for kickboxing. I have long legs and shins which gives me a distinct advantage against most opponents, but jiu-jitsu is the great equalizer.

My instructor did not let me roll (wrestle) for two months as I got the feel for the adult classes and the more advanced techniques I was learning. For my very first roll I was paired against a young Japanese man whose nickname was Hurricane in the gym. I was sixteen and he was perhaps twenty-five. At the time I weighed 135 pounds and stood 5’8″. Hurricane might have weighed 95 pounds soaking wet and stood an unassuming 5’1″. Keep in mind that I had been training in the youth classes for two years up to this point, and I thought I was pretty skilled at jiu-jitsu.

I got worked.

I got owned.

I got beat so badly my picture on my new driver’s license swelled up.

Hurricane submitted me about six different times in less than four minutes and it was all I could do to just tap in defeat. I was completely demoralized and stunned. Hurricane wasn’t even an advanced jiu-jitsu practitioner at the time. He was a beginning adult and he had just defeated me in every way I could think of without breaking a sweat.

Even though I had trained for two years at the youth level, as soon as I went up against a regular adult opponent I couldn’t even keep up. It took me a full year of training before I actually tapped an adult with a submission. It took me another year to start regularly tapping the white belts (beginners) and blue belts (intermediate) in class, but it only took me one day to realize that I was by no means “Elite”.

Just because I do not believe in assigning “Elite” and other such labels onto young sports players does not mean that I don’t recognize good skills or don’t praise hard work in mastering those skills. I am all for a young boy or girl finding a passion for any activity that they can get better at and build their self-esteem while practicing the skills in their chosen activity. What all of these kids need to maintain is the drive to get better. I got better at jiu-jitsu precisely because I got beat down when I thought I was awesome, and then I decided to do something about it. If my instructors, parents, and friends told me that, “no, Gordon, you are the best jiu-jitsu practitioner in the gym” every single day no matter what happened to me during my rolls I would have gotten sick of getting beat because the real world I was experiencing was not matching up to the smoke everyone was blowing up my rear end. I probably would have quit before I ever really got started.

This is what I hear at tournaments from some parents and coaches after their Elite U11, U13, or U15 team loses a close game or gets blown out:

  1. “Don’t worry [insert player name], the other team was a bunch of cheaters.”
  2. “If your coach had put you in during overtime we would have won.”
  3. “If the field wasn’t so wet you would’ve dodged by all the kids defending you today.”
  4. “If that awful ref hadn’t made that horrible call in the fourth quarter you would have scored.”
  5. “Our team didn’t do anything wrong. We just came up short.”

Comments 1-4 I hear all of the time, and parents and coaches don’t even realize I’m nearby. It’s as if as soon as the game is over my stripes turn me into the invisible man, which is what I prefer to be before, during, and after a game unless I need to be seen. That power of invisibility lets me easily listen to a lot of conversations that I’m not even trying to listen to. I just happen to be sitting at the table while a parent talks within earshot of me and my partner as they walk off the field.

I can deal with comments 1-4 because for every one parent or coach who says something like that, there are twenty who give useful critiques to their players and don’t come up with pitiful excuses for poor performance. What I really don’t understand though, is #5 – “Our team didn’t do anything wrong. We just came up short.” This is a lie, and it is completely useless. Teams do something wrong every game win or lose.

Telling a bunch of U11 players a long way from home at a travel tournament that they did nothing wrong after getting blown out 11-3 is not helpful! Don’t lie to your team to soothe their egos or boost morale. I assure you, if you explain what you see in a measured and positive manner you can tell your team the truth after every game.

Every youth team I coach gets told a variation of the following:

“I will not judge you for winning, losing, or tying a game. I will judge you on how well you do the little things. Then I will coach you to be better at the little things that you need to work on.”

The little things is what matters in the long run. Do you call out “ball down” when going for a ground ball? Do you yell out “I’m hot” when you are the next defensive slide? Do you alert your wing midfielder to drop further down the line because you think that is where the ball is going on your faceoff? All of these are little, minuscule things that are nothing by themselves. But, when added together within an individual player and then added further with his or her teammates they add up to a team that may not be “Elite”, but certainly has the foundation for creating truly elite players once they move out of the youth age levels.

I think the term “Elite Player” should be saved for those who have put in years of work at a high level in much the same way black belts are presented in jiu-jitsu. On average, it takes a decade to earn a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and you’ll never guess what true black belt jiu-jitsu masters say once they earn that belt. They tell people that they can now start mastering jiu-jitsu! Can you believe that? The black belt is not the end result of a decade of training, it is merely an acknowledgement of years of hard training, dedication and study. The reward is that the new black belt now knows enough about jiu-jitsu to study the intricacies even further and deepen his mastery of his skills.

Let’s reserve the term “Elite” for those that have earned it and stop telling kids that they are the best you’ve ever seen because it isn’t true. What should you tell the kid then? You should tell the young lacrosse player that, “[insert player name] I am very proud of the effort you gave today, and if you really love doing this and want to get better that brick wall looks like a great place to spend fifteen minutes working on your off hand.”

Here is a short video clip from one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes that was part of the inspiration for this post:

Featured Image Credit – www.championsma.us


The Stopwatch Parent

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One of our longtime youth coaches sent Coach Lou, Mary Jo, and I this article: http://blog.nj.com/njv_guest_blog/2013/10/the_scholarship_chase_is_killi.html. I feel the author, John McCarthy, hits the major points about investing time, energy, and money into a chase for a full-ride athletic scholarship to a major college or university starting when the kid is playing the pee-wee sport of their choice. All of this has been slowly pushing down into younger and younger age levels shortly after I began playing lacrosse in the mid 1990’s.

My planned post for today, The Stopwatch Parent, ties in perfectly to Mr. McCarthy’s article. I’ve coached a lot of youth teams over the last decade, and there is usually one parent each season holding onto a stopwatch during games. The stopwatch has one purpose: it lets the parent track how long their player is on the field compared to all the other players. My favorite quote from McCarthy’s article is, “[A new parent] also learned that while all of the parents were vocal in their support for a travel team, none was willing to serve as a coach.” I see this on every team I’ve ever coached and every youth game I’ve ever officiated. There are a lot of parents who love the idea of their kid being on an elite travel team, but very few are qualified to make coaching decisions that benefit the team over any individual player.

There are at least one or two parents per team who do not understand that their child is playing a team sport, and their stopwatch or iPhone timer are the giveaways that these parents don’t care about the team. They are blinded by their adoration for their young player, and until I become a parent I doubt I will understand this mentality, but these parents need to learn the mindset that comes with playing a team sport. That mindset is TEAM FIRST not ME FIRST.

I coached a U11 team years ago, and I answered a dozen phone calls from concerned parents wondering what their child could do to get more time on the field in each of our tournament games. Bear in mind that the kids of these concerned parents were the better players on my team, and my assistant coaches and I adjusted the lines to make sure at least one of our better players was on each line to lead the other less-experienced players while on the field. Apparently, this was a poor coaching strategy. Reading between the lines on each of these parent conversations, I came to the conclusion that these parents wanted one line filled with the best players (their kids) to take the lions-share of playing time at the expense of every other kid on the roster. After all, we were an Elite U11 Travel Team and their kids were the best of the best on the team.

I despise the terms Elite Youth Player and Elite Youth Team. I do not believe there is any such U9, U11, U13, or U15 player or team in lacrosse or any other sport. I officiate every age level of lacrosse all over Georgia and the Southeast. I have not yet seen a so-called Elite U11 player who has the stick skills to compete with a third-string high school player. I’ve seen really good U11 players when compared to other U11 players, but even the very best U11 player I’ve seen is still raw in terms of stick skills, lacrosse IQ, defensive footwork, and communication. Which is completely understandable as they are 8, 9, or 10 years old! They haven’t had the time to polish their skills to an elite level, and calling these players elite at such a young age makes the term meaningless and gives the player very little incentive to work on getting to a higher skill level.

This is my message to all stopwatch parents:

The youth coach has a harder job than you can possibly imagine, and if you are spending your time in the stands criticizing your team’s coach for not playing your kid enough then you need to step onto to the sideline and volunteer to help substitute players. If you don’t want to do that then you need to sit down and use your iPhone to find an individual sport that your kid might want to try because you can’t handle that your “elite” player has to share playing time with his teammates.

Even the best players sub off the field.

Featured Image Credit – https://news.slac.stanford.edu/announcement/expedited-shipping-available-slac-eshop


How Can They Get Better?

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How does a player get better to make a select/elite/travel team if they don’t make the team? This is a problem. The kids who make the team get concentrated lacrosse knowledge and the vision of a capable lacrosse coach. The kids that don’t are left to their own devices. Generally, the kids that make the team get better than the kids that don’t make the team. Then the next year rolls around – guess who makes the team? The same kid that made it last season. It’s a cycle that is a problem with select teams at the youth level. The question is how does a driven kid who was on the bubble at last year’s tryout break the cycle?

Notice that I said driven kid, not just a kid. If a player has drive and determination, at any level, I am paying attention to him. However, determination is not enough. That quality trait must be backed up with skill and as my good friend Andy says, “everyone can stand to have a better stick.” I believe that both drive/determination and skill can be improved upon by any kid, but it takes practice. Not just any practice, but focused practice.

What do I mean by focused practice? It is practice with a purpose. Anybody can go out and throw a ball against a wall, but not anybody can make a select lacrosse team. Those that make select teams improve their skill by:

  • Hitting the wall with his off hand for fifteen minutes, five days per week. Focusing on hitting the same brick every time.
  • When the player watches TV, he does it with a stick in his hand and a tennis ball in the stick.
  • During Fall Ball, playing almost exclusively with his off hand.
  • Asking coaches questions during practice, or for clarification on a technique after practice.
  • Taking group or private instruction lessons (you can email requests for those to rules@ayllax.com).
  • Watching games on ESPN or film clips on YouTube.
  • Buying a rulebook and reading the rules.

That covers just a few things that players who make select teams do before tryouts. Now lets switch gears on improving drive or determination with a little story:

When I was seventeen I earned my blue belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. This was a big moment in my life. I spent three years training to earn that blue belt and it felt great when I finally got to tie it around my waist. A belt, though, only covers two inches of your rear. Your skill covers the rest of it. A short time after receiving my blue belt I went to wrestle with one of the older white belts in the class. I was overly confident that I could beat him.

We shook hands and he immediately leapt forward and sunk a quick choke around my neck. I tapped out in about three seconds, completely devastated. Here was this sixty-five, I’m not kidding, year old man who was a white belt, and he just tapped me. I didn’t know what was wrong so I sat on the side of the gym and watched for the two hours as this old man kept rolling. After the live roll was over and everyone was sweating and exhausted I had a lightbulb moment. He had tapped me because he had the determination to keep wrestling win, lose or draw.

I learned an important lesson that night, and I vowed that I would be the last person off the mat for as long as I trained. I spent the next two years sticking to that vow and I saw my skill and conditioning reach higher levels than I ever thought possible, but it never would have happened if I hadn’t gotten tapped out in three seconds by an aging white belt.

My experience is that determination can be learned and improved upon if one thing happens. You have to lose. You have to fall short. You have to fail. I believe that failure is only permanent if you allow it to be so. I am reminded of a quote by Michael Proust – “Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief that develops the strengths of the mind.” I’ve grieved over my failures when they occurred. I was crushed when I got tapped by that old man, but it was good for me. It helped me develop a deeper reserve of grit and desire. Going through failure, though, is not enough to improve your determination. You must also do something about it should you want to succeed.

I am a personal fan of writing down goals and objectives for life, work, and my hobbies. I find that if I don’t write them down and stick them in a prominent place, that I forget about them. For example, I have a lifetime goal of running an ultramarathon. On the wall in front of my bed I have dozens of pictures of ultrarunners in some of the most beautiful and harsh environments on Earth. Every morning I am reminded of that goal. Those pictures fuel my desire to reach that goal when I feel like it is a million miles away.

So to all the players out there who didn’t make the travel team last year, and to all the players who may not make the team this year I have these steps for you to follow, should you wish to:

  1. Write down why you want to make your particular travel team. The why is important, you don’t want to forget why you are driven to do something.
  2. Write down how you are going to make that goal a reality. This can include practicing, watching film, sleeping with your stick, or anything that you can think of to make you a better player.
  3. Print out pictures of your favorite lacrosse player and post them in a wall in your room. Use that for fuel on days when you don’t feel like practicing.
  4. Finally, stick your written down goals on the wall right next to your bed. Every morning, right when you get out of bed, go read your goals. This will remind you every day what you are striving for and why you are sacrificing your time and energy.

I wrote this post because Atlanta Coyotes tryouts are coming up in November for all age groups. Not everyone will make the teams. If you do not make the team I want you to look back on this post and, if making the team is your goal, to follow the steps outlined above. I sincerely believe they will make you a better lacrosse player, but also a far more determined individual than you thought you could be.