Tag Archives: game plan

The Biggest Advantage In Youth Sports

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I consider U13 the hardest age to officiate for one reason: puberty. I read a long time ago that puberty is the biggest advantage in youth sports, and in my youth coaching and officiating experience I would have to agree. Every spring season most of our boys entering the U13 age ranks seem to have sprouted a foot in height since I last saw them in the fall. The growth of these players always takes me by surprise, but the varying rate of physical development creates a few games where the matchup looks like a battle of Goliaths versus Davids.

Last year I officiated an excellent game between two U13 teams of near equal skill, but one team was slightly further along the transition from boy to man. One of their attackman stood a foot taller than all the defenders and probably outweighed the closest defender by at least thirty pounds. This attackman held the ball during the last two minutes to secure a one goal victory for his team. The opposing coach was yelling to his defender to body up and strip the attackman. I was standing as the trail official near the coaches and heard the head coach of the winning team go: “You can try, but nobody can move him!” The clock ran out while the attackman held the ball and his team won, but this team didn’t win just because they were bigger and stronger than the other team. Like I stated earlier, both teams were equal in skill but the winning team was bigger and stronger. As my jiu-jitsu instructor used to tell our class: “Skill being equal, the bigger fighter will usually win.” The issue in youth sports is that many coaches don’t coach beyond the physical attributes of their star athletes. I see the same game plan executed by several youth teams every year: get the ball to the bigger and stronger midfielder, and everyone else clears space. While that may be a very effective strategy now it will not last beyond U13 because it does not account for varying rates of development.

I read through a very interesting document put together by USA Swimming and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association titled: The Young Athlete’s Body: Physical Development. I highly encourage parents to read through the entire document to better understand how young players develop, but I feel going over the early maturer and the late maturer sections is worthwhile.

“The early-maturing individual is bigger, stronger, and quicker, acquires sport skills faster, and has more endurance potential than his or her peers. Thus, the early-maturer can be expected to be a star grade school and junior high school athlete. A major problem is that the early maturer enjoys outstanding sport success during elementary, middle, and early junior high school simply because of the physical advantages he or she has over his or her teammates and opponents. With the elaborate sport programs available for very young athletes in most communities, the eight to twelve-year-old can readily become a true sports star.”

It is very difficult for a youth coach to not get the ball into the hands of a player benefiting from such early physical development. I know because I’ve been there. The physical gifts of the player allows him to move around defenders like they were standing still, and if you put that player on the bench it looks like you’re not trying hard enough to win (especially to the parent of the physically gifted player). The problem I’ve run into, and seen other coaches run into, is an over-reliance on physically gifted players. Boil down all the movement in lacrosse and you find it is all about the 2 on 1. When the only game plan is getting the ball to the bigger and faster player and have him run over defenders, it will fail as the player gets older and his opponents start developing. I watch players that breezed by defenders in U13 panic in U15 when they get doubled by defenders that are as strong or stronger than them. The lack of field awareness by these players in U15 is a direct result to them being told, “go to the goal!” every time they had the ball, and most are stripped on the double and left staring at the clearing defenders while trying to figure out what just happened.

“With sport successes so closely related to maturity, it isn’t difficult to imagine the problems of the late- maturing athlete-especially for parents who were late maturers themselves. Many, but certainly not all, late maturers will be small in stature for their age. They will have less strength, endurance, and skeletal maturity and lower motor skills than their average peers. These children are going to be handicapped in many sports where size, strength, and endurance determine the outcome, and in some situations they will be at undue risk to injury.”

I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for the late-maturers because I was one of them. I didn’t reach my adult height until junior year of high school and I didn’t break 150lbs on the scale until college. I earned playing time by being quick and knowing where the ball would be. The biggest discrepancy I see in size at the U13 level is between defenders and attackman. The typical defender is tall and lanky for greater distance when throwing checks, while the typical attackman is shorter to give defenders less to check at when dodging. On average defenders are larger than attackman, and that gets seriously pronounced at the U13 level. Parents of larger defenders at this age level must understand that their child might be penalized more often simply due to their size because a hit or a swing by that player looks worse to the game officials. On the other side, parents of smaller attackman need to be aware of the risk of injury that their player may be under due to his size. For example, I had a game where a larger defender was running while watching a ball go out of bounds. A smaller attackman was in his way, but the defender never saw him. Size plus speed equalled a collision that sent the young player flying. I didn’t throw my flag and was ripped by the parents on the sideline, but I couldn’t throw my flag – the defender never saw the attackman. Any player can get injured on a legal play, through incidental contact, or illegal contact, but smaller players are at a physical disadvantage and that fact will always remain in contact sports.

Different rates of physical development create advantages for the larger players and teams with larger players. There is no disputing that, but size, strength, and quickness are all negated by ball movement. Coach your players to move with their heads up and focus on finding the open man after drawing a double. This works to the advantage of the early-maturer because he learns that he can be an offensive threat as a goal scorer and a passer because he draws so much attention from the defense. A focus on ball movement also works to the advantage of the late-maturer, who I see in every game open on the weak side and is only two passes away from scoring a layup goal.

Skill is the defining factor in all sports because there is going to come a time when the physical playing field is level. The goal of youth sports is to lay down the foundational skills of the sport because coaches at the higher level don’t want to waste time teaching players how to look for the open man. Besides, players will have plenty of time to hit the weight room when their bodies are ready for it.  I’ll close this post with a pertinent quote by Duke Assistant Coach Ron Caputo:

“The difference between you and me is I don’t forget how good you are, but you do.”

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Keep Moving

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Keep Moving

I learned an important lesson about movement off the lacrosse field. I was sixteen and taking Muay Thai kickboxing lessons at a local martial arts academy. My instructor set up the class in a mob drill. The mob drill teaches students how to get away from more than one attacker.

When I first got into the mob drill I got pummeled. I thought defensively and stayed in one place. This allowed all of the attackers to mass around me, and while they were not punching with full power I realized that if they were I would be in a world of hurt. A few months later it was mob drill time, but before the drill my instructor pulled me aside and told me with very little explanation to go crazy. He wanted me to attack the attackers, find open space and then reengage.

So I was set in the middle of six of my fellow students and when my instructor said go I went a little overboard.

I yelled at the top of my lungs and rushed the person closest to me. I threw a few punches and ran to a corner of the gym. All of my attackers were a little stunned at my brash attack. They tentatively approached me so I yelled out again and ran to the perimeter of the group, punched my way around them and ran to the other side of the gym. This went on for about three minutes and while I took a few punches it was much fewer than when I just stood still.

I learned that when facing multiple attackers it pays to be on the move. Standing still is a death sentence.

I see way too many youth and high school players who stop moving when they shouldn’t. Players who pick up a ground ball and then stop. Players who run into a double team and try to split dodge back where they came only to run into the other defender. Players who can’t catch the ball cleanly because they will not move their feet away from their defender.

The lacrosse field is 110 yards long and 60 yards wide. There is open space available, but many players would rather run through the gauntlet of defenders than pass the ball around them.

I blame isolation dodges for this problem. Coaches, especially at the youth level, love giving their biggest or fastest kid the ball and having him run at the cage for a high-percentage shot. The problem is that many of these coaches do not coach isolation dodges correctly. They start them off of a dead-ball restart or have the iso player run way up to the midfield line. Both of those methods allow defenses to settle in.

The correct way to run an isolation dodge is to do it off of ball movement. When a ball is passed the defenders have to move to follow the ball. Isolation dodges are much more effective off a couple of passes especially when the iso player catches the ball on the run. Add in having the rest of the players clear out of the way, which drastically reduces the gauntlet of defenders that the iso player might run into.

Too many coaches at the youth level are content to let their best player handle the ball. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Get the ball to Timmy! To Timmy! Get it to Timmy!” It appears to be the coach’s only game plan. There are five other players on offense that need to be included if any team is going to be successful. If everyone is running around and cutting, even the least-skilled player is having a positive impact on your offense.

Featured Image Credit – www.onebigphoto.com


Keep It Simple

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Parsimonious is a scientific term that effectively means to phrase something as simply as possible. The longer and more convoluted a statement is the less parsimonious it becomes. Now why am I drudging out scientific nomenclature in regards to youth lacrosse? Put parsimoniously, I want coaches to stick with the basics.

In my ten years of coaching and officiating youth lacrosse I have seen a lot of varying coaching styles. Some successful, and others not so successful. Please note that I equate successful youth coaching to how much their players improve over the course of the season. Not how many wins or losses a team accumulates due to the coach or coaching style. The best youth coaches I see generally do two things very well. One, they maintain discipline. One coach uses a particularly effective technique where he shouts out “Ready!” When he says “ready” all of his players snap their eyes to him and shout back “Focus!” I’ve seen this coach calm down an entire team with that one technique. The second thing that the best youth coaches do well is they have a simplistic game plan.

Here is where some youth coaches and I part ways. I personally think that the simpler an offensive and defensive scheme is, the more efficiently a youth team will perform. This goes against a lot of youth coaches that dream up cool plays, or zone defenses for their teams, and then whiteboard them to the whole team on game day. I have seen a lot of confused looks on many players trying to remember their job on the “Indigo Blue 31” play. This does not mean that a team should not have some set plays, or set defenses. What I am stressing here is the need to keep things simple.

For instance, last season a coach was unable to show up to coach his team. No problem, we are lucky enough to have staff on hand for these instances. It just so happened that my name was next in the rotation to coach so I strolled over to the team as they were warming up, and got them into some passing drills. I had no idea what their head coach had told them about offense or defense, so I went to my old standby: “players, remember that when we are on offense we are spread out like fingers, when we are defense, we are close in like a fist.” Every dead ball I repeated that mantra of spread and tight. Every time out I zeroed in on becoming like fingers on offense and being like a fist on defense. The kicker here is that the kids got the concept beautifully.

Offense = Spread


Defense = Fist


They played a tough game and wound up winning, more in part to their effort than my coaching, in a one-goal game. The coolest part was how the entire team latched onto two very simple concepts, and translated them into good lacrosse. I gave them no plays to run, or slide packages to consider. I just said stay tight on defense and stay spread of offense.  This became a team mantra for that game, and I could hear players on offense saying “get wide, get wide,” and players on defense saying “come in tighter!” The defense kept the goal guarded by protecting the middle of the field, and the offense got the ball around nicely by staying open and cutting naturally.

Tight. Spread. Two words that all of the players focused on, believed in, and executed well. At the end of the game I told them how great they looked as a team, and how they played the game well. I wrapped up question to every team I coach after a game, “did everyone have fun?” I got a big “yes” for an answer.

Finally, I will end with a quote by one of my favorite philosophers – Mike Tyson. Who said that “everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.” Coaches – ask yourself if your game plan is simple enough to survive a punch in the mouth. If it has a lot of moving parts, and is very convoluted it will likely break apart. However, if it is strong, direct, and simple, your team will always have a fighting chance.

Featured Image Credit – www.robertsaric.com


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