Tag Archives: youth

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.”

Featured Image Credit – http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011645685/


Investing In Blowout Scores

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The summer tournament season is nearly over, and I, as usual, am grateful. The summer grinds on players, coaches, refs, parents, and organizers. There is a lot of travel, it’s freaking hot, and the days are long. With team fees, tournament fees, travel fees, hotel fees, and buying yet another tournament t-shirt the adults at tournaments easily throw down a few thousand dollars by the end of the summer. All of that money generates momentum to crushing less-skilled opponents by obscene scores. The more summer tournaments I officiate the more I see the pressure to win games by large margins, and it is because of a very adult idea: investing.

A few thousand dollars represents a decent investment for pretty much every working adult, and we have the adult idea that putting money down will result in a reward later on. Kids do not understand this no matter how often they are told. I didn’t fully understand the importance of money until I got my first utility bill – that brought a lesson my middle school history teacher Mrs. Woods expounded on in almost every class: “there is no such thing as a free lunch in this world.” The players want to play, and the fact that you put down money for them to play does not factor into their experience or drive their on-field performance. The monetary investment parents make in summer tournaments creates an incentive to reduce the risk of losing as much as possible by the adult coaches.

As an official, I experience my fair share of running time games during the regular season, and in nearly all of them by the time the goal differential is ten or twelve goals most of the starters are sitting on the bench. Typically the final score ends up something like 13-4, 12-5, or 15-10. The winning team is never in any real danger of losing the game. Contrast that to the common final scores I run into during the summer like 22-0, 18-1, and 17-2. Those are scores played with the mercy rule in effect where the losing team was at least six goals behind and got the ball in lieu of a face off. To hammer this point home consider these two situations I ran into this summer at the U11 age level:

  • Final Score 18-3: The winning team kept all the starters in (roughly 22 players on the team), and doubled the ball at the midfield when the losing team was given the ball at Center X. Most of the players on the losing team didn’t have a solid skill foundation, and each time I blew the ball in the losing team midfielder got stripped and watched his counterpart on the other team waltz past stationary defenders for a point-blank shot.
  • Final Score 17-2: I purposefully did not call a technical foul against the losing team. Their player released early from their penalty early in the 4th quarter and the winning team coach was beside himself that I would permit such a travesty. I had heard enough and told him I saw the early release, but was not going to make the call. To which he replied – “Goal differential is important in this tournament sir.” Now he had a legitimate point, but goal differential happened to be the third tiebreaker behind head-to-head and goals against. Sometimes it is the job of a youth official to save an adult coach from himself. Also, the ball had crossed to the other side of the field all of five times by the end of the game, and I was tired of watching the losing team goalkeeper getting shelled. I didn’t feel bad about ignoring that technical, and I still don’t.

Teams are silently, and not-so-silently, encouraged to run up the score whenever they can just so they don’t risk being on the losing end of a tiebreaker by the end of pool play. I see this consistently from U11 all the way to U19A division games over the summer. Every time I look over at the winning coaches and want to say – “Really? Does #12 really need to score seven goals? Is there no one else who can shoot on the bench?” It is possible to sub players out when the game is well in hand, or at the very least switch up the lefty attacker to the other side of the cage so he can practice shooting with his right hand.

I also get confused by the parents cheering for their team’s eighteenth goal just as hard as they did for the first goal – “Congratulations, your team can score against zero defensive pressure! This is a marvel to be celebrated!” To these parents I ask what is the greater accomplishment – scoring two natural hat tricks against a defense that cannot talk or move and a goalkeeper that is facing the wrong direction, or scoring two goals against a defense that slides well and a goalkeeper who tracks the ball?

When I played my coach had a rule for the starters and second stringers every game – do your job. Against lesser-skilled teams we had to go to work. Once we put up eight goals and shut down the opposing offense our job was done, and he subbed us out for the sophomores and freshman. We were never worried that we’d lose the game, but we also weren’t going to go out of our way to show our superiority. Beating a team by such wide margins is not a demonstration of skill – that was demonstrated when the winning team scored six goals in the first four minutes. Put in players that need more experience, slow down the offense a bit, and don’t do a ten man ride because it might be a good idea for your defense to see at least one settled possession before going up against a better team in bracket play.


If you don’t recognize the featured image check out my favorite Mayhem commercial:

That’s A Stupid Rule

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“That’s stupid.”, “That’s a stupid rule.”, “We don’t use those rules, they’re stupid.”

When I hear these comments from players, coaches, fans, parents, program administrators, or tournament organizers I always take a breath to settle myself. This prevents me from starting an argument that I have no hope of winning. I usually hear the following from each group:

  • A player after calling him for withholding when he loses his crosse with the ball in it:
    • “What?! I get a chance to get my stick back! That’s a dumb rule.” 
  • A coach after flagging his #1 player for delay of game when he rolled the ball away:
    • “You’ve got to be kidding me, he was rolling it to where the restart was going to be anyway! That’s a ridiculous rule!”
  • A parent after I flag his nine year old for launching his body like a SCUD missile into the helmet of an unaware opponent:
    • “You guys take all the fun out of a physical game with these stupid rules!”
  • A program administrator explaining to me that I am to play the game without NOCSAE balls:
    • “I don’t think there is any real difference between NOCSAE balls and non-NOCSAE balls. That was a stupid rule they put in, and we choose not to use those balls in our games.”
  • A tournament organizer on goalie arm pads at the youth level:
    • “It doesn’t protect the goalies from shots, and it’s unnecessary equipment. It’s a stupid rule that doesn’t do anything.”

Ask anyone that knows me and they’ll tell you that I love a good rules discussion. I like bouncing weird situations off my fellow officials and then seeing who is right. If I’m right I have a mini-parade in my head complete with Matthew Broderick singing “Twist and Shout.” If I’m wrong I feel bad and try to remember if I misapplied the rule in any earlier game I reffed. Those are great rules discussions because there isn’t much emotion involved since officials look at the rules as nothing more than the rules. We just want to know how to apply the written rules in the fairest way possible.

I prefer to look at the rules from an officiating perspective because they make the most sense from that perspective, which is why some rules grate on every other group involved in the game. I know because I’ve been in every one of the positions listed above except for parent and can understand those perspectives. However, as soon as someone tells me that a rule is stupid I lose a great deal of respect for their position, especially if that is their only reasoning.

The argument of “that’s stupid” worked brilliantly for me and my friends during recess in elementary school. Somewhere between learning how to write a five paragraph essay and balancing an algebraic equation it was impressed upon me that the argument “that’s stupid” is pretty stupid. It doesn’t work in school, higher education, or any planning meeting I’ve ever sat on. I can’t tell a client that his idea is stupid without also having a very well-reasoned argument behind my position (and telling the client that his idea is stupid is rarely a good way to win him over to my position). Yet for reasons unknown to me “that’s stupid” is the fallback position for most people who disagree with youth rules, and their follow up argument generally goes one of two ways. Either, “that’s just how I feel,” or, “they’re ruining the game.”

I think it is time to destroy both of these tired arguments:

  • “That’s just how I feel.”
    • I get this one. I feel strongly about lots of issues. It’s the nature of being human, but feelings are terrible guides for rules. Some people feel youth goalkeepers should not be required to wear arm pads during games because they need to learn how to deal with getting whacked in the elbows when they reach an older age level, and elbow pads don’t provide protection against really hard shots and tend to limit a goalkeeper’s movement. That’s the feeling. The reason this rule was put into place is because across the country moms, dads, grandparents, coaches, and players from the opposing team would shout “Elbows! Goalie is out, get him!” whenever a goalkeeper ran out of the crease. Which led to several youth goalkeepers getting their arms bruised and broken. Feelings should never be a reason to disregard safety rules or required equipment, which, contrary to public belief, have solid logic behind them.
  • “They’re ruining the game.”
    • Ah the mysterious cabal of cloaked people who meet in a darkened alcove during a full moon and discuss how best to ruin lacrosse as we know it. The group of which everyone speaks but no one researches is the Men’s Game Rules Subcommittee, and that group is listed on the last page of the 2014 US Lacrosse Boys Youth Lacrosse Rules PDF, and unlike the Illuminati they ask for feedback: “Please send all comments or suggestions regarding the Rules for Boys’ Youth Lacrosse to the US Lacrosse Men’s Game Rules Subcommittee […] to boysyouthrules@uslacrosse.org. Please do not contact NFHS about these rules.” Here is a helpful hint: don’t send emails saying that a rule is stupid. A more reasoned argument is necessary.
    • To the other part of this poor argument – If you believe that the Men’s Game Rules Subcommittee, the NFHS, or the NCAA is trying to ruin the game with new rules then I want to know exactly when the game was perfect. Was it where it needed to be prior to being discovered by French Jesuit missionaries? Or were the rules William George Beers established in 1869 plenty? Wait, I’ve got it. The argument isn’t that the game is being ruined by new rules because if that were true then the game was ruined well before the 20th century. In fact, this really isn’t an argument. It’s just whining.
    • The one gripe I hear the most is that “they’re ruining the game by taking out hitting.” I hate to burst the bubble of these individuals, but William Beers, who wrote the first standard rules of lacrosse, stated that: “‘The perfection of checking is to check without hitting your opponent’ and that actually hitting an opponent with a check [or body] was indicative of bad or unskillful play (178, 201).” Hitting was never in the game to start with as a legal action and happened to be looked down upon. So in a sense, the game was ruined by the introduction of hitting, and all these groups are trying to do is make a contact sport as safe as possible for your child to play. What a horrible group of people.

The rules are going to change. The only reason I don’t like the rules changing is that it’s more work for me. I have to read each book and study up on how to apply new rules as fairly as possible while remembering the numerous exceptions to the old ones, but I don’t reflexively say “that’s stupid” when I come across a rule I personally disagree with because that accomplishes nothing. Do some research, come up with a better argument and then we’ll talk.