This post was inspired by The New York Times Article “Sports Should Be Child’s Play“
We forgot how hard the game was starting off. We got to a point after a few years of playing where the game clicked and now we have trouble relating to those who don’t get it yet. We lost the perspective we had as children putting on unfamiliar equipment and stepping onto a large playing surface. We did not fully understand the game we were playing, and we weren’t supposed to. We were children, and then we grew up and forgot.
Every so often when coaching young players the thought “how the heck have you not gotten this yet?” passes through my head after a player continues to struggle in some aspect of the game. It’s a thought born out of frustration and a lack of control. At least once a season every coach will put their hands on their hips, look at the ground, and slowly shake their heads. This happens at the highest levels of lacrosse, but is most frequent in the U9 and U11 age levels. The frustration comes from a lack of perspective when dealing with players that young. I can relate to players in college and high school because I have distinct memories from those times in my life. I get where those players are coming from, but I have a hard time understanding what is going through the mind of a nine year old because I’m too far removed from that age.
Despite coaching young players for the last several years I still don’t know how to think like a little kid. I can coach them and recognize when they need a breather from instruction, but I definitely get frustrated when a player keeps passing into the double team despite three weeks of explaining why that pass is a bad idea. I have to bite back from yelling at a kid “this isn’t that hard!” But it is hard, and that’s why the game is both fun and challenging. It is difficult to learn how to catch and throw on the run while being pursued by opponents wearing hard plastic equipment, and be expected to make the correct decision with the ball under pressure. I constantly remind myself to be patient with youth players because I don’t remember how I used to process new information at that age. I can either assist the player at their individual level or I can try to force the player to learn like a few coaches I observe.
During summer tournaments I see a wide range of coaching styles in a single day. By far the most effective youth lacrosse teams I see have a coach or coaching staff that gives specific instructions to their players for the game situation, and does not accuse players of screwing up. I do not write effective to mean these teams win every game and beat the spread. I consider effective teams as ones where the players play the best lacrosse they can between the first and final whistles, and the coaches don’t abandon instruction at the first sign of trouble. Along the same lines I do not believe in accusing players of screwing up. That does not mean I do not hold players accountable for their mistakes at any level, but I do scale down the level of vehemence in my voice to the age of the players. I expect a high school player to be able to take a verbal tongue-lashing, understand why his screw up hurt the team, resolve to not make the same mistake again, compartmentalize my comments as being in the heat of the moment, and then go onto the field and make a good play. I have yet to see a nine year old respond in a similar manner to a coach pulling him up by his facemask (yes I have seen this), and wondering out loud how this particular player could even consider making such an egregious mistake. It’s not that these coaches are bad people. Most of them just forgot what it was like to play a competitive game as a child, and attempt to apply motivation in the same manner they received it when playing a sport in high school or college.
In an effort to remind adults how big the game used to feel, “USA Hockey […] recently invited adults to play on a 310-by-130-foot ice rink to show them what it’s like for an 8-year-old to play on a regulation rink. The grown-ups’ assessments: “too much time between the action”; “it’s hard to communicate because everyone is spread out so far”; “you end up spending a lot of time in open space.”
A regulation hockey rink is 200ft x 85ft. For the rink in the video above they multiplied the length and width by 1.5. Doing the same to a regulation lacrosse field at 110yds x 60 yds, we get a scaled up field of 165yds x 90yds! That would make the distance from goal to goal, normally 80 yards, a whopping 135 yards. A clearing midfielder would have to run over the length of a regulation lacrosse field just to play defense on the other side of the field using these scaled up measurements. That is a long, long way to run for any adult on a midfield line, but run that a few times and you’ll see just how tough it is for a young player to get settled on a field that feels much larger to them than it does to us. Then you’ll be reminded to take a breather the next time your player passes into double coverage.
He’ll learn eventually but you’ve got to be patient, and try to see if a different way of explaining or demonstrating will work better. It sounds strange, but we as adults must remember to not forget. These are just little kids playing a game, and we best serve our players and the game by keeping that perspective.
Featured Image Credit – http://www.usahockey.com