Thursday, June 30, 2016

Tips for Enjoying Coaching and Minimizing Unwanted Parental Involvement

Several weeks ago I was listening to WFAN's wonderful program on youth and high school sports, hosted by Rick Wolff on Sunday's at 8am. The topic for the day was the emerging problem with finding and retaining high school varsity coaches. A great deal of the discussion focused on the stress and anxiety created by overbearing and overly involved parents, which by its very nature typically leads to undue intervention by the Athletic Director. There was some chatter about the growing influence of travel programs and travel coaches as well.

After listening to some of the horror stories, I felt blessed that in over 20 years of coaching both varsity and youth lacrosse, I have had a total of 2 issues that involved the unwanted and unneeded involvement of parents. One issue involved a prom, the other involved an inappropriate "goof award" given to a player by their captains. In that latter case I ultimately was responsible, promptly apologized, and learned from the experience.

What I began to think is that maybe the reason why I don't have to deal with the same turmoil as other coaches is in the approach that I have adopted, or rather adapted, since my coaching is a product of my personal experiences growing up in sports, the "trial and error" learning I did on the job, and the "hand I was dealt" by my school in terms of managing the problem (for example I was never budgeted an assistant coach).

So what I thought I would do is begin a series of posts explaining my approach to coaching. I believe it is a solid methodology for managing a team, developing players, finding success on the field, AND minimizing any undue interference from parents.

In today's post I want to look at those "external" factors that have had the greatest influence on my coaching lacrosse. The point of this post- since it unlikely that most if not all of you had a similar combination of influences- is to remind coaches that it is important to reflect on experiences in your past, both on and off the field, that helped shape who you are as a person and that brought you some success.

The first influence was that of my father. My father raised me to be inquisitive and curious in whatever I do; that and a healthy dose of skepticism were keys to my learning. He also insisted that I assume responsibility and "ownership" of my actions; they were my own and I was accountable. These values also affected my relationship with coaches, as I would always seek a better understanding (sport IQ) of what and why I was doing what I was doing. These values also influenced me to "advocate" for myself; to seek "fairness" when I believed I was being treated unfairly, and to ask the necessary questions when I needed a better understanding of a coach's expectations.

The fact that I played "individual" sports like tennis and wrestling also affected me.Playing these sports in particular provides and unique perspective on team sports; when I compete I do so alone, but the consequences of my performance had a direct effect on the rest of our team. The expectations of teammates was that I would always work to make my game better, and I had the same expectations for them. There were no "free riders" in this type of team environment.

In college I decided to give up the idea of playing D1 tennis and instead "fell in love" with Ultimate Frisbee. For those who don't know, it is played 7v7 on a field approximating that of a footbal iifield. It is a great sport, but the salient point is that we did not have a coach (no programs did at that time) and so we worked collaboratively to create both our offense and defensive schemes. Ego had to be put aside, and though one of the seniors invariably made a final decision when minds were split and consensus failed, we all felt empowered. When it came to the team, we "owned it." Just like many of us learned (and forgot) growing up, a team can come together without an authoritarian figure making game and practice decisions for you all the time.

When I first started out coaching lacrosse- a sport I knew very little about- I was fortunate to be working in the Princeton area, where Coach Bill Tierney was beginning his run of success at PU. Coach Tierney allowed me to come and observe his practices. In addition to the knowledge I gained about drills and managing a practice, the most important thing I learned is that Coach Tierney expected his players to have a high IQ for the sport, and that he expected players to "be aware" of each other and to help each other learn. Just being an athlete wasn't enough. Every player was a "thinker," a "doer," and a "communicator."

And finally, my relationship-or rather my frustration- with the athletic director(s) in West Windsor-Plainsboro had a direct bearing on how I would manage the team. From the start, I don't think the ADs ever appreciated or understood that lacrosse programs could benefit from several assistant coaches, given the variety of positions and specializations in the sport. For the life of me I could not ever talk them into budgeting me an assistant coach, and this reality forced me to turn to the players, and specifically the captains, to "assume" the duties of my assistant coaches. The irony of all this is that if it wasn't for the failure of WW-P to budget me a coach I would have never realized the enormous benefits to the program by empowering the captains to become "player-coaches." To a great extent this role would later become the glue that holds all the other facets of my philosophy in place.

So those are the influences on my coaching that I believe resonate more than any others. The experiences and realities shaped my thoughts, and as I mentioned in the beginning I think that they hold the key to coaches that are actually interested in running a successful program that they truly ENJOY and that minimizes any unwanted interference from parents or athletic directors.

In the next post I'll turn my attention to the three values that I believe should be instilled in each of the players, and the 5 criteria I use to evaluate myself (and other coaches when I am evaluating).

Monday, July 13, 2015

Rule Changes on Physical Contact, Referee Interpretation, and Their Impact on Coaching

I have just completed my first season back in coaching after a year's hiatus, and I was stunned by the dramatic changes that have occurred in lacrosse in just this past season. Part of the changes are a matter of placing a "new emphasis" on certain rules, while other changes involve the play of the game.

By far the greatest impact on lacrosse has been the greater emphasis placed on "blows to the head" and upper body, as the sport tries to minimize injury, and, especially, the number of concussions that occur each season.

But in looking back over the season, I have noticed that this new emphasis on contact has added to the already troublesome lack of consistency among officials as they manage the game on the field. It is incumbent on officials, prior to a game, to meet with one another, and then with the coaches, to communicate how they will be managing the game. During our last game this past weekend at Hershey, there were at least 7 instances where the officials differed in how they called the game, with one official giving warnings to players for certain behaviors on the field, while the other official immediately flagged players for the same violations. Moreover, in these tournament environments where referees are called upon to officiate several games, all too many of these referees are not maintaining proper mechanics in terms of their position on the field, for example having the trail official stay up near the midfield line rather than moving to the top of the box. This "conservation of energy' places the official out of position to make important calls, adding an element of unfairness to the contest and creating confusion for both players and coaches.

But by far the greatest impact of the change of emphasis regarding physical contact is that coaches are now finding it difficult to teach proper technique. As the defense coach on our team, I spend a great deal of time teaching proper hitting technique. Contact is to be made from the front or side of a ball carrier or anyone within 5 yards of a loose ball. Well I can't begin to tell you how many times I've had my players run off the field shrugging their shoulders after being assessed a "push with possession" or loose ball push call, or in several occasions an illegal body check call even though my players were doing everything "by the book."

If officials can't make proper calls in this area, physical contact will all but disappear from men's lacrosse. Maybe that is the goal, to make the men's game more like the women's game in this regard. If my players can't slide properly, and can't hit properly, is there any point in teaching hitting?

Part of the problem is that the demand for officials has drawn people into the sport who have no understanding of how the game is played. They have low "IQs," and this translates into many poor calls, ie..was it a shot or a pass, is that a proper hit, was that a delayed substitution..

In conclusion, it is incumbent on officials to develop more consistency in their calls during the game, to use proper field mechanics, and to properly understand what is and what is not a "clean hit" in men's lacrosse. If in fact the "powers that be" want to eliminate hitting from the sport, then just say it so we can have honest debate. Defensive players are being placed at a distinct disadvantage, and coaching defense has now become an exercise in frustration and confusion. The rules need clarification, and they need it now.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Travel Teams on Path To Ruin Community Sports Programs

There has always existed a somewhat tenuous relationship between travel teams and community based athletic programs. In sports like soccer and baseball these travel programs have already begun recruiting players and extending their seasons to run concurrent with community programs, creating undo stress on families and young athletes forced to make unreasonable choices. Many of these travel programs make claims of what they will "do for your child" that are far too often misleading or manifestly wrong. The notion that turning a child into a "specialist," and that specialization will improve a child's skills and opportunities, is refuted by an overwhelming majority of current research. Further, far too little attention is paid to the detrimental psychological and developmental impact that these programs will have on young athletes, especially at the youngest ages. For an introduction to the issue, please visit the "News" page on my website

This trend to "invading" the season usually reserved for community programs is now "infecting" the local lacrosse community. Until now, travel lacrosse programs began their seasons near the end of the spring season, and played their games over the summer. But now several Central Jersey travel lacrosse programs have announced that they will be extending their season to include the Spring and Summer. These for profit programs will be aggressively recruiting players throughout the area, siphoning off players in Hopewell, West Windsor, Robbinsville, Princeton, and several other Mercer and Middlesex County programs.

Rec programs are today the closest thing that kids have to "unstructured, after school play." It is of course structured, but the point is that kids are playing with their friends, forging community bonds, developing mutually beneficial relationships with the schools, and on the whole participating in programs that emphasize fun, healthy competition, sportsmanship, and fitness.

Travel programs will now be poisoning this environment, tearing at the fabric of these communities, siphoning off talent and overwhelming families. All to make a buck. This is all the more reason that we need greater transparency with these travel programs so that families can learn what they are getting into should they choose to abandon their town's program and join a travel team. I have been involved in the local lacrosse community since 1991, and I am in no way convinced these travel programs are on the whole a "value" for families and their children.

I strongly encourage local community programs to "draw a line in the sand" and work together to dissuade these travel programs from marketing their teams in the Spring season. Parents should do their "due diligence" and learn all they can about these programs. The commercialization of youth athletics is an onerous trend, and we should really think about the "opportunity costs" of turning our children into commodities and of weakening local control over youth sports. We should not let this happen without a fight.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Evaluating Travel Programs

I remember learning about my first travel program, Tri-State Lacrosse, run by Hall of Fame Coach Bob Turco. Bob is a wonderful coach; I had the pleasure of competing. against him on many occasions while at West Windsor-Plainsboro South and North. But Bob also had his detractors, for many people were ill at ease with his somewhat gruff demeanor and sometimes overly demanding nature. Regardless of how one felt, what one can definitely say is that Bob had a strong sense of the future in youth athletics. His travel program was the result of that vision, and over time Tri-State grew into a powerhouse in New Jersey.

Each year Tri-State hosts a national tournament, bringing in teams from as far away as California. I officiated at several of these events, giving me a unique opportunity to get an "up close" look at scores of travel programs and their coaches. And what I learned quite quickly is that there is a great variety in the quality and nature of the teams, from the coaching to the parents to the culture of the programs they play for. From this observation it became clear that parents and players need to be very circumspect in their choice of a program; their choice will clearly have consequences for the families and their experiences in the years they participate.

Lacrosse is certainly not alone in having travel programs. Soccer with its ODP programs, and basketball with its AAU teams, are by far the most well known sports for travel programs, but you can find travel teams in ice hockey, baseball, softball, wrestling, and swimming as well. There is considerable debate in the "youth sports community" regarding the utility of these programs, where oftentimes families find themselves making a year long commitment, and the young players oftentimes find themselves, whether by fate or by choice, becoming specialists in one sport atyounger and younger ages. The consequences of this commitment, whether it be physical, emotional, financial, or academic, must be considered by all involved.

The choice of a program becomes, as I mentioned, an important decision, and it is critical that parents and their young athletes make a sound choice. For these families, I suggest looking into 6 areas when considering what program to become associated with. I'll expand on each of these in future posts, but for the time being it will suffice to introduce you to these domains.

First, you should considered how well the program is administrated and organized, because whether in terms of making travel plans, getting timely feedback, having regular meetings, or running a practice, the organization and administration of the program will greatly affect the level of enjoyment or frustration you will encounter. Second, you must look at the financial issues and determine whether the program is producing value for your investment. Are the costs clearly laid out, or do you regularly run into greater and greater demands for your money? Are your children getting enough opportunities to compete relative to the money you lay out? And is the money you are spending being used to create a great experience for you and your children, or does too much of it seem to be going into the pockets of those in charge?

Families should also consider the overall "culture" of the program. Is it "hypercompetitive," with parents and players seemingly in competition as much with each other as with your opponents? Is sportsmanship being promoted by the program, or is there a "win at all costs" attitude permeating the culture? And does the program believe in having fun and empowering players, or is it a very "top down" program that seems to take the fun out of athletics and seem to limit the ability of players to think for themselves and make decisions on the field?

The integrity of the program is another consideration. Having a sense of fairness and honesty help define the integrity of a program and its leaders. Does the program make claims about what it can do for your child, and does it try to live up to those claims? Is there transparency in the selection process and throughout the operation of the teams? A lack of integrity will lead to distrust and dissent, creating a possible ripple effect impacting the overall culture of the program.

The final two areas, training and participation, relate directly to the team(s) that you are directly involved in with the program. If there is more than one team at a particular age level, how are those teams "divided up?" Are there too many players on a squad, and is your child getting enough playing time to enjoy the experience and improve his or her athletic skill and IQ? And what kind of instruction is your child receiving? Is there noticeable improvement in performance, and is your child ever receiving individual, or at the very least small group instruction? Does the program make use of videotape as an instructional tool? And when evaluations are made, how committed are the coaches to providing thorough and "real" feedback and assessment?

By using these six domains as the lenses through which you evaluate travel programs in your area, I believe you will be able to do your "due diligence" and make a sound decision for your child, a decision that feels more like an investment rather than a sunk cost. To help families in this process, I am at the initial stages of creating an online presence similar to Angie's List or; it is a website that will gather and provide detailed information for you to use when a choice needs to be made. You can find it at As a matter of fact you can help other families make these decisions by providing feedback of your own experiences with youth travel programs, regardless of the sport. I encourage you to share your thoughts; it is only through making informed decisions that we can support travel programs that are truly committed to providing a wonderful experience, and we can send a message to those programs that "have some work to do" if they want to earn a reputation as a quality program.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Communicating with Your Players: Foundation for Success

Coaches must be able to communicate effectively for their team to succeed. Whether it is a non-verbal gesture, a guttural moan, or a heartfelt monologue, effective communication is necessary to teach and to create a sense of teamwork. And if done well, it can provide the motivational push that drives a player to elevate his or her game and compete in games where they might be overmatched. Excellent communication also improves preparation during practice and can give a coach insight into the players’ attitudes and understanding of her goals for the team.

One form of communication that is too often overlooked, or avoided, is the one on one meeting between player and coach. I'm not referring to comments made by the coach in the heat of the moment, or the "teachable moments" that occur during practice and in games, but rather a “private sit down” before or after practice, or during the school day.  

I advise every coach to conduct these meetings, regardless of whether it is in college, in high school, or even at the youth level. These meetings should be thought of as conversations and not lectures where the coach gives his "spiel" and then simply asks the player if he understands and has any comment or question. The coach has as much to learn from his players as the player learns from his coach.

These conversations can be in some part instructional, offering advice on a player's game, focusing on the positive but also pointing out areas for improvement. But I envision these conversations in a much more expansive way, and in fact a good conversation will allow the player to give her observations on everything from how
practices are run, to playing time, to how fair the coaching staff has been in the treatment of players, even asking players what they think about how well the games are being managed.

This sort of conversation might be tough on some coaches' egos, but the sense of empowerment that it creates in the player's mind, and the new sense of "ownership" that the player feels, are important parts of the maturation process for student-athletes. My experience has been that the majority of players leave these meetings with a better understanding of their role on the team and a better understanding of the program's priorities and philosophy; they have also gained useful information on their performance and the coach's expectations.

Some coaches might be concerned that these private conversations could lead to distrust among the players, especially those players who think the meeting is nothing more than an opportunity for the coach to pry, or for teammates to unfairly "self-promote" or "rat" on other players. Regardless, the benefits of these private meetings far outweigh any concern that teammates are "badmouthing" other players. It is up to the coach to use any "delicate" information in such a way that it cannot be traced back to any particular player, and frankly coaches should never be asking questions that will be potentially divisive.

And finally, given all the recent attention to bullying and hazing, and the strict penalties now being enforced by schools and State Associations, it is crucial to use this time to find out if there have been incidents of inappropriate treatment of teammates. The anonymity that these meetings provide offers an opportunity to learn things that you would otherwise be unlikely to learn.

Regardless of the sport, drama is an undeniable feature of the relationship among players. In sports like lacrosse or soccer, drama among players could lead to passes not made, less teamwork on defense, and jealousies that will injure the sense of “team” that is vital for success. In sports like tennis, where individuals are expected to play with a sense of honor and honesty, where competition for positions in the lineup can be cutthroat, and where on some teams there are players who are “part timers,” gaining greater insight into player motivation is essential. And for those tennis coaches making use of video, these meetings would also provide an opportunity for instruction.

Effective communication is the essence of any strong relationship, regardless of whether we are talking about a marriage, a retail store, or a sports team. Every coach must take the time to meet with every member of her team. The benefits for both parties might be small, or they might be substantial, but the bottom line is that each player deserves the respect that a meeting would represent. The players, and their parents, will also respect you more for doing it. So meet with the players, and reap the benefits of a team full of empowered athletes playing their hearts out for their


Monday, November 3, 2014

Thinking About Being A Coach: Follow This Guide and You'll Do Just Fine

I remember the winter of 1991 like it was yesterday. After four years of teaching, I was finally being offered a chance to coach. Two positions were open, one to coach the boys tennis team, the other to coach a new sport at the school, boys lacrosse.  

Frankly, I knew nothing about lacrosse; I don’t think I had ever seen a game. Tennis, on the other hand, was in my blood. I had a racquet in my hand at the age of five, had spent two summers at Chase Tennis Center, played four years of varsity doubles, and would clearly fit the profile of a tennis junkie. Tennis would have been the easy choice, but I remember the experience of my varsity coach in high school and decided to steer clear.
With over two decades of coaching now “under my belt,” and after spending many, many Friday afternoons commiserating with other coaches, I have come to learn that regardless of the sport, there was a lot that we had in common in terms of the skills we needed if we were to succeed.

John Wooden famously referred to himself as a teacher, not a coach, to better emphasize the valuable role he commanded. A successful coach, much like a successful teacher, must find a way to “connect”. It is only then that a coach will be able to prepare their players for success and teach the life lessons that are so much a part of a coach’s responsibilities.
So after decades of coaching and exchanging ideas with other coaches, I have identified 5 characteristics that I believe are necessary components of successful coaching. Regardless of the sport, anyone interested in learning to be an effective coach must strive to master these fundamental ideas.

The first characteristic is passion: passion for the sport and passion for the role of coach. The enthusiasm a coach projects to his players is infectious, and it must be evident at practice even more so than on game day. Practice must be more than something athletes know they must do, it is something they must look forward to attending. This is especially true in today’s environment, where so many young athletes- for better or worse- have begun to specialize in one sport to the point where one’s enthusiasm wanes and the sports takes on the feel of a job.
A successful coach must also be knowledgeable. Coaches must be aware of both the skills and strategies the players must master. Being able to teach proper technique, detect and correct errors, and build winning strategies based on a player’s skills and an opponent’s weaknesses are all responsibilities of a coach regardless of the level.

Organizational skills are an overlooked but essential quality for a successful coach. Organization includes a well-structured practice, creating fair and enforceable rules for the team, having a protocol for dealing with parents, and planning out a season much like a teacher would plan a unit in math or history.
In the past the idea of empowering players was given little attention, but in today’s world it is an essential quality for any successful program. Players need to know that they are more than passive members of a team but are decision makers, whether on the court, at practice, or in the locker room. Captains must have real responsibilities, and players must be able to express their individuality and see that their personalities can contribute to the team’s success rather than as a threat to a team’s cohesion.

And finally, a successful coach must be resourceful. Whether referring to tools to benefit their players’ training, human resources to help teach, or activities to help stir passion, coaches must always be seeking out new and creative resources to inspire and educate the team.
Coaching young athletes has become the most fulfilling and inspiring experience of my adult life. There are simple keys to success in coaching, keys that anyone with the desire can learn and master. But you must master them all. The impact a coach can have on young hearts and minds makes it a challenge I encourage everyone to consider. The rewards will last a lifetime.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Brave New World of Coaching and Parenting in the Age of Travel Teams

With the fall interscholastic season well under way, I think it would be a good time to reflect on the role of  Head Coach and increasingly complicated position he or she now finds himself in, especially as high school sports has become more and more entangled in the business of “training, promoting, and marketing athletes.”

Let me first address that final point. There was a time not so long ago when high school coaches were forbidden from working with their players in the summertime; in fact they were, as well,  only allowed to meet once in the off-seasons with the players. Not only could they not work with the players over the summer, they weren’t even allowed to work at camps which their players attended. I’m sure the NJSIAA’s policy was well intended, but oftentimes it resulted in a cat and mouse game with coaches reporting on other coaches, while coaches became stealthy and secretive in their activities.

That rule has since been rescinded, and now the pendulum has swung the other way, with many coaches now reaping incredible financial rewards working with their players and those from other programs. It’s no coincidence that the year the rule was rescinded we saw the rise of Tri-State Lacrosse, probably the gold standard of travel programs, at least in lacrosse.

High school players have become willing commodities in this new market for year round athletes, with parents paying thousands of dollars to help provide their kids with “opportunities” for more training, exposure, and competitive play. You didn’t think that coaches would work with their players out of the goodness of their hearts when there was a buck or two to be made?

And it’s not just the high school athletes, increasingly these programs promote to players as young as fourth grade. Summertime used to be a time for unorganized play, having fun, relieving stress, and giving your body time to develop properly. Now we have doctors seeing pre-teens showing signs of injuries once reserved for college age players.

When I started this article I was actually feeling some sympathy for the high school coaches caught up in this, but the more I write the more the more I realize that a large number of these coaches are complicit in this enterprise. It’s hard not to turn away I suppose. Truth be told I may end up coaching a summer team myself, though as a volunteer.

What I wonder is how many parents do an actual cost-benefit analysis of these programs and their motivation for getting involved. Are they hoping to gain a competitive advantage for their kids? Are they simply looking for an activity that would be “fun” for their youngster? Are they desperately looking for a way they can “bond” with their child?

It is certainly true that competitive team sports can teach invaluable “life lessons” to their children, and that definitely can’t be dismissed. But are travel teams necessary to impart these “lessons?” Just as it is important to acknowledge the positives of organized sports, there are some other facts that must be acknowledged as well.

According to a 2013 Michigan State survey, thirty five million children ages 5-18 play organized sports, with approximately 66% of boys and 52% of girls getting involved. But by the age of 13, 70% of them drop out, and an ever increasing number of those that remain are being drawn to these summer travel programs and becoming year-round “specialists” in one or two particular sports. I’ll leave aside my concerns for repetitive motion injuries and the psychological harms being created. And I readily admit that many players are sincerely having a good time. I do, however, want to provide a reality check for those families who believe they are providing a competitive advantage for their kids.

First of all, there are some children that are “natural athletes,” and for them there is unlikely any “need” to play one sport all year. In fact many of the college coaches I spoke to would prefer that their potential recruits had a more diversified experience. And as far a playing in college goes, the stark reality is that only 2% of high school athletes receive scholarships, and rarely a full ride. Fewer than 7% of varsity baseball players make it to the NCAA; for basketball and soccer the numbers are 3.3 and 5.7 percent respectively.

We will never go back to the days when high school coaches were kept away from their players in the off-season, and it seems unlikely that the trend of summer and year round travel teams for pre-teens and high school players will be reversed. Coaching travel team families (the parents are part of the bargain) complicates the dynamics of high school sports, and is one of many changes that coaches must navigate as they build their program and coach the games. In my next article I will delve deeper into the art of coaching in this “new age” of student-athletes, then turn our attention to youth sports and the challenges faced by parents who volunteer to coach community teams, because regardless of age, it is a brave new world out there.