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.