Keith Dalton posted 9/9/2015
Lacrosse is a beautiful sport with a sacred soul that dates back several centuries. Yet as the sport's popularity continues to grow, it faces significant challenges to its tradition and identity. More competition at an early age is being emphasized, without any substantial evidence to support such an approach.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no solid evidence that early specialization, or specialization in the sport of lacrosse, leads to greater expertise. The 10,000-hour rule of deliberate practice, generated by Ericcson and colleagues in 1993, has become the accepted norm; in order to be great, you have to practice all the time. Yet, there have been very few studies to substantiate these claims in any sports, particularly in team sports. In fact, the 10,000-hour rule is coming under increasing criticism, noting that it may not be the amount of training, but more the quality of training that leads to expertise.
US Lacrosse encourages a passionate yet balanced approach to lacrosse that celebrates the game's heritage as young athletes pursue fun and excellence. We want our youth to enjoy the game so that they continue to participate in, sustain and pass along the great traditions that lacrosse has fostered for generations.
For youth who may be curious about lacrosse as they watch their old brothers and sisters play, it can be appropriate to expose them to the game. Learning the basics of throwing and scooping with soft sticks and balls, if offered in a fun, safe and informal manner, can be a nice way of introducing lacrosse to children. Most children will be more interested in playing fun games than they are in skill development, so having a fun catch in the backyard is a great place to start. And while there are organized sport opportunities in lacrosse for 5- and 6-year-old children, it is critical that such structures are based on fun and without contact or structured competition. Reasons for this approach with young kids include:
- Auditory and visual capacities are in the early stages of development. Depth perception, static vision, and auditory discrimination skills are not mature. Gross motor skills are developing and fine motor skills are just developing. Cognitively, they understand very little about the principles and rules of games or how to be a member of a team. These are some of the many physiological limitations of this age group, all of which inform us to have very limited expectations and demands.
- While young kids may keep score when playing informal games, our job as adults is to focus on making it fun and safe for them while they learn a little about the game. The objective in this age group is to make the game so enjoyable that the kids want to play again the next season. If we can do this, we are doing our jobs as parents and coaches.
As visual, auditory and cognitive abilities develop in elementary school children, they are able to learn more about the rules of the game and the proper techniques of catching and throwing as they develop a growing awareness about being part of a team. Because auditory and visual abilities are still developing, even for the 12-year-old, these athletes will still struggle at times to see the ball and the field, as well as to follow complex directions.
- Keep drills short and simple. Give instructions in short, positive statements, and avoid overloading kids with too much information. Their working memory is quite limited. They may be able to recall only 2-3 items at a time, whereas adolescents and adults may recall up to two or three times as much information.
- There is a natural fearlessness in most children during these years, and it is our job as adults to protect that willingness to experiment so that they develop their skills. Yes, kids care about the score, but not for long after the game is over. Early emphasis on outcomes and participation in highly competitive teams can be a risk factor for burnout, injury and stress, as has been indicated by many pediatric and sports medicine experts.
- An important function of adults (parents and coaches) working with elementary school kids is to teach them the skills and principles of the game so that their fundamentals will be strong as they progress to the next stages of development. Highly competitive, tough athletes with poorly developed skills may be at a disadvantage as they play high school sports because their fundamentals are flawed.
- While youth lacrosse games for older elementary school kids can be competitive, it is our role as adults to not get caught up in the score and consider how we are preparing these young players to understand how to play the game.
- Equal playing time gives all players the opportunity to be a part of the team and learn the game. Playing only the "best" players may contribute to dissatisfied teams and individuals and in fact may ignore potentially talented players. Most important, our goal is to keep all of our kids, regardless of ability, engaged and enjoying the game. It's too early to tell who all of the best players are, and favoring players undermines the joy of youth sports. These kids want to play and they want to be with their friends.
The intrinsic joy of playing the game is the fuel that will keep kids engaged in the sport, whether they become collegiate or recreational players.
Middle and High School Lacrosse
Significant physical growth occurs during adolescence, and it is not always easy to predict when an athlete has reached his or her adult height and body composition. That said, adolescents will be able to better understand their strengths and weaknesses and are fully aware of what it means to be part of a team as well as be able to accurately view their own abilities and the abilities of others.
- They also may be prone to more anxiety as their capacity to think abstractly is more fully developed. Winning and losing may mean more to them and contribute to how they perceive themselves in their peer groups as well as how they form a sense of their identity.
- While these athletes may begin to look and talk like adults, they are still not fully adult. For example, their visual capacities are still developing. Some researchers indicate that peripheral vision can still improve functionally well into the teen years. This has obvious implications for field awareness, which should be considered by their coaches as they evaluate players and construct drills.
- The frontal lobes of the adolescent brain, which affect organization, planning, sequencing and impulse control, are still developing. So, once again, focusing on keeping drills clear, time-limited and concise are critical. Instructions should still be clear and easy to follow, even if the capacity to handle more information exists in adolescents.
- While the attention span of this age group is greater than elementary school athletes, it is still important to keep practices concise and active. Practices that extend beyond two hours often lose the attention of most adolescents as well as exposing them to fatigue, injury and burnout.
The challenge for adults working with adolescents is to recognize their growing abilities while keeping an eye out for the areas that are still maturing. These athletes still need much support and guidance and may not be ready for the primetime adult pressure that they will experience as college students and beyond. Playing time at this age, particularly at the high school levels, may now be based more on ability. A critical challenge for coaches at this stage is to create roles so that all team members feel valued, even if their playing time is limited.
And an important recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other experts is that athletes need to take time off each week (1-2 days) and each year (2-3 months) to avoid burnout and injury. As parents, it is our job to serve as gatekeepers when commitments to numerous teams become overwhelming for our kids.
This post is part of the “10 Fundamental Tips for Coaching Youth Lacrosse” series. Dr. Richard D. Ginsburg, Ph.D., is the co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Sports Psychology Program and Paces Institute, and a member of the US Lacrosse Sports Science and Safety Committee. Paige Perriello, M.D., F.A.A.P., Pediatric Associates of Charlottesville, also contributed to this post.