Re-Thinking the Youth Lacrosse Model

05/08/2015,  By Bart Sullivan

THE IRRATIONALITY OF FULL-FIELD YOUTH GAMES

My biggest concern is the way that we play games at the various youth levels. To be fair, this is not completely an issue with “Texas youth lacrosse” as it is with “American youth lacrosse.” The fact that we put kids as young as 1st grade onto 110-yard x 60-yard fields and play 10 vs. 10 using 6’ x 6’ goals is nothing short of insanity to me. Those field dimensions and goal dimensions were not created for 7 and 8 year olds, they were created for grown men. An average 16-year-old boy is nearly 1.5 times the height and over twice the weight of the average 8-year-old boy. Using these ratios, 8 year olds playing on a full field would be like our high school teams playing:

  • On a field that is 200 yards long by 110 yards wide
  • Using 9’ x 9’ goals
  • Using 61” short sticks and 90” long sticks (that’s 7.5 foot long poles!)

Sounds pretty crazy right! So why do we still do this to our young athletes? I believe there are two main reasons:

  1. People just don’t know any better and don’t put enough thought into it to realize that there is an alternative
  2. Parents and coaches get caught up in seeing their young kids as mini versions of Varsity or College players rather than what they really are… kids!

For reason #1, hopefully this article will help open some eyes and we can start working together to make positive changes. Reason #2, however, is much more dangerous and a consequence of our current youth sports culture in America. Parents see it as a badge of honor that their kids are doing things really meant for older kids. I recently spoke to a father in our lacrosse program that has a 1st grade son that also plays baseball. When I asked him about how they play baseball in his son’s age group, the father couldn’t wait to tell me with pride that they play with the kids pitching and they even leadoff and steal bases!

To him, his son was playing “real” baseball! However, I highly doubt that at the age of 6 or 7 the kids trying to pitch accurately and catchers attempting to throw out base runners works out really well for the their long term development.

Part of the problem with having young kids trying to play the adult version of sports is that coaches feel the need to spend vital practice time on all of the little nuances, which always takes valuable time away from developing the core fundamentals. I believe that the best way we can really invest in the long term develop of our young lacrosse players is to create “Small-Sided Games” that are more appropriate for each age group.

WHY SMALL-SIDED GAMES?

  • Less players sharing one-ball increases individual technical development (more touches per player)
  • Smaller space means more action near the goals which leads to accelerated tactical development (more relevant game action per player)
  • Less players on the field means more playmaking opportunities for each player and improved game savvy.
  • Small space and simplified rules increases the pace of play which helps keep the kids mentally engaged during games.
  • Small space and simplified rules also allow all players, not just the best athletes, to have a positive impact on the game.
  • Small-sided games are easier logistically – less space needed for facilities, simpler rules for officials, and less players needed to form teams.
  • All of this leads to better development for the kids and more FUN!

APPROPRIATE GAMES FOR EACH AGE LEVEL

Soccer and Hockey have long understood the importance of small-sided games. US Youth Soccer recommends the following games for each age group in their sport (from usyouthsoccer.org):

  • 6 years old – 3 vs. 3 with no goal keepers
  • 8 years old – 4 vs. 4 with no goal keepers
  • 10 years old – 6 vs. 6 with goal keepers
  • 12 years old – 8 vs. 8 with goal keepers
  • 13 and older – 11 vs. 11 with goal keepers (“real soccer”)

I think that lacrosse should follow a similar model where kids don’t play fullfield lacrosse until about 7th or 8th grade. Everything below that should build up each level slightly in number of players, size of field, size of goals, and complexity of rules. Although unfortunately US Lacrosse has not put out official rules for small-sided games or even really encouraged a move in this direction, a good place to start is to look up north to Canada and the way that they play box lacrosse.

BOX LACROSSE

One of the great things about lacrosse is that there is already a small-sided version of the game that has been played for years and has proven results when it comes to producing extremely technically and tactically talented players. Box players have long been successful in translating their skills over to the field game including:

  •  Team Canada winning 2 of the past 3 FIL World Field Lacrosse Championships (2006 and 2014)
  • 2006 FIL World Field Lacrosse Championships MVP – Geoff Sider (FaceOffs)
  • 2014 FIL World Field Lacrosse Championships MVP – Dillon Ward (Goalie)
  • Most Major League Lacrosse Defensive Player of the Year Awards – Brody Merrill
  • #1 Major League Lacrosse Career Ground Balls Leader – Brody Merrill
  • 4 of top 5 NCAA DI Single Season Points Leaders
  •  7 of top 10 NCAA DI Career Goals Leaders
  • 5 of top 10 NCAA DI Single Season Goals Leaders
  • #1 NCAA DI Single Season Ground Balls Leader – Geoff Snider
  • 2013 NCAA DI Goalie w/ top save % – Dillon Ward
  • With the NCAA DI records, keep in mind that box players have never made up more than about 5% of the player population.

This does not mean that every kid that plays box lacrosse will become a pro. But when you consider that Canada has 1/10th of the youth lacrosse players as America and they spend considerably less time and money on the sport than we do yet have been able to achieve that results outlined above, they must be onto something! I am a big believer in the box lacrosse game and feel
that it is 100% the best way to develop young players and also is a great way for all players to experience and enjoy the game of lacrosse in a different way.

I would encourage all Texas programs, coaches, and parents to start thinking more about box lacrosse and the importance of small-sided games. We have the resources, the number of athletes, the weather, the facilities, and everything needed to become one of the top hot beds in the country but we must first re-think our approach to how we develop our young players. Do we want to be on the cutting edge of the sport or just be another non-East Coast location struggling for respect?