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Reflect: Lessons learned to be a better lacrosse coach.



With tryouts now in full swing and a month to sit back and reflect on my successes and failures as a coach, I decided that it's time to put out my lessons learned from the 2017-2018 lacrosse season. A year ago, getting ready to start my first season as a head coach at the U-13 level, I was full of confidence and optimism. I was finally going to be able to apply all of my beliefs and hypotheses on what would mold a highly competitive youth team. We certainly had some successes, but there is plenty of room for improvement, and that starts with me, the coach.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests that most people suffer from illusory superiority; that is, people with low ability have a tendency to overrate their talent in a given subject matter. Have you ever heard that most drivers would rate their driving skill as above-average? 

Having been successful as a defensive coordinator in the 2016-2017 season, my confidence in my ability to be a head coach was through the roof. In reality, I had a lot to learn. Having played at the college level, I assumed that I could take a lot of the same concepts and immediately apply them to a group of 11-12 year-olds. I went with this approach through fall-ball, winter training and early spring practices. Hey, it sounded good at the time. Dunning-Kruger calls this, "Mt. Stupid" and by our first game of Spring 2018, I had ascended to its peak.


As you can imagine, I tried to build in the details before we had a foundation. I had a vision of where we wanted to be, but without the roadmap to get there. By the end of Spring 2018, I had settled comfortably into the Valley of Despair and spent the latter part of the summer season trying to crawl my way onto the slope of enlightenment.

What went wrong?

Inconsistent Expectations

I went into every practice with a rough practice plan, but I was highly inconsistent in how attentive I was in certain portions of practice. Stick work was the biggest victim to this shortcoming. I often grouped stick work into part of our warm-up, rather than being a core focus of our practice. I expected stick skills to improve just by way of players holding their sticks.

Complicated Drills

Some of our drills had a lot of moving parts. A single drill would have aspects of passing/catching, groundballs, dodging, shooting, defensive approaches, etc. It required a lot of focus from our players and it spread the coaching staff's attention too thin. No one was focusing on attention to detail with high intensity.

No Clear Objectives

Like I mentioned above, I had a vision without a path forward. My hopes for last season were to have a rock-solid defense, good transition and crisp stick work. I still strongly believe in each of those tenets, but we need clearly defined milestones to reach those end points.

How will this season be different?

Deliberate Practice

This season will have a much greater focus on high repetition, small scale goals. Through out the season, I will look to evolve the scope of drills, but winter training will focus on 2-3 skills at a time. This approach will help players gain a better understanding of the expectations of the drill and give individual skills high levels of focus. As coaches, we will better be able to reward small details or make timely corrections so that bad habits don't go unnoticed. 

By summer, per the recommendation of my assistant coaches, we began regularly using skill stations. With 3 coaches, we split the team into 3 groups of 6-7 players. Each station had a specific skill which we rotated through across practices: passing/catching, dodging, ground balls, shooting, dodging, agility, etc. We would dedicate 10 minutes to each skill station. These stations will continue to be a regular staple of every practice plan going forward.

Measure Everything (and set Tactical Goals)

I struggled with keeping my players focused through mundane stick work drills all season. The drills would improve if I introduced the threat of conditioning, but even then, their interest was sometimes lackluster and unscheduled conditioning often through a wrench into my practice plan. The most successful drills always had a score to beat or a clearly defined pass/fail goal.

In addition to having a pass/fail goal, recognizing skill improvement can be a great motivator in itself. Luckily, beginner skill development often follows a linear progression and can be very easy to show growth. Linear progression suggests that when variables are removed and drills are stripped to the bare bones, improvement can be expected in every progressive workout. Consider a beginner weightlifter. On their first day of training, they will likely be unstable with a very modest amount of weight. However, as they become stronger, they will likely be able to add a few pounds to the bar or increase the number of repetitions in a given exercise on every sequential workout. Assuming the drills are defined simply enough, we can expect the same thing in the skills that we practice for lacrosse.

As skills are mastered and linear improvement is no longer visible in the beginner skills, I will introduce more difficult skills. This will allow every player to see their own personal growth and gain confidence in their abilities. Here are some of the things that I will look to implement with some form of periodization:

  • Stick work drills would either focus on precision (i.e. consecutive pass/catch) or be a timed exercise (i.e. 50 successful pass/catch per group). After players have mastered standing right and left-handed passing, we can add a number of different wrinkles to continue to show regular growth. These could include: cross-hand passing, cross-hand catching, pass/catching on the run and finally behind the back.
  • Plyometrics, agility and speed training can be measured by an improved quality of each respective repetition. If we consider building explosive upper body strength, we can start with a push-up. In order to keep volume manageable, a standard push-up can evolve into walking push-ups or clapping push-ups. While many of these drills can be measured, like the push-up, in some cases, adding more challenging skills will need to be left to my judgement. This will largely pertain to ladder drills, where a player will likely start hunched over, looking at the ladder and run the drill with inconsistent foot patterns. I will specifically look for better athletic positioning, balance and confidence in completing the exercise before introducing a more difficult set of skills.
  • Conditioning is pretty straight forward. I try to keep conditioning limited in volume, but with pretty high intensity. I like to mix in 150 yard shuttles (25-yards up-and-back 3 times), 300 yard shuttles (50 yards, 3 times) or "17's" from my basketball days. All will be time capped and follows a 1 work : 2 rest time interval. Throughout the season, I will introduce additional repetitions or decrease the time cap.
While the drills completed in practice may vary from practice to practice, I plan on pulling together a handful of benchmark drills that will be completed monthly. This will allow us to set tactical goals and show actual progress through out the season.

Transparency
It is for everyone's benefit to be more open about where each player stands well before game day. I have pulled together a weighted average score card for each position group. I intend to share each scorecard with every player and their parents. The scorecard will outline a rating for each skill, a general ranking of each player relative to their teammates and, most importantly, the greatest opportunities for growth. Ryan and I are currently looking to implement this score card in LacrosseLab.com so that all of our users can take advantage of the same!

By sharing these reports after fall ball, winter training, spring league and summer tournaments, every player will have no reason to be surprised about where they stand in the depth chart. Players will also have a clear understanding of what is currently holding them back and how to improve as a player so that they can earn more playing time.

Conclusion

I put a lot of effort into being the best possible coach that I can be for my players. I know the impact that my coaches had on me as a player and want to be sure to pass that along to my players. My time to reflect has ultimately led me to more clearly define my team's goals, measure their progress and communicate feedback on their growth. If every player has a clear outline of expectations, we can be more consistent in our practice and team expectations.

 As we lead into Fall 2018, what will you be doing differently with your players?

-Eric

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