The Power of the Sandlot

I am certainly not against organized youth sports. I think they are a great way for kids to develop general athletic skills, sample different sports, get physical exercise, build friendships, learn about handling success and failure, etc. However, I think that if we were able to step back and truly observe kids in organized sports environments compared to free-play sports environments I think that we would see that the free-play environment is vastly superior on so many important levels.

My 7-year-old son played outside with a couple of neighbors several times while we were visiting my wife’s family in Kentucky over Christmas. He had only met the kids a few times previously. One day he was outside playing for over 6 hours and only came in the house once so that he could eat lunch (he made a PBJ that he took outside to eat).

One day after he came home from playing outside, he couldn’t wait to show me how he made a catch right along the sideline (which was a pile of leaves) when they were playing football and he was able to keep his feet in bounds. “I was AJ Green,” he said.

A couple of days before we were supposed to go back home, my 4-year-old daughter got sick and we were contemplating leaving early. When we told my son that morning, he started crying because he said he promised the neighbors he would meet them outside at 10am to play and he didn’t want to let them down. We decided to stay.

The last day we were there, he was playing outside when I took my in-law’s dog out to go to the bathroom. I could hear the kids over at the neighbor’s house playing basketball although I couldn’t see them since the hoop was on the other side of their house. I could hear them going over the game situations constantly (the score, the time left in the game, who’s ball it was), they were communicating (matchups, calling for passes), and most importantly you could tell they were having a blast. When he came inside for dinner later that day, I asked my son if he had fun playing basketball, he replied disappointedly, “You were watching us?” He thought I was out there watching their game. I told him I wasn’t watching, I could just hear them when I took the dog out.

This was certainly not my son’s first time playing outside with friends or playing pick-up games, however, since it was so recent it made me think again about how important these types of opportunities are for kids mentally, physically, and socially.

He owned the story of the game. Since I wasn’t there watching him, he got the opportunity to tell me what happened in his own words (and give a physical demonstration). He was so excited to tell his story about the catch he made. In organized sports, since the parents are watching the game, there is often no reason for the kid to be excited to tell his story after the game. And unfortunately, we end up being the ones that talk about the game, so the story becomes ours and not theirs.

He dreamt he was a pro. He got to be AJ Green. I think all adults can remember playing outside with our friends and pretending to be someone else. I can remember at recess one of my friends would pretend he was Lawrence Taylor whenever we played football and if he made a “tackle” he would get in your face and yell “OOOOH YEEEEAH, LT BABY!” while flexing his 9-year-old muscles. In all his season of organized sports, I am yet to observe my son dreaming that he was one of his heroes. Perhaps this is because there is so much else going on in organized sports (coaches, refs, parents, rules, etc.) that kids don’t have a chance to dream while they play?

He was accountable to his “team”. He was upset about the thought of breaking his word to his friends. Nobody had to give him a cheesy coach quote on the importance of being a good teammate…he intuitively figured it out because he had the opportunity to build a true bond with his friends.

He loved the autonomy. When he thought I was there watching him, he got genuinely upset. Similar to how kids get upset if you stare over their shoulder the entire time there are watching YouTube on an iPad or playing a video game. They love what they can own.

Not to mention, how many catching, throwing, kicking, shooting, dribbling, defending, running, and jumping reps he must have got in those few days!

Also, I failed to mention at the beginning of the story, but there were only THREE kids playing together this entire time. They played all of these sports with only three kids and clearly without making teams of even numbers.

In less than one week, he had a way more meaningful and beneficial athletic experience than he would get in an entire year’s worth of organized sports. Like I said at the beginning, I still value organized sports, and my son will continue to play on teams. However, we all look around and talk about how sad it is that pick-up games are dying, yet we can be the generation to do something about it and give our kids the opportunities that we cherished when we were their age. I dare any adult to go watch the movie the Sandlot right now without wishing that was you out there playing. Pick-up games don’t need to be taught. They are free. They are CRUCIAL. Let them happen more.

Ref Unfairly in Practice – Teach your Team to Deal with Adversity

In my opinion, lacrosse has to be one of the most difficult sports to referee.  It is fast (or at least it is supposed to be fast), the field is big, there is a lot going on, many of the rules are subjective, plus there is a culture of constant referee harassment from both coaches and parents.  Given all of these factors, it is impossible to think that any ref will ever have a “perfect game”; there will ALWAYS be missed calls.

I don’t think the last point I made is very radical or revolutionary and I imagine that deep down inside most if not all coaches would agree with me on the premise that no matter what, lacrosse refs will always make mistakes.  So, if this is common knowledge, it is crazy how bad coaches lose their minds during games when the refs appear to miss a call that puts their team at a disadvantage.  If it happens all of the time, why act so shocked every time it does happen?

My college coach at the University of Denver, Jamie Munro, (JM3 Lacrosse, check it out!), used to tell us over and over again that “the refs are just part of the field.”  It was his way of saying, “the playing surface is a factor that you cannot control so you might at as well just learn to adjust to it, and the refs are no different.”  I never remember him losing his cool on refs during games and I also do not remember too many instances where my teammates did either.

As my playing career ended and I got into coaching, I became much more aware of the constant attention that coaches paid to the refs rather than coaching their own players during games.  Knowing immediately that I wanted my teams to take on a game day demeanor much more similar to Coach Munro and my old DU teams, I developed the idea of reffing unfairly in practice (I may have stolen this idea from someone else, but I cannot remember who or when so I am just going to assume that I invented it!).

When you are coaching in practice you become the ref.  You control the action, call the fouls, start and stop play, determine scoring systems, etc.  This gives you a great platform to start teaching your players (and assistant coaches) lessons in dealing with bad calls during competition.

One of my favorite things to ref unfairly is Continuous 3v2 (aka West Geny).  Split up into two teams and players are constantly transition from defense to offense; it is perfect for keeping score and making practice more competitive.  Whenever I notice one team winning by a great deal and the game is almost over, the next time the losing team has the ball I call out “Next goal wins!”

The first time you do this, I can almost guarantee you that the losing team will score and win the game.  When you call out “next goal wins,” the winning team loses their mind on how unfair that is while the losing team gets excited about their newfound momentum.  The more you do this throughout the season and take some time afterward to talk to your team about why you are reffing things unfairly, you will notice that your team doesn’t react to the uncontrollable factors (such as your bad calls), they just keep playing and remain focused on the task at hand!

I have certainly not always been an angel on the sidelines myself.  But I do strive to constantly improve my sideline behavior by portraying a consistent demeanor of focus to my players.  This is a difficult thing to improve because it is hard to practice; in fact, I would guess that most coaches and teams do not practice it at all and just assume that they will be able to react appropriately in the heat of battle.  Reffing unfairly in practice is a great way to keep this concept fresh on the minds of your players and coaches.  Plus, it will start to carry over into your team’s ability to handle other uncontrollable factors besides just dealing with refs and bad calls.

Here are a couple of tips to reffing unfairly:

  • Pick on one particular person or team more than the other – if you notice one person or team get too high or too low, target them and see how they react
  • Do it during competitive practice games (works better when it is a game and you are keeping score more so than a traditional drill)
  • Always explain to the team WHY you are doing it this way – to teach them not to worry about uncontrollable factors such as refs – if you don’t explain why, kids may take it as a personal attack
  • Make sure the coaching staff is on the same page so that all coaches understand it is part of the plan and you are not just losing your mind – just as your players learn to deal with the refs properly, your assistants will too
  • Praise your team when you begin to notice their ability to react appropriately (or not at all) to unfair situations

I know it may seem a bit aggressive but putting your players in extremely unfair scenarios periodically throughout practice will definitely have a positive impact on your team’s ability to react appropriately during games.  Also, take comfort in knowing that there is a really good chance your opponent has not put the same emphasis on remaining focused through adversity as you have (remember, it is lacrosse culture to lose your mind during games when something unfair happens) and this gives you a HUGE advantage when it comes to winning the game!

What if we treated video games like we do youth sports?

This is an article I wrote in January 2015, it was originally posted on my old website, Sullivanlacrosse.com.

Imagine a world where parents and coaches control a kid’s video game experience like we do his sports experience. Would kids want to play video games as much if we treated them like we treat youth sports?

Adults complain about how often kids play video games these days and call them lazy for wanting to “sit in front of the X-Box all day.”  I don’t think that kids are just inherently lazier now; I think that youth sports have become less fun.

Video Game Practice
Coach talking: “You can’t just pick up and play this video game; first you have to practice the basics!  Now let’s go over the controller and all of the buttons and exactly what each one does.  Now pay attention!  The “X” button jumps, the “Y” button fires the gun, but if you press “X” then “Y” really fast at the same time you do a super jump…hey put your controller down and look up here, that’s disrespectful to look at your controller while the coach is talking!  Now as I was saying…”

…15 minutes later…

“…and finally, the “Start” button is used to pause and un-pause the game.  Ok, now let’s practice a few jumps.  Watch me do it first and try to do exactly what I do.”

The coach demonstrates a few simple jumps from ledge to ledge then hands the controller to the player to try.

Coach talking while the player is attempting his first jump: “Do it just like I did.  Okay, get ready to jump…No!  You went too early.  Here, give me back the controller so I can show you again.  Now pay attention this time, this isn’t that hard!”

…1 hour later…

Coach talking: “Pretty good practice today.  It takes years to get good at Halo so don’t get too discouraged.  But remember, it’s all about the basics and until you get those down the game doesn’t matter.  Next practice if we get through our jumps better we can learn how to fire the gun!”

Game Day
The day finally arrives (3 weeks later) when the kid gets to actually play the game!

Dad talking to him before he plays: “Are you nervous son?  Play hard today.  I know this is a difficult game so hopefully you paid attention during practice.”

…The game finally starts…

The player is encountering his first bad guys.  The coach yelling at him: “Now here come the bad guys, get your gun out and get ready to press “X”…two hand on the controller!”

Mom yelling from the couch: “Use the rocket launcher Bobby!!!”

…Bobby gets killed pretty quickly…

The coach calls a timeout: “PAUSE!  Press pause Bobby!  Now get over here.  Hustle!  Okay so next time you need to…”

…2 minutes later…

Bobby starts doing a little bit better this time.  Mom from the couch: “GOOOOO BOBBBBY!!!  Shoot them!!!”

…and then he dies again…

Bobby’s mom under her breath: “Does this coach even know how to play Halo?  I mean what is he teaching Bobby at practice because he is NOT winning right now?”

An hour later Bobby finally beats Level 1 and the game is over for today.  His coach talks to him for 20 minutes afterward about what he did well and what he still needs to improve on.  Somehow, he wasn’t able to translate those jumps they worked on all practice into the game.

Sampling Other Games
Later in the year, Bobby is starting to get pretty good at Halo and other X-Box games but decides that he also would like to try playing PS4 because they have some exclusive games that he can’t get on X-Box.

Dad: “We can’t get PS4 this year son.  You have already committed to X-Box and you are getting good at it.  We have invested so much money into your X-Box training that we can afford to also get you a PS4.  Stay focused on X-Box, trust me it will pay off in the long run.”

Select Teams
A year later Bobby was one of the better Halo players in his neighborhood.  His parents decided that the local kids were not providing enough challenge anymore for him so that the only way for him to get better right now was to form a clan with the other top players in his area and go play the best 10-year-olds from all over the country.  These games got EXTREMELY competitive and as his parents invested more and more money into his gaming, they expected more wins.  Finally, his clan just wasn’t cutting it anymore and they decided that he needed to leave his friends and go play for another clan that was much more exclusive to only the best of the best.

Conclusion
You can see where I am going with all of this.  We wonder why kids love video games so much…because it is their last sacred place.  The ball field used to also be a sacred place for kids but like video games in this article have turned to adult-centered win at all cost “factories.”  Video games are not the enemy.  If we want our kids to spend less time glued to their X-Box, perhaps we should make youth sports more like video games and actually let the kids play, have fun, explore the game, sample other sports, and develop naturally rather than race to be the best right now.  Oh, and by the way, when kids are given this opportunity, they usually get REALLY GOOD at what they are doing; just look at how good they are at video games!