More and more middle school girls are playing lacrosse these days. Some play 4 and 5 years before they try out for high school. The question is, is that experience as useful as it could be? The jump from middle school to high school can be tough. The play is rougher, and the rules are different. A middle school star may not be able to improve as fast when she hits high school if she has been allowed to play with certain bad habits learned in earlier years. It is often easier to teach a brand new kid to play, than break the bad habits of a 4th year incoming freshman player. As such, teaching then the basics from the very start is crucial.
Problem 1: High Cradle
One of the rules that’s different is that checking is allowed only below the shoulder in junior lacrosse. This is well intended, and crucial for safety in middle school. But, it encourages kids, when cradling, to slide their top hand way down their stick shaft, and raise their stick head up high above their head. This works great in middle school. It allows many kids to run the field with the ball in a high cradle, shoot and score. The kid and her coaches think this is a good thing, and everyone cheers and claps.
In high school, checking is allowed up and over the head, as long as it doesn’t go toward the head, or break the plain of the sphere or bubble around the head.. But, when they get to high school, this cradle is too high, and is very checkable, leading to more forced turnovers. Worse than that, it draws other kids to check in that area, because that high stick is so inviting. That happens to be where the head is, and checking near that area is not legal, but it happens anyway.
Not fixing this leads kids and parents baffles when they get to high school and are ineffective. Far too many kids are coming into the high schools with this habit, and it’s really hard to break. The only answer is to start at the ground up.
Solution: Slide Hands apart and cradle vertically, in tight.
This problem is easily solvable, by sliding the top hand all the way up the shaft in tight spaces, and cradling shoulder to nose. The hands should be at the top and the bottom of the stick shaft. If there is stick showing at the bottom, it can be pulled by the opponents cross, causing a dropped ball. If the top hand is at the top, it keeps the cradle in closer to the head, less checkable.
A drill to help this shown in my DVD, “Your Stickwork Will Save you!”. Cradle with dominant hand at the top, bottom hand close to the butt end of the stick. Cradle right in front of the face, shoulder to shoulder. The stick is vertical, and making the same sized arc top and bottom. While cradling, sit down. Then lay down onto your back, still cradling. Now, still cradling, back stand up. If you do this enough times, you can do it without dropping the ball. When you can do it without dropping the ball, do the same in your non-dominant hand. When you can do 10 in a row on each hand, without dropping the ball, please come and try out for my varsity team. I need you!
Problem 2: Diagonal Cradle
The cradle in the boys’ game is much different than the effective cradle in the girls’ game. Kids run into problems when their coach (often an ex-men’s player) teaches a cradle that is diagonal… across the body. This allows a low point in their cradle, next to the shoulder of their top hand. I call this a “hanging stick”. It is easily checkable, and leads to lost possessions.
Solution: Lay down Stand ups… with a roll
This drill is actually shown in my DVD “Your Stickwork Will Save you!”. Cradle with dominant hand at the top, nose to shoulder. While cradling, sit down. Then lay down onto your back, still cradling. Now, still cradling, roll up onto your left shoulder. Keep cradling, roll back to center and sit up and stand up. If you do this enough times, you can do it without dropping the ball. When you can do it without dropping the ball, do the same in your non-dominant hand.
Problem 3: Running instead of passing the ball
Timing and passing is everything is girls’ lacrosse. No one can run as fast as the ball can be thrown. The problem is many coaches get frustrated when their kids can’t catch well. So, they tell them to run the ball. At least they can win that way. I do not agree with this philosophy at all. If they are forced to pass at a young age, their skills multiply faster than if they have to learn at an older age.
Solution: Pass even if it hurts… even if it loses games
It’s a numbers game. The more balls that are thrown at a player, the more they will be forced to try to catch. A kid who has have 5000 balls thrown at them may catch 2500 of them If a kid has had 10,000 balls thrown at them, and they catch 5000, they are going to be a better player than the previous player. Catching will become easier, and more effective. Coaches should be forcing their kids to pass, keeping in mind, that in the end, they are creating better players who will be better at catching than if they ran the ball a lot. The 3 pass rule doesn’t touch the amount of passing I am talking about. I am talking about teaching them to look up as soon as they catch the ball. Then they should be changing the flow of the direction of the ball as much and as often as possible… even if it’s not downfield in a given pass. Each time the ball goes on a flat or diagonal pass, the defense has to re-set.
Problem 4: Teach them how to give catch.
When a player catches a ball, she has 2 choices on how she does this, and she needs to learn the right way from the start. It’s a very subtle difference. A parent or an untrained eye might not be able to see the difference. And they might not even know that there is a difference. When the ball gets to her stick, she can wrap the stack head around the ball… essentially starting her cradle early. With the shallow nature of a girls stick (vs. a boys stick) this wrapping can cause the webbing or one of the side walls to knock ball out. This decreases her catching percentage. Or, she can learn from the beginning to give catch:
The Girls game requires soft hands and a lot of finesse with your stick. The proper way to catch is a give catch. This involves contacting the ball in the air, about 2 feet above and in front of the shoulder. At the point, the stick needs to be moving with the linear trajectory of the balls path. It needs to be moving more slowly than the ball at contact, but not by much. As the stick’s web slows the ball, the elbow bends, and the stick head moves back towards the shoulder. This is the give. The stick’s backward movement should stop between the ear and the shoulder, and then the cradle should be started. That brings us to the next thing…
Problem 5: Turning to go down field too early.
I see so many young and inexperienced players making a fatal error in how they move when the ball is thrown to them. I think they think that they have to move toward the goal they want to score on right away. It’s just not so in this game. Because of the fact that we have no pocket, and because of the fact that running to the ball that is in mid air jams the ball into the pocket, making it easier to catch that way… it seems we have no choice. That means that teaching and encouraging over the shoulder passes is not a good thing with younger players. And letting them turn down field without first accelerating toward the ball, and completing the give catch before pivoting and heading down field is a mistake too.
Solution: A Big circle drill
Have your team make a huge circle, with the kids about 15 yards apart. Give a ball to the first player. Have her take 2 steps one way from the intended passie, cradling, then pivot, look up, and pass to the next kid in the circle. That kid should be moving to the ball, and when she catches it, she should take 2 more steps through her catch, pivot, and look up and throw it to the next kid, who is cutting to her. And so on. The ball moves around the circle. The next kid always needs to start cutting to the girls with the ball right as soon as she sees that she is pivoting in her direction. The pass needs to come off within 2 steps of the pivot. Timing is everything. If you have a big team, this circle could use up your whole field, and you could use several balls.
When they get good at the above drill, add this: in the moment that the previous player catches the ball, take 2 steps in another direction, then cut to, but diagonally for the ball.
Do this drill right to right, left to right, right to left and left to left. The direction that they pivot to should always be the way that they can hide the ball from their defender.