How to be a good Coach
By: Hoch Cho
The recreation league season will be starting soon (January for us in California and March\April for everyone else). I wanted to share my experience to existing coaches and parents who are considering coaching this coming season. It’s a lot of work but extremely rewarding, and I hope some of you readers will try it.
Like many, I was drafted into coaching because my boys’ team coach went AWOL after the first game. Because my teams and my boys did so well, a couple girls asked me to start a team. With some recruiting, we were able to convince six rookies to play and by merging with another school fielded the first middle school team in our school history. It was a huge success. Enrollment in the high school team shot up the next few years. Two of my nine players recently committed to D1 programs, and a 15-20th ranked high school team went to the state semi-finals led by those middle schoolers now turned high schoolers.
Here were my keys to success:
Define goals very clearly and repeat them over and over again.
Make everything into a game.
I) Define Goals
As a team we decided that success was going to be 1) having fun and 2) increasing the number of girls who play lacrosse. The second goal was intimately tied to the first because the best way to convince soccer, volleyball, softball and basketball girls to try the sport is if it’s fun to play.
Now “fun” is a loaded word. What is fun? There seem to be two opposite opinions. Many people equate fun with winning. Others believe fun is laissez faire, doing what you want, regardless of the outcome.
We defined fun as getting better as lacrosse players. Each player had three individual goals at the beginning of the season. Also, in the practice before each game, I gave each player a near term goal written out on an index card which she had to tell her parents and then bring the card with her to the game. During warm-up, we’d talk about the goals. For my better players, a goal might be: Three Lefty Shots. For a rookie playing her first lacrosse game, the goal was: Three Ground Balls. It was surprising how upbeat and happy kids can be after being shellacked 18-1 by a superior team (we were never going to play them close given how talented and experienced they were), but having everyone hit their near term goals did just that. Interestingly the rate of improvement accelerated. One of my rookies went from struggling to get ground balls to a threat to score by the end of the season.
You have no control over winning or losing, but you do have control over how you play.
II) Play Games
One of the things I learned from my boys is that kids tune you out if you speak more than 50 words. It’s better with girls who are more polite and make much more of an effort to listen. Nevertheless, it’s always better to teach with action than with words. Here are some examples:
Ultimate Lacrosse. A common problem that many women’s coaches face is having a dominant athlete who during practice can just run through everyone and score. This situation is not good for the athlete who never learns to do anything else (catch and throw for instance) or the rest of the team who never get to touch the ball. In this situation, trying to change behavior through talk is almost impossible, best to create a game that forces changed behavior. In this instance, we played Ultimate Lacrosse which was lacrosse with Ultimate Frisbee rules. A player with the ball could take no more than 3 steps and any dropped pass was a change in possession.
We liberally changed the rules to get the outcome we wanted. Because our stick skills were so poor at the beginning (six of nine had never played lacrosse before), we played Ultimate with a nerf basketball. Then we moved on to a SwaxLax ball which is easier to catch and doesn’t roll as far. Because the defense was too good, we allowed the ball carrier to run as much as they wanted parallel or backwards. When the defense got better, we forced the defense to go a woman down always. This ongoing game was a lot of fun, and the girls learned game sense and skills even before the whole team could catch and throw.
Uneven Sides and/or Multiple Goals. The problem in any highly technical sport is that the offense is way behind the defense. A simple way to solve for this is to spend most of your practice giving the offense an advantage. We loved to play 2 on 1, 3 on 2 and 4 on 3 or an even-sided game where there were two possible goals. I always try to construct a game where the offense almost always scores. Here’s a great game to teach a player to drive to goal, force a slide and then pass to the open player. It teaches the open player to catch a ball and then finish under pressure. It teaches the defender to be wily and run hard.
Here’s a configuration I like to use to teach girls to play with their non dominant hand, in this case a righty. Do you see why a player is forced to use her left hand in this game?
Girls feel uncomfortable playing behind the net. I like to play half court lacrosse, kind of like half court basketball, but with the orientation changed so that they are forced to play from behind the net. It also creates super long slides for the defense (wonder why our girls don’t play this offense more in games) which makes the passing and throwing easier too.
The variations you can come up with are endless. You don’t even need goals. You can do it with peach baskets or buckets. You can ask the kids to come up with a game. The only rule is the game should be designed to end in a goal and the defense also gets points in some way. It might be as easy as shouting out the correct calls (I got ball, I got your left etc.) and making the correct slides. Keep score and let the winning team pick the reward (10 push-ups vs. a minute of plank).
I’ve been surprised at how difficult it can be to score even with these advantages. I was also surprised at how much running the girls needed to do playing these games. No one runs their hardest during conditioning, but everyone wants to win and will run hard to do that. I guarantee that you won’t need to run sprints at the end of practice if you play a bunch of games like these.
Do Something Silly. One of girls’ favorite shooting drills was when I curled up in a ball in the goal and let them shoot at me with tennis balls from 10 meters (better players had to shoot with their opposite hand). Nothing focuses the teenage mind as much as the chance to inflict pain on the coach. After a month, I had to stop this game as the girls got too good!
We brought boys in to scrimmage with girls sticks. We had small sided games (5 v 5) against other schools with a referee and fans and everything. We had water balloon fights. We pushed a car in neutral in the parking lot to work on strength. We borrowed hamster balls and played human sumo six girls at a time. Abs and legs were sore for days after that.
You know what you enjoyed growing up. Make the practice something you would’ve enjoyed 20 or 30 years ago.
III) Be Organized
Practice Plan. It helps to have a practice plan on paper. I liked to make an index card which would show a Game in detail. For example, I’d have an index card with “Ultimate Lacrosse” as the heading and with a picture of how the game worked or bullet points with rules underneath. I then made a bunch of index cards and wrapped them with a rubber band. That way if a game I’d created wasn’t working, I could flip through the deck and immediately pull out another one to replace it.
I had three sets of index cards, two were for my assistant coaches. If we needed parent help, it was easy. We just gave them a couple index cards and they could run a station.
Goals. I kept a very simple spreadsheet with each player’s season goals and game by game goals. I let each player and her parents know how they were doing against those goals and then at the end of the season, I gave them what they had achieved as a paper report card. Our first season was very discouraging with lots of lopsided losses, yet we lost no players and in fact gained a couple. It really helped everyone “remember” why we were doing this and what we had achieved.
Being a coach is hard work, and there are some common problems to becoming a girls lacrosse coach.
How to teach the fundamentals when you haven’t played the game yourself. This problem is a very difficult one to handle. In certain sports like basketball, there are a ton of YouTube videos that teach the sport very well and are extremely detail oriented. This is not true for women’s lacrosse. For example, when I checked a year ago something like 5 of the top 10 most viewed instructional videos were teaching catching and throwing incorrectly. All the videos did not go into enough detail so that you had the strange consequence that only a person who already knew how to catch and throw could learn how to catch and throw from watching the videos.
So, what is a coach to do? Here are three things to focus on. If a girl does all three, then she will figure everything else out herself.
Grip. Watch Coach Holly’s video HERE that explains how to hold the stick. This is the most important fundamental in catching and throwing.
Throwing. Practice throwing without a stick like a baseball or softball player. Throwing with a stick is exactly the same motion (including the step beforehand with the opposite foot).
Catching. Keep both knees bent. Give with the wrist when catching. It’s just like catching a ball with a mitt. As the ball hits the pocket, the wrist gives a little bit.
To do more than that requires some instruction from someone who knows how to catch and throw (someone like Coach Holly!).
Getting a goalie. Persuading a player to play goal or training a girl who wants to play goal is a very difficult thing. First, let’s consider the situation when you don’t have a goalie. At this point, I usually try out bribery. I bring special treats (food, drinks, a cold towel for the neck on hot days) for anyone willing to play goal. If we listen to music during warm-up, she gets to pick the playlist. It goes without saying that the goalie is given a leadership position (captain for games, leads warm up). She’s allowed to play her choice of position when not playing goal.
If that doesn’t work, then I usually rotate everyone at goal game by game based on a lottery.
If I have a dedicated goalie, that’s a great situation, but now I need to develop her as well. I’ve been lucky that I was able to borrow a high school player to act as an assistant coach and work with the goalie. If not, check out a few goalie drills and recommendations HERE.
Counter-intuitively, I have the goalie spend more time practicing catching and throwing than saving the ball. Most goals in youth games come from bad clears so if you moneyball it, teaching the goalie how to throw the ball well results in fewer goals against than by teaching how to save the ball (which takes a long time to do). Also teaching a goalie how to catch and throw is actually a pretty good way to teach them how to save the ball. I’ve noticed that good goalies often have some of the best stick skills on the team. The two skills are correlated.
Parents and hopeful coaches, working with kids in any sport is difficult, but there are some additional obstacles for lacrosse. That said, it is extremely rewarding. My hope is that these suggestions and lessons learned help pave the way for parents taking the coaching reins in the future. Best of luck, and we hope to see you out on the field!
Lacrosse dad, enthusiast, player, and writer!
Hyonmyong (Hoch) Cho grew up in inner city Chicago playing pickup basketball, back alley football and stickball. He learned lacrosse at the Groton School where he started for four years as a leftie defenseman for Coach Tom Degray. He was also a three-year varsity player on the football team as a running back and outside linebacker for Coach Jake Congleton. They were both legendary coaches and leaders who won championships despite being at small schools by teaching ART. Hoch attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he was a Morehead Scholar. He most recently coached both boys and girls youth lacrosse teams at The Waterford School in Utah.