Fall used to mean football and soccer season, a break from the endless summer circuit. All the camps. The prospect days. The tournaments. The long car rides. The travel bags of stinking gear. Now Fall means more of the same. More camps. More prospect days. More tournaments. More opportunities to “shine”. More car rides. More lacrosse.
The constancy and intensity of today’s college recruiting landscape has created a false paradigm that more lacrosse is better lacrosse. Athletes spend more time than ever before playing lacrosse, watching lacrosse, and thinking about lacrosse. But what’s the trade-off here? At any given tournament or summer camp you can ask the assembled participants how many of them were at a tournament last weekend, how many of them are going to a tournament this weekend. The majority will raise their hands and say, “I was!” Or, “Me too!” But then look in their eyes and what do you see? Is it enthusiasm, excitement? Or is it fatigue and burnout?
In his June 2014 New York Times op-ed, David Epstein suggested the growing concern over concussions has actually obscured the more immediate and alarming threat to youth athletes: specialization and heightened pressure to be an adult athlete. Youth lacrosse programs now start in kindergarten. First and second graders are signing up for travel teams. Those picked as “destined” for higher-level collegiate success are syphoned into more intense training regimes, and they are sequestered away in year-round programs wherein they’re expected to have a stick in their hands for an hour a day, seven-days a week, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. The onus now lies on seventh and eighth graders to have an “idea” of where they want to go to college, what they should want to study in college, and what sort of program—division I, II, or III—best suits their needs and abilities. More and more 2020s are signing national letters of intent. College coaches bemoan the current arms-race. They say changes need to be made and made fast, but then when it comes time to blink, to put the proverbial money where the mouth is—who blinks? No one. The system remains in place, the rat-race continues.
By now the dangers of single-sport specialization are well-catalogued: burnout, over-use injuries, fatigue, waning interest, capped potential, diminishing returns. Numerous elite-level athletes and coaches have come forward to share the virtues of their own multi-sports experiences. They talk about “physical diversity” and the “athletic plasticity” that is developed through multi-sport participation. They describe the innate “feel” that one develops through engagement in multiple attacking sports like lacrosse and basketball and soccer. These same multisport advocates warn against the harmful consequences of single-sport focus. In his 2014 Times article, Epstein cites a Loyola University in Chicago study in which it was determined that highly specialized athletes—those who’d quit multiple sports to focus on a single sport for more than eight months per year—faced a 36 percent increased risk of overuse injury. And we’re not talking bumps and bruises, a few nicks and scrapes. We’re talking stress fractures, ligament damage, cracks in cartilage. The sort of injuries that can affect an athlete long term.
More than any other question, the one I’m most frequently asked as a high school lacrosse coach is, how do I get my son (or daughter) recruited? The question itself seems to get to the root of the single sport-specialization conundrum. In athletics we preach the gospel of process. We encourage athletes to bury themselves in the task of improvement, in the unseen hours that accumulate as honed greatness in our best athletes. Yet consistently, early-recruiting has moved the lacrosse industry in a results-oriented direction. Young men and women aren’t playing lacrosse because they love it, or because it’s a game that instills fundamental lessons about life and citizenship. They’re playing for its supposed dividends, because it offers a perceived ticket to a college education, to scholarships and a spot on the Duke or North Carolina lacrosse team.
Ryan Conrad, a sophomore at the University of Virginia, scored the game-winning goal for Team USA at the FIL U19 World Championship this summer. Scoring big goals was nothing new for the talented athlete. In his senior season at Loyola (Md.) Blakefield School, Conrad scored both goals to lead his school’s soccer team to a 2-0 upset over previously unbeaten McDonogh in the MIAA championship game.
The simplest answer to the aforementioned question, how does my son (or daughter) get recruited? is this: be good, or better yet, be great at lacrosse. Still, the hours we might better dedicate to process, to improvement and the isolation of skills and techniques requiring attention, is repeatedly spent sending our young lacrosse players to more games and more recruiting tournaments where the same bad habits and the same deficiencies are put on display for an assortment of college coaches. I recently heard Ryan Boyle tell a group of lacrosse players, “You worry about getting better. The recruiting part will take care of itself.” He’s not wrong in saying this. The best way to get recruited is not some tricky algorithm of visibility and enticement; it’s not going to the right camp, or the right collection of camps, or talking to the right collection of club coaches. It’s being good. It’s being better than good.
So how does this work then? How do we become great lacrosse players while balancing our academic, social, and extracurricular responsibilities? As always, the solution requires a little from column A and a little from column B. The first prerequisite is passion. An athlete has to make the choice to be great on his or her own. It can’t come from parents or coaches. It can’t be something that is externally supplied. The second prerequisite takes the shape of another question: how much are you willing and able to handle? Lacrosse’s recruiting landscape has bloated from a single spring season and one or two camps in the summer into a year-round machine that routinely forces parents and players alike to sacrifice their other sports interests, their family time, vacations, and other important aspects of being a kid. Many athletes become disillusioned as a result. Their priority lists become skewed. Logic seems to suggest that if lacrosse is your preferred sport, lacrosse is what matters. Other sports and other endeavors don’t matter as much. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
When I was recruited by Princeton in the late nineties, Coach David Metzbower, the current offensive coordinator at the University of North Carolina, watched me play for a total of five days at the Top 205 camp in Baltimore, Maryland. He then came to see me play soccer and basketball throughout the ensuing fall and winter. At the same time, he watched future Tigers play hockey and basketball and football at other schools and prep-schools around the country. What did he learn by watching us? Why did he spend so much time watching lacrosse recruits play sports few of them would ever play at Princeton University? He wanted to see what kinds of athletes he was recruiting, what kinds of competitors and young men he and Coach Tierney would be inviting to join their lacrosse program. In watching Owen Daly play basketball and football, he saw how an elite athlete competed no matter the context. He saw how he handled adversity and success, victory and defeat. He saw how Owen treated teammates and opponents, coaches and officials, and he saw how his future midfielder committed himself to the cause of winning.
I have players tell me all the time, I’m not going to play football (or soccer) this fall, I’m going to lift. Lifting weights is terrific. By all means, lift weights. But not at the expense of hard football practices, ninety-minute soccer games, or the pressure of a 4th and 5, or a penalty kick in the 90th minute of a scoreless playoff game. No amount of lifting weights nor playing lacrosse at one more fall recruiting event is going to better prepare you for the rigors of college athletics than the joys, demands, challenges and responsibilities of a fall sport season. Are you concerned about your ability to one day handle your academic workload while playing college lacrosse? Don’t quit football to “focus” on your academics. Instead focus on your academics while playing football. Make your sacrifices elsewhere. Are you maybe worried your time on the ice will detract from your ability to play lacrosse? Consider the strategic underpinnings of the 2v1 and how the reads and reactions are the the same in hockey or basketball or soccer as they are in lacrosse. Studies not only show that motor and anticipatory skills learned in one sport transfer across sports boundaries to another, but they show that multiple sport athletes master the sports they ultimately choose to focus on much faster than their single sport peers. If you were to compile a list of your favorite lacrosse players from either the collegiate and/or professional ranks, you will find that 95-99% of them played at least two-sports in high school, and in many cases three. Ned Crotty could have played hockey in college. Sergio Perkovic was nearly a football walk-on at Notre Dame. Teammates of mine at Princeton were recruited to play other sports at other colleges. In fact, All-American and Major League Lacrosse defenseman Damien Davis was recruited to play three: football, wrestling, and basketball.
College coaches recruit a variety of qualities in high school lacrosse players, none more than the following: outstanding skill, outstanding athleticism, and outstanding upside. Multisport athletes show considerably more of the last two than their sport-specialized peers. One thing all college coaches can agree on is they love taking a “raw” athlete and turning him into a lacrosse player. There is no doubt the current, year-round lacrosse demands make it harder to be a multisport athlete, but that doesn’t mean that other sports should be abandoned in order to find balance. Finding balance means choosing no more than two fall weekends in which to participate in lacrosse tournaments. It means selecting prospect days that don’t conflict with your football or soccer schedule. And sometimes it means doing nothing at all.
I was at a tournament this summer, watching a team of rising freshmen, when I overheard a group of people talking about how much lacrosse IQ young lacrosse players now seem to have. “Much more than we did when we were that age,” one spectator commented. “But how much joy do they have?” I asked. Sadly, it seems not nearly as much as they used to. Too often in today’s highly-pressurized, get-recruited-at-all-costs marketplace, the first thing a young lacrosse player loses is his joy for the sport, his passion. Football season is opportunity to remind ourselves how much we love lacrosse. So is soccer season. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, and time spent in the rink or on the court is as vital to our development as lacrosse players as hours on the wall. If you truly love something, you must set it free.
Matt Striebel is a National Director for Trilogy Lacrosse. He was a two-time All-American in lacrosse for Princeton and also played soccer for the Tigers. He went on to play 15 seasons of Major League Lacrosse and was a three-time member of Team USA. He won a national championship at Princeton (2001), two world championships (2002, 2010) and three MLL championships (2004, 2006 and 2007). Matt earned his BA in English from Princeton University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa and is currently the head boys’ lacrosse coach at Northampton (Mass.) High School.