Like you, I watched with intense interest the final games of the NCAA Tournament. And hopefully, like you, watched and learned as a student lacrosse coach looking to be even better this summer and next season. Although there are still consistencies in the game, so many things have changed in the game we love. Coaches as a whole seem to be reluctant to change, but change is good, inevitable, and the kids love it.
As we prepare players to be in a position to be successful or to potentially be better groomed for playing at the next level, please keep these thoughts in mind in your preparation. I am sure you could add to the ideas I have listed, but here are a few for your review. And please remember, excelling in these areas cannot be taught off a whiteboard or lecture; they need to be integrated into our drills.
Still the Same
Clearly the games of the weekend indicated the critical priority of face-offs, goalie play, and clearing. And it remains interesting that many of us as coaches, when we prepare our practice plans, spend relatively little time in these three areas.
As demonstrated by Coach Danowski, and Duke, having options at the face-off position may have been the key to their dramatic overtime win. There are so many ways to integrate face-off play into practices, talking about wing play (driving players off or away from a player charging on a fast break), and we need to develop options as coaches. Having a pole as an option as well as different styles of face-off players can truly make a difference at a key point in the game.
Many of us are not goalie experts, but there are resources available to us. Warming up goalies is not the end-all of goalie development. There are so many videos and camps (e.g., Pilat Camp) we need to get in the hands of our goalies and sit down and discuss with them.
In the Division I finals the last two years, impatience and inability to clear at key times may have been one of the turning points in the game. You may have noticed that almost every 'static' clear starts with a long re-direct pass. We have to make sure, even at the HS and rec level, that these drills are in our practice plans.
And let us not forget that championship teams are relentless riding teams well past the restraining line all the way to the midfield line. I think back to our podcast with Coach Pressler in which he spoke about ending each and every practice drill by rolling out a ball to a ride-and-clear scenario. Even a basic 4V3 drill followed by a ball rolled out to a clear, with the same players before starting a new group, can be used to re-emphasize this critical point.
In our many hours of interviews with top NCAA coaches, all talk about key changes in the game. Offenses are now being almost exclusively designed with the intent of eliminating or, at the very least, minimizing or stretching the potential double team, wherever it may come from. This is a point we need to consistently discuss with our players. And second, the role of the pure feeder has changed. The feeder's role is not simply to stand at X and pass to cutting midfielders in front of the cage but often to re-direct quick passes to 'pop-outs' on the other side of the offense as well as looking for lateral cutters.
More and more offense is being driven from the midfield. As we talk to college coaches, they attribute this change to the increased athleticism and foot speed of long stick defenders. It is very difficult just to sit back and feed from X against teams with great defensive players. (OK, I can hear you quote the announcers on the number of goals that came from the attack players at Duke. First, that is an exceptional attack group, but notice as well when you watch the replays that key goals in the championship semifinals and finals came from a lateral cut or from the midfield.)
Notice as well the amount of offense that is initiated by a middie driving and then passing back to a player that has filled his space, or 'mirrored' as some coaches refer to it. This often leads to an open 'time and room' shot or one more quick pass back to behind the cage to re-direct the offense. It is even used to create more obvious openings for a skip pass to a shot or a pop-out shot.
Picks are back. In the last three years or so, there were only a five or six top teams that featured extensive pick play with the attack. And whether it was driven by the Tambroni offense of last year or all the discussion of the Princeton 'two-man game' they are back in force. But in ways that go far beyond the traditional pick at X.
Coaches have always utilized an invert (middie behind) as an offensive tool or a way to change things up. But in these games, we saw numerous picks on the invert designed to encourage the defensive player to switch, thus having a short stick defender on an attack player following the pick. Even I can be a successful coach with our best attackman driving on a shortie.
Picks are also being designed in different areas of the offensive end than ever before. We saw many picks at goal line extended as well as five yards high of the crease free up the driving player's hands, driving from X, even if just for a moment while he is in the shooting area, to get off the shot. Again, to be successful we have to get these picks in our practices.
Shot location is critical. This seems to be an obvious statement, but if you expect to be successful against great teams, you are going to see some great goalies. It seemed to me that the shot of the tournament was a strong overhand shot directed to the far corner in the air. Great goalies are often great at stopping high shots, especially if they have time to be set and see them clearly. It was amazing just how many left-handed goalies were in the weekend tournament.
Thus, shot location and shooting on the run or directly off the pass are even more important. These are key points to emphasize in shooting drills with our players rather than simply letting them take four steps and shoot high all the time in drills.
Other coaches have a tendency to tease me about this little technique I use in my practices. We take plastic bags from the grocery store and tie them into the lower corners of the net about six inches above the ground. In drills, we have periods where players are only allowed to shoot overhand into the lower corners. This gives the kids an audio learning reinforcement as well as some great enthusiasm from the team as the bags tear apart from the shots. It also encourages the high overhand shot directly to the low corner that we saw this weekend.
These are just some of my thoughts; please share yours with me as well.