SURVIVING THE CUT

I absolutely hate picking teams and making cuts. There is nothing fun about it to me. I'm not sure of any coach out there who really enjoys it and if he does, you probably don't want to play for him anyway. This past week, we had to pick our Denver Elite travel club teams that we run out of the University of Denver. We had a great turnout for our five week Sunday Sessions and there were tons of great players out there. Our main goal over the course of our Sunday Sessions is to give the players a chance to improve and compete, instead of just hold a quick tryout where no one gets better. We run drills that our DU players go through over the course of the year and teach advanced skills, so the players definitely improve. Furthermore, with all the great talent out there gunning for spots, there is certainly a high level of competition. So, I think our goals were accomplished.

At the end of it all though, we have to pick teams. It is by no means an exact science and we try to do our best. I am sure we make a few mistakes here and there, as we are human after all. We have no bias as all we want is to be able to pick the best teams possible. For the young players who are chosen for our teams, there is obviously a lot of excitement and pride. But, for all the young men who do not make the cut, there is a lot of disappointment and even some sadness. My heart totally goes out to those guys and I know what that feels like.

To share a little bit from my own experience, let me tell you about my freshman year of lacrosse in high school. I went to a private school named The Hun School in Princeton, NJ where everyone knew my father in the lacrosse world, since he was the head coach at Princeton which had won a couple of NCAA National Championships by that time. Hun had an absolutely terrible team at the time (we would have gotten our butts kicked by any of the Denver Elite club teams!) and they were trying to turn their athletic program around. Everyone was expecting me to be the star goalie there and in my freshman year, I did not even make the varsity team as a goalie. There was a senior goalie there and the coach did not feel that I was ready. I was completely devastated. Here I was, the son of a legend coach who everyone expected to be a great player, and I could not even make a bad team at my chosen position?

At first I was sad and very disappointed. I was angry too and blamed the coach, the other goalie, his parents and myself. Then, with some guidance and support from my parents and teachers, I realized that I needed to take personal responsibility for not making the team. If I wanted to play goalie at a high level, apparently I was going to have to work a lot harder. So, I decided to become a better athlete and better overall player. I found a trainer at my father's school to help me get bigger, stronger and faster and I worked out HARD with him for three or four days a week. I told the high school coach that if I could not make the team as a goalie, then I knew that I could help the team at another position. I asked him if I could play midfield and tried to become the best midfielder that I could be for that year. By the end of the year, I was on the starting midfield line and having a blast. It also helped me tremendously down the road as a goalie, by giving me a good field sense and good stick work.

I remember this experience now as I have a lot of players writing me emails asking me why they did not make our Denver Elite team. They ask, "What can I do specifically to become a better lacrosse player and make the team next year?". I do not believe there is a specific answer to that question. Basically, players do not make a team for two reasons. The first reason is that they need to improve their skills overall as a lacrosse player. The second reason is that they have to improve their athletic ability. Sometimes it is one or the other and sometimes, (like in my case as a freshman in high school) it is both.

So, obviously that is a tall task and not something I can cover in just one blog. I could only hope to scratch the surface on both of those things after a year of writing on this site! However, I can share a few of the things that were most helpful to me as an athlete and what I have seen be effective for other young lacrosse players, time and time again. So, let's look at the two questions of how to become a better player and how to become a better athlete and I will throw a few suggestions out there.

How do I become a better lacrosse player?

1. Get against a wall or rebounder EVERY DAY. I know you hear this from coaches all the time, I know that I have written this before and I know that I will write this again. This is the number one thing a player can do to improve his stick work. Playing lacrosse and not throwing against a wall is like playing basketball and not shooting hoops!

Throw one-handed against a wall and try to catch and throw 50 completed passes to yourself in a row. If you miss, then start over. Then throw one-handed with your weak hand and do the same exercise. Then, throw one-handed with your hand all the way on the bottom of your stick, instead of in the middle. Then, throw two-handed with both hands. Then, throw behind the back. Then, throw around the worlds. Okay…you get the point. Just keep throwing against the wall in all different ways so the lacrosse stick becomes an extension of your body. I absolutely guarantee that if you do this every day for 30 to 60 minutes, you will become one of the best players on your team. So, go find a good brick wall today somewhere around your house or buy this rebounder and get to work!

2. Watch good lacrosse. A lot of the players who do not make our teams are sometimes pretty good players and pretty good athletes. However, they have absolutely no sense of the game because they have not watched much good lacrosse. To find great lacrosse games on DVD, all you have to do is click on this link to Amazon and you will find a ton of great games. This link has copies of every playoff lacrosse game from the past decade or two. Watch all different players and different teams. Study how they catch and throw. Watch how they move off ball. Notice what a team offense or a team defense is supposed to look like. Bu studying these things, you will have a much better sense of what you are doing out there.

3. Keep playing! Just because you don't make a team, doesn't mean your passion for the game should be stopped. If you love to play lacrosse, then just keep finding any and all opportunities to play. My little brother and I would play outside all day long after school or during our summer days off. Then after dinner, when it was dark outside, we would get our mini sticks out in the basement and play one on one! If you love playing the game, then that's all you need to know to keep playing. Don't let some knucklehead coach (like myself) stop you from doing what brings you joy.

How do I become a better athlete?

1. Be active every day. Go for a run or bike ride or hike every evening after school instead of watching TV or hopping on the internet. The best players that I have ever seen play the game were also some of the most active people I have ever met. My good friend Matt Striebel, who has played on three USA world teams and is a MLL All-Star every year, is the most active person that I have ever met. He was notorious in college for always finding some new game to play or athletic adventure to go on. Every day after a three-hour practice at Princeton, he would get a bunch of us to play home-run derby for a couple hours!  Or one night when a bunch of guys were coming home late at two in the morning, they saw Matt outside kicking a soccer ball against a dorm wall! If you want to be a great athlete, it should be because you love doing athletic things and love being active! It should not feel like work all the time…it should feel like a natural way of life!

2. Find a good trainer. Be skeptical of any trainer who wants to have you do Olympic lifts all day with heavy weights. Just get a trainer who is focused on gradually getting you bigger, stronger, faster and more agile by teaching you exercises and movements in a safe and effective manner. One of the top stated priorities of a trainer should always be to help prevent injury. Also, for lacrosse, we believe in circuit style training where an athlete goes into a gym and works hard for an hour and then is done. Lacrosse players do not have to be body builders!

3. Do yoga. I started practicing yoga when I was around 23 years old. I was only a couple years into my professional career but I wished that I had started long before that. It made me more flexible, faster and stronger in different ways than the weight room every had. It also helped prevent injuries and made my body feel better. It also helps with balance. Finally, it develops the muscle of mental focus, which is one of the most important factors in high level athletics. Here are some great power vinyasa yoga DVDs to help you get started.

4. Set some benchmarks or goals. A high school lacrosse player who is in good shape should be able to run a mile and a half in nine minutes. He should be able to do 50 push-ups in a row, 50 sit-ups in a row, 12 chin-ups in a row  and 12 dips in a row. If you cannot do those things, then it's time to get out on the track and start doing those simple exercises every day.

5. Work on your agility and footwork. The biggest thing that young athletes struggle with is their foot speed, quickness and ability to change directions. The Nike SPARQ program has tons of great tools, products and resources to help you improve athletically in this area.

Obviously, these are VERY basic suggestions and this is nothing revolutionary. My point is that it is rarely one specific little thing that you need to work on if you do not make a team. It is usually that you simply have to become a better athlete and a better lacrosse player. The young men that we have chosen for our Denver Elite teams, and even our DU team for that matter, are the best athletes and lacrosse players that we could find.

This brings me to my last point, which I mentioned before, about personal responsibility. It is okay to be hurt when you get cut from a team. We all get sad and angry when things like that happen. The important thing is not to blame anyone, even yourself. One of my friends has a great definition for blame. He says it means, "be lame". So, if you blame coaches for not seeing that you are better than the other guy or blame your parents for not getting you involved with lacrosse earlier or blame yourself and think that you are not good enough in some way, then you are being "lame" which basically means to be weak.

However, if you take the experience of not making a team and decide that you are going to become a better lacrosse player and you are going to become a better athlete, then you are taking personal responsibility. And even if you never make a team in your life, then this will be one of the greatest lessons that you ever learn from lacrosse. Every day, things happen in my life where I can either blame another person or take personal responsibility. Lacrosse and my stupid high school coach (kidding!) helped teach me how to do that. I hope it does the same for you as well. We can either blame the world for our problems and be lame or we can take control in our lives and be strong. You make the call, and that is something that can help you survive ALL the cuts in life.