Finding the fun in fundamentals

If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society. – Piaget

Take a moment, close your eyes and try to remember the times in practice when your coach would pull you aside to stress the importance of getting the fundamentals right. You probably thought then that you were being singled out for no fair reason, or why does jumping off the left foot matter that much, and/or you just wanted to play, scrimmage, In fact, my guess is this memory might conjure up a little anxiousness, perhaps some annoyance, and hopefully some laughs.

As someone who believes fundamentals truly matter and is blessed to work with kids of all ages on a daily basis in sports, I’ve come to accept that the way the majority of us felt back in the day about fundamentals is identical to how most kids today feel about fundamentals; They are boring and unnecessary and can we just play!

Therein lies the classic situation I call the ‘coaches conundrum’. The realization that anytime coaches take time during practice to focus on the importance of fundamentals, they will be inevitably sacrificing a small portion of excitement within each player. However, if you don’t take the time to get the fundamentals right, well, I’m sure anyone reading this know what that slippery, frustrated road looks like.

Alas, a real life coaching paradox that occurs every day, wherever there is practice going on. This challenge is not relegated to any one sport but rather to all sports in all countries all the time.

So what’s the solution?

I suspect most reading this would believe me when I tell you that there is not a magic bullet I know of that can provide a complete solve for this complicated challenge. Instead, I believe most honest coaches would tell you, practices are really a continuous state of testing and failing but always observing and learning. The genesis of any hypothesis we create or conclusions declared are born from the experiences, lessons we’ve learned. The following insight below is a simple but important one I’d like to share I hope all coaches, parents, and educators will consider giving it a shot. Like praising players, it costs nothing but the impact is huge.

So without further ado, a look behind Coach Bels curtain,

Find the fun in fundamentals.

Last April, I was asked by a good friend to attend to the first lacrosse practice of the year for 1st and 2nd graders. Like most volunteer coaches, he had bravely raised his hand to coach a group of young kids most of which had little to no experience. And while he played the sport his whole entire life, he too had not had much experience when it came to coaching the sport.

After some initial warm-ups, the group of roughly 60 boys broke out into four groups for some ground balls lines. After a few minutes, I observed that many of the boys in the one of the groups were not really partaking in the drill. In fact, I think it was about only a quarter of the boys who were really engaged. The rest of the gang were either going through the motions or repurposing their lacrosse stick as light sabers as they battled to the end. I also heard some loud laughter. It came from two of the kids who were supposed to be in the line drill but instead relocated themselves on the middle of the hill that abutted the field. These 2 first grade boys had tentatively suspended their desire to hunt ground balls for the moment and replaced it with the act of rolling down the hill. As I stood there observing them, I noticed both boys laughing loudly and smiling as they cruised down the hill at a fairly decent speeds with no lacrosse sticks in sight.  

Now, the majority of coaches I know would see this as unbecoming behavior and immediately reprimand the boys for their actions. And they wouldn’t be entirely wrong to do so. I mean, we all can agree that a coach’s job is to teach and how can a coach effectively teach when players are horsing around doing barrel rolls down a hill.

Having been invited to this practice to help my friend, I saw an opportunity to do just that. I asked him, if we could make a slight tweak to the ground ball drill. I suggested that instead of having the boys scoop up the ground ball and head back to the end of the line, how about:

Any player who runs hard towards the ball, calls out ‘ball’ as they scoop it up must then super fast back to the base, drop their stick, sprint up the hill, and do the best darn barrel roll they have in them. Alas, for every successful ground ball, you get one barrel roll.

I asked one the coaches to roll out a ball for me to which I charged at like there was no tomorrow, roared ‘ball’ as I scooped it up then turned to run towards the hill where I dropped my stick, and in a demonstration of passion sprinted up the hill. Knowing I had the full attention of the kids in that group, I fervently dropped for what many would consider a best-in-class barrel roll.

“Thump. Roll, Roll, Roll, Roll, Roll, and then came the Thump again.

There I was, a 40-year-old man rolling down a moderately sized hill on a cold rainy April weekend in a practice I wasn’t even the coach for trying to show these boys, barrel rolls?

William Arthur Ward, an inspiring American, author and teacher once noted;

‘the mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires”.

But, as I pulled myself up from the grass, I was pleasantly surprised, in fact thrilled to see all the kids in the group not only smiling but moreover headed back to their line, filled with excitement for their ground ball scoop.

What happened next, was something I will always remember so long as I am blessed to coach youth sports.

All 15 kids in the group, attacked the ground ball, screamed out ‘ball’ ran ferociously back, dropped their stick and hauled up the hill to claim their prize. What’s more is that after they came fumbling bumbling down the hill, they immediately jumped back in line for another ground ball opportunity. Feeling inspired, I decided to march towards another group, ready to offer up the deal of the century; one ground ball for one barrel roll.  And wouldn’t know it, no more than minute later, all the kids in that group were now scooping up ground balls then bursting up the hill for their barrel rolls.

Feeling good about the progress, I kindly thanked my friend for the opportunity to contribute and said goodbye to the group of boys. As I drove off, I had a big ole smile on my face along with some grass and mud to go with it. Taking a right onto Pond Street, I looked up at the field only to see all four groups of kids were now on the hill, rolling down, running back to their respective lines for their next ground ball opportunity.

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Now, let me honest, after having played, coached, and watched lacrosse for the past 25 years, I cannot conceive of any possibly role a barrel roll like move has in our sport. Even as big of an advocate I am of the barrel roll, it just wouldn’t make much sense. So then the question is, why spend time in practice doing it? The answer is because it was fun for those boys to do so. And not only was it fun, it was an effective way to get 1st and 2nd graders interested in mundane ground ball drills.  

There is also no question that fundamentals matter. In fact, fundamentals matter more than anything, especially early on in a player’s development. But you know what matters even more than fundamentals? I’ll give you a hint, its’ also what I’ve found to be the least focused area in youth sports these days. Create an engaging, fun approach so fundamentals are actually learned. We all know, kids learn when they play. So at Scoops Lacrosse classes, we choose to play because in play kids learn how to learn.

To all coaches reading this, whether you’re a professional or volunteer coach, the next time you find yourself planning out a practice no matter the sport or level, I challenge you to think how you might incorporate your version of the barrel roll. And I sincerely look forward to hearing from you on how it worked out!

Thank you for taking the time to read a lacrosse coach’s perspective on the importance of play in learning,

Respectfully yours,

Coach Bels

Matt BelsonComment