I recently attended the season kick-off meeting of a youth lacrosse recreation program that includes over 2,300 boys and girls. The gathering attracted about 120 volunteers, including the leadership of each age division of girls’ and boys’ play, along with a number of coaches. It’s always motivating to see and have the opportunity to address people who have stepped forward to help provide a lacrosse opportunity for kids. There is no question that the most essential component of lacrosse growth is the selfless contribution of time and passion of so many volunteer youth coaches and administrators.
National participation has more than doubled in the last nine years – from just over 253,000 in 2001 to more than 568,000 in 2009 – and US Lacrosse has been a catalyst for that rapid expansion. But the real key to recent growth has been the number and quality of folks who have stepped forward to coach and officiate youth lacrosse…many of whom have never played or coached the sport before. The biggest challenge we face as a result of this dramatic growth is to maintain the quality of experience for kids…which is far better measured in smiles than wins…and that is a challenge that this particular youth program has enthusiastically accepted.
Presentations on player safety, player experience and coaching education were the focal points of the meeting, as was the requirement of criminal background checks for all coaches. It was clear that this program benefits from responsible leadership who understand the relationship between establishing a positive culture and providing a great experience for kids.
As I was heading to my car following the meeting, a coach ran over to me to encourage US Lacrosse to establish a national age verification system for youth lacrosse. He’s not the first person who has experienced what appears to be a growing trend – coaches knowingly including over-aged players on their tournament teams. Such a practice is indefensible and illustrates the very worst of youth sports. Not only does it erode the integrity of athletic competition, it also violates the implied oath of all youth coaches to model the very best behavior for young and impressionable minds…and it jeopardizes the safety of players who are forced to play against more mature – and often larger – competition. Such a strong accusation should be carefully considered, however. I have also seen coaches too quickly accused of this practice before facts are checked. I believe US Lacrosse should take the lead in developing an innovative process that could help reduce this concern, and we have begun researching the development of a national age verification system for US Lacrosse members and tournament administrators.
The integrity and safety of competition are primary components of the US Lacrosse mission and, while no system would be foolproof, the development of a reliable and innovative age verification resource for youth play would seem to be a responsible step in the sport’s development. Let me know what you think.