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Mark Macyk | @markmacyk
US Lacrosse’s first strategic plan boldly envisioned the first nationally standardized education, curriculum and certification program designed specifically for lacrosse coaches in the U.S. On the cusp of an unprecedented growth spurt, the sport needed more knowledgeable and qualified coaches at the high school and youth levels.
In 2004, US Lacrosse released the first online courses for men’s and women’s lacrosse coaches. In-person clinics followed shortly thereafter and, in 2007, the organization made history with the launch of Level 1 certification. Then came Level 2 programming and certification.
On Oct. 10, 2013, a 15-year effort came to fruition. US Lacrosse added Level 3 certification. Nearly 30,000 coaches have completed some component of the Coaching Education Program—including three pioneers who were the first to reach this new pinnacle.
Despite being a former teacher and a lacrosse lifer, there was a time when Baltimore-area dentist Pep Phillips wondered whether he could run drills outside of the office.
“I questioned my ability to coach,” Phillips said. “I don’t know why. But when I started, I saw I could do it and I loved it. Then US Lacrosse came out with Level 1 and it just drew me in. It’s as much fun as actually coaching.”
Phillips, a green sweater-wearing dentist by day, (“I don’t look good in anything,” he said. “But I guess I look best in green,”), six-decade lacrosse nut by night, in October became the first coach in the country to earn Level 3 certification through the US Lacrosse Coaching Education Program. The former boys’ lacrosse coach at Towson Catholic (Md.) High currently treks an hour over the Bay Bridge to Centerville three nights a week to coach his grandkids’ U-9 team.
Phillips describes lacrosse as his obsession. He has considered closing one of his two dental practices to make more time for lacrosse. But even now, patients know they won't be getting their smiles fixed on weekday afternoons in the spring.
“It’s gotten to the point where someone comes in and says ‘I’d like a cleaning at 4 o’clock,’ and the front desk will say ‘It’s April,’” Phillips said. “‘Oh, right, he’s at lacrosse practice.’”
At 65, Phillips is the elder statesman of the first wave of Level 3 earners. But he shares much in common with Jake McHerron and Chris Baldi, who were next in line—they’re all addicted to lacrosse and never want to stop learning how to teach.
Launched in 2004 as the first national certification program in the history of the sport, the CEP, spearheaded by US Lacrosse Director of Education and Training Erin Smith, has grown as quickly as the sport has. Nearly 30,000 coaches have participated in the program.
* Men’s coaches only^ Requirement takes effect Feb. 1, 2014
As the sport continues to expand into previously uncharted territories, US Lacrosse has made it a mission to continuously fill the need for knowledgeable and experienced coaches. The CEP is the surest way to ensure those coaches are effectively learning the art of lacrosse from the people who know it best.
“You’re sitting with the best minds in the business and they’re very forthcoming,” said Baldi, 52, a cardiologist and coach in the Wilmington (Del.) Wings youth program. “You have very serious competitors willing to share everything with you from the first time you go to a Level 1 clinic. You don’t see that in basketball or football.”
US Lacrosse’s vision is a future in which every coach is certified. Members have free access to the Level 1 online classes. Level 1 is designed to introduce the game by providing the tools to teach the rules, basic individual skills, and team concepts to players of all age, but its core lessons remain relevant to every coach at any level.
McHerron, 43, earned his Level 1 certification while leading the NCAA Division I women’s team at Siena.
“At the time, I asked myself, ‘Do I really need to do this?’” McHerron said. “But I thought it was great. I always want to see what great coaches have to say. You can never stop learning.”
Moving on to Level 2, McHerron said, provided perspective on what he learned in Level 1. Level 2 focuses more on tactical strategies and helping coaches advance players who already have an understanding of the fundamentals.
The demanding nature of Level 3—just 16 coaches had earned certification as of December—hones the highest level of practical skills, encouraging coaches to think critically and create strategies.
Level 3 also emphasizes continuing education opportunities in coaching theory and tactics. US Lacrosse has partnered with the Duke and Notre Dame men’s programs and the Johns Hopkins and Maryland women’s programs to have their clinics qualify for credits. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) also are strategic partners.
US Lacrosse recommends at least three years experience coaching players age 15 and older before beginning the Level 3 certification process, as it’s geared toward coaching at the high school level.
Early adopters say the appeal is actually much wider than that.
“It’s more orientated to anyone who’s going to coach lacrosse,” Phillips said. “You have to take a U11 kid and make him a player at the high school level. To have everybody be a Level 3 coach would not be a bad thing.”
It works the other way, too. Even those with collegiate coaching experience can learn new tricks.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh, you can teach the class,’” said McHerron, who currently coaches at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake (N.Y.) High. “But you’re learning from a younger generation. The game is evolving and it could pass you by so quickly. Every day you should be able to learn something. It rejuvenates you.”
As the sport grows, a coach like Baldi, who played at the youth level in central New Jersey but attended a high school without a team, would be a prime candidate for CEP certification.
“You don’t have to be a prior player to be a solid coach,” Baldi said. “One of the best coaches in my area is a guy named John Croney, and he never played. So to be able to learn from professional coaches, you see it doesn’t have to be one way. It’s just a phenomenal program.”
And while these coaches have reached the top of the CEP, don’t expect them to ever stop learning. And don’t expect US Lacrosse to slow down in its expansion of educational offerings.
"If they make Level 50, I’ll do Level 50," said Baldi. "As long as they keep offering courses for me to improve as a coach, I’ll be there.”
For some, that desire to improve never really wanes, no matter what the age.
“If all the parts hold together I’ll be coaching for another 10 years,” Phillips said. “That lacrosse addiction that was born when I first picked up the stick in, I hate to say it, 1955, that passion, I don’t think it goes away.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription.
Photo Credit: John Strohsacker
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