As the youth sport culture becomes increasingly competitive at younger ages, it is difficult for us as parents at times to maintain perspective about what is most important for our kids. While standing on the sidelines watching our kids compete, we can experience a host of strong emotions: excitement, fear, hope and joy, among many others.

Most of us want our kids to enjoy themselves, play well, experience the benefits of playing a team sport, and not get hurt in the process. Yet, as we have all seen, an over-emphasis on winning can put our kids in positions to be pushed too hard, making them vulnerable to overuse injury, stress, and burnout. For these reasons, it is helpful to have some general guidelines that we can use to embrace the numerous benefits playing lacrosse has to offer as our kids progress from one age group to the next.

Preschool (Safety, Fun and the Joy of Movement)

For children playing lacrosse under the age of 6, it is important to focus on three basic principles: safety, fun, and the joy of movement. Our kids need to feel safe and comfortable enough to learn new skills without feeling judged. A great place to start is having fun in the backyard, catching and throwing with a soft ball.

Encouraging comments such as "great try, nice throw, wow that is terrific" are critical in keeping their confidence high as they test out this new game. Reminding them that safety is central is another way to make sure that they are comfortable to take new risks, which is fundamental to learning the skills of the game. Running, scooping, throwing, and catching are all a part of introducing the joy of using their bodies.

Simply engaging in these physical activities is a success for young kids. We want playing to be safe and fun so they continue to play.

Elementary School Years (Skill Development and Friendship)

Grade school is the time when our kids learn the basic rules and skills of the game of lacrosse: catching, throwing, and offensive and defensive team play. It may be tempting to get caught up in high-level travel team play and other more competitive and demanding programs, but the key questions for us as parents are:

  1. Is my child building the fundamental skills of lacrosse?
  2. Is my child making strong connections with friends?

If your child loses a close game, but you can see that she is playing the game the right way and is connected to her teammates, you can rest assured that she is well-positioned to develop as a player and person. Likewise, your child could play on a successful team that wins games, but the players don't really like each other and the fundamentals of the game aren’t being taught.

We have to really keep in mind what defines winning, and at this age, it's not about the scoreboard. I think this may be the hardest challenge for us as parents, namely, to keep the big picture in mind, even if the culture gets caught up in the moment or the stats.

Middle and High School Years (Independence and Identity)

With the fundamental skills under their belts, our children can begin to thrive in the sport of lacrosse. What will likely occur at this age, particularly toward the end of middle school and the beginning years of high school, is a clearer definition of each player's ability.

What this means is that our kids will begin to say to themselves, "OK, I have a shot to make JV or varsity," or "I don't have the size and speed to play midfield, so I think I may try attack," or "I can't run by people and score, but I see the field very well and can make great feeds or find ways to get open for shots."

Recognition of strengths and weaknesses are paramount to forming a sense of identity as a lacrosse player and person. At the same time, our adolescents are not so interested in hearing the advice and opinions of their parents. This can be frustrating to some of us who have great experience playing and even coaching the game, but this is a natural and essential process of independence.

What we can hope for is that our kids have a good coach who can provide the support they need to develop greater knowledge about the sport and growing confidence in their ability to manage well on their own. It may not be until college or later that our kids may circle back and actually seek our guidance; however, they will still want us to watch their games and pay attention.

The unspoken request of our adolescents is frequently, "Come to all of my games and watch everything I do. Don't miss a thing, but don't say a thing to me about my play unless I ask you." If this is your plight, you are not alone, nor do you have a problem child. Ironically, this independence is what we want to see, even if it's hard to take.

This post is part of the “10 Fundamental Tips for Coaching Youth Lacrosse” series. Dr. Richard D. Ginsburg, Ph.D., is the co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Sports Psychology Program and Paces Institute, and a member of the US Lacrosse Sports Science and Safety Committee. Paige Perriello, M.D., F.A.A.P., Pediatric Associates of Charlottesville, also contributed to this post.

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