If you could become an expert in only one of the following, which would it be: stringing a stick or diagramming X’s and O’s?

Only those utilizing a classical methodology can master these crafts. In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert M. Perisig explores the concepts of classical and romantic understanding as they apply to a cross-country trip on a motorcycle.

“A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in term of immediate appearance,” Perisig explains. “If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic, it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. It has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show the same blueprint or schematic or give the same description to a classical person, he might look at it and then become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.”

This passage struck a nerve with me. How much do I really know about lacrosse, a sport that I have tried to master for nearly 30 years?

Two critical aspects of the game come to mind when analyzing the classical vs. romantic dynamic: stringing a stick and creating two-dimensional strategies via X’s and O’s.

Through a romantic lens, neither is quite as it seems. Superficially, all sticks are the same — a plastic head frame, netting that holds the ball, a series of strings that attach the netting to head, and horizontal strings that affect the ball as it releases near the top of the plastic. Romantics would celebrate the artistic creativity behind the heads — the different color strings, inventive dye jobs and the use of leather in traditionally strung sticks.

With strategic diagrams, romantics would see a bunch of X’s and O’s with various straight and dotted lines. This aspect of the game would seem like a waste of time. “Players win games. Give the ball to your best player and everything will be fine.”

Their favorite part would surely be coming up with fun and inventive names to inspire their players or serve as pneumonic devices. For example, at Princeton, all plays initiated from the wing were named after birds — Pelican and the like — while 1-4-1 sequences were natural disasters — Thunder, Lightning and Hurricane. Romanics would eat that up.

As a player, learning how to string a stick should be a fundamental skill. It allows you to match your skill set and preferred style of play directly to the instrument responsible for performance. Understanding the variables of your stick also allows you to adjust it based on weather and wear-and-tear.

At clinics, when I notice a player struggling to throw and catch, often the difficulty does not arise from a breakdown in technique, but rather a poorly strung stick. A guitar out of tune will not play in key regardless of the musician’s talent. Not even Gary Gait would be able to perform with some of these atrocities. If parents learn how to string a stick, a la Wells Stanwick, they can ensure the opportunity for proper development for their son or daughter.

Lastly, coaches could match their players’ sticks to a desired style of play. For years, coach Bill Tierney has preached having a stick that enables crisp, consistent and accurate passes. This year’s Denver team seems to be the incarnation of that philosophy. No team in the country whips the ball around quite like the Pioneers.

Coupled with offensive coordinator Matt Brown’s creative and multiple-option offense, the reigning NCAA champions possess an ultra-efficient offense that has them back in the hunt.

Would Denver be in contention without the strategic wizardry of Brown, who melds box and field concepts, incorporates freshmen with upperclassmen, and matches plays to his personnel? Doubtful.

The ability to diagram schemes and translate them from a two-dimensional surface to the playing field separates neophytes and experts within any sport. Bill Walsh invented the West Coast offense in football. Buddy Ryan countered with the 46 Defense.

Before he retired, Dave Cottle’s lacrosse offenses often would baffle the opposition regardless of situation — transition, settled half-field six-on-six or extra man. Cottle maximized pressure through proper spacing, timely cuts and multiple options. His sets and plays challenged the foundation of the defense. If a team followed its defensive rules, then his offense would put them in severe trouble. React and change strategy, now you’re not playing to your strengths. Cottle was at the forefront of multiple offensive advances, including inverts, the high 1-4-1, big-little picks and off-ball seals via stack sets.

Anyone can draw up plays in a vacuum. The hallmark of a great coach who truly understands his players resides in his ability to match schemes to the strengths of his roster. This concept — KYP, or Know Your Personnel — goes beyond static X’s and O’s by visualizing specific players in place of these theoretical letters.

So which one is it going to be: stringing a stick or diagramming X’s and O’s? Fear not, String League Competition. My heart = X + O.

US Lacrosse Coaching Education Program

US Lacrosse provides critical educational resources for coaches and officials to help improve the experience for all participants. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift to support our efforts.

Donate