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Over the past two decades, the Northern Vermont Youth Lacrosse League has shown great growth, with expanded numbers of participants and an increasing number of towns that have added boys’ and girls’ teams.

Unfortunately, the growth has also yielded one disturbing trend — an increase in the number of incidents involving poor behavior by players and coaches. A series of such incidents during the 2017 season prompted the league to take action in 2018.

Hoping to curb the growing win-at-all-cost mentality that had been developing, the NVTYLL introduced a code of conduct that each player, parent and coach must sign. Coaches must carry the code with them to all games.

But that was just step one. Hand-in-hand with the code of conduct, the NVTYLL also introduced a new incentive program to recognize and reward good sportsmanship. Helmet stickers became part of the boys’ game experience.

“We needed a carrot to incent good behavior,” said league president Andrew Everett, who relocated to Vermont in 2011 and initially joined the league as one of its coaches. He had seen a similar initiative prove effective during his time as a youth coach in Seattle and introduced the concept to the other NVTYLL coaches and league leaders. They were skeptical at first.

“There was some resistance because people were not sure that it would really work,” Everett said. “It’s kind of hokey.”

Unlike other sports, notably football, that use helmet stickers to recognize outstanding achievements on the field, the NVTYLL’s criteria was based solely on behavior. Guidelines were established, and coaches were asked to discuss the plan with players and parents at their preseason meeting. 

“We remind our players that this is not to be an MVP-type of award, given to the best players,” Everett said. “We wanted our kids to watch for more subtle occurrences that embrace sportsmanship.”

Coaches challenge their players to develop a list of actions that honor the game and to also identify behaviors that are not desirable. Examples of commendable behavior might be helping an opponent up off the ground, congratulating an opposing goalkeeper for making a great save or apologizing for a slash that was not flagged. 

Following each game, each team spends time in its postgame huddle to identify two opposing players that it wishes to recognize with the stickers. Coaches help guide the discussion, but the goal is to have the players make the selections. Each team also identifies two players from its own squad to serve as the presenters during the ceremony..

Immediately after the handshake line concludes, all the players from both teams move to the spectators’ side of the field for the sticker presentation. Officials also are invited to participate.

The ceremony is brief. The presenter steps forward, introduces himself, and announces the name or uniform number of the player on the other team that is being recognized. He then shares a detail or two about the actions by that player that resulted in his selection for the sticker, which is a small replica of the league logo and includes the popular expression, “Honor the game.”

“This little 10-cent piece of plastic has had a profound impact,” Everett said. “Players want to be recognized and are motivated to play within the rules and be more courteous. It’s become a point of pride. It’s amazing what a sticker can do.”

The NVTYLL had planned on introducing a girls’ version of the award in 2020 before the season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. As an alternative to helmet stickers, initial discussions revolved around the use of rubber wrist bracelets or thin headbands.

Everett notes that while boys’ play remains intense and winning is still important, having an emphasis on how the game is being played has brought a welcome shift in the culture.

Even the early skeptics have come around.

“The coaches are excited about seeing an outward change in the kids,” Everett said. “They say that they are now more aware of players on the other team who played the game the right way, versus only noticing kids who scored a lot.”

As for the NVTYLL’s code of conduct?

“We still have the code of conduct,” Everett said. “But we have rarely had to invoke it.”

LOCALLY GROWN: New England

Massachusetts

Dudley-Charlton Youth Lacrosse received a US Lacrosse First Stick Program grant to provide young athletes grades K-2 the opportunity to play lacrosse for the first time and supply beginners who could not afford equipment with everything they need to play. While third-graders are asked to purchase their own equipment, if a family can’t afford it and the league has enough in stock, it will issue the equipment.

New Hampshire

On March 9, Seacoast United held a US Lacrosse TryLax event with more than 60 participants enjoying their first lacrosse experience. TryLax is an exciting, effective way for programs to recruit new players into the sport and their organization. This grant is for US Lacrosse member organizations that want to introduce lacrosse to boys and girls ages 6-14.

Vermont

Lamoille North Supervisory Union Afterschool Connections has only begun to see the results of receiving a US Lacrosse First Stick Program grant. Organizers are hoping for warmer weather and getting kids back to school to continue to grow the lacrosse program and the sport.