Lacrosse is not alone.

The evaporation of recreational play, limited physical activity in low-income communities, concern about overuse and head injuries, the trend toward single-sport specialization and the lack of trained coaches were chief among topics May 17 at The Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit in Washington, D.C.

Sound familiar?

Erin Smith, managing director of education and training at US Lacrosse, was among industry leaders serving on a panel about reimagining parks and facilities to better accommodate small-sided sports and engage underserved youth — core tenets of the Lacrosse Athlete Development Model (LADM).

The event featured a who’s-who list of speakers, including First Lady Michelle Obama, who bemoaned the marginalization of physical education and recess in U.S. schools and whose Let’s Move initiative aims to address the childhood obesity epidemic.

“It is imperative for corporate America to go into schools and put gym and sports back in,” she said during a conversation with her brother, ESPN analyst Craig Robinson, which was moderated by ESPN’s Michael Wilbon. “Whatever the dollar figure is, as a society, as taxpayers and as corporate America, we should figure out how much that costs and then pay for it. Period.”

Sound familiar?

US Lacrosse’s Soft Stick Program issues introductory equipment and curricula to about 300 schools and organizations every year.

Tennis champion and human rights activist Billie Jean King emphasized the need for more women in coaching and more trained coaches in youth sports.

“If I only had the racket and access to the park, I wouldn’t have gone into the court,” King said. “It’s about the people.”

Sound familiar?
More than 26,000 coaches have utilized US Lacrosse education resources and more than 5,000 have been certified through the nationally recognized US Lacrosse Coaching Education Program.

Tom Farrey, executive director of The Aspen Institute's Sports & Society Program, discussed “the lure of the myth of the scholarship” in a baseball context.

Chris Marinak, senior vice president of league economics and strategy for Major League Baseball, touted MLB’s Junior Homerun Derby as a way to encourage free play while providing the structure and safety required of a more vigilant generation of parents.

Ken Martel, technical director of USA Hockey and driver of its American Development Model, hopes to revitalize sports sampling starting with a pilot program at a school in Cheyenne County, Colo. Students will be exposed to a different sport each day for an hour and a half after school, with focuses on physical literacy and team play. Lacrosse will be one of the 23 sports, with US Lacrosse providing resources.

So no, lacrosse is not alone. Smith was quick to correct moderator Kevin Martinez, vice president of corporate citizenship at ESPN, when he pivoted to her by calling it a “brand new sport.”

“Actually, it’s America’s oldest sport,” she quipped. “It’s the oldest sport native to this continent.”

Origins aside, lacrosse is ideally suited for multi-sport athletes, Smith said, and sharing spaces with other sports is part of LADM — every aspect of which seems to return to a grassroots commitment to small-sided games.

“How can we peel our game down? We started looking at it from a development standpoint,” she said. “Not only are their skills getting better, but they’re just having fun. They’re never more than one pass away from the ball. …Those little guidelines spurred a movement of people saying, yes, we want to do this.”


Project Play Takeaways

Parents: Play with your kids.

OK, that sounds obvious. But really play with them. Don’t just send them outside, go through the motions or set up a chair.

Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, director of tennis medicine at Emory University, called it “family free play.” If you exercise with your child, he said, “it gives you that supervision, but it’s still fun.” Former NBA player Jason Collins played in his father’s pickup basketball games as a youngster. “Yeah I got beat up, but it definitely helped my game,” he said.

Turn your driveway into a tennis court. Stage a Wiffle ball homerun derby and challenge your kids to crank one over the roof, and then show them how it’s done. How about some lacrosse wall ball? Join your son or daughter in the #WallBallChallenge and get in your 10,000 reps this summer.

Fiddle sticks are awesome, by the way.

Coaches: Make way for free play.

Traditionally, youth lacrosse practices involve a lot of skill instruction, labor-intensive drills and too much standing around. Some of that is necessary, but incorporate free play into your practice plans. Break up your team into smaller groups, shrink the field, flip the cages, pull the goalie or strap up a target and just let them play. How do you think Miles and Lyle Thompson developed those physics-defying moves? It certainly didn’t come from waiting in line swatting grass with their sticks while some coach tried to orchestrate a child-sized version of a 4-on-3 fast break set.

Dean Kriellaars, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and expert on physical literacy, cited a 90-minute circus class in which the athletes did all activities in handstands. “You can embed free play in a structured environment,” he said.

League Administrators: Be bold. Be brave.

Doesn’t this small-sided stuff sound great? 3-on-3? 6-on-6? 8-on-8? Lots of touches for everyone? Age-appropriate equipment and rules? Minimal adult interference? A scalable model that requires only a 40- to 60-yard field, rather than a 100-yard field? Oh, the possibilities.

No doubt, though, you will encounter resistance from parents or coaches who watch college lacrosse on TV and think that’s what their 9-year-olds should be playing. Because that’s the way we’ve always taught lacrosse here in the U.S. of A.

But then why are Canadian box players taking over in the NCAA? Could it be because their introduction to the sport occurs in a 5-on-5 setting within boarded enclosures?

Maybe that could be your counterargument. However you need to convince your constituents, commit to small-sided competition, implement US Lacrosse guidelines and you’ll be a leader for better athlete development.

Lacrosse Athlete Development Model

The current youth lacrosse development model rushes to identify the best players at early ages, and leaves potential players behind with limited opportunity to play. The LADM aim is to keep more players engaged with the sport longer, allowing the best pla