As lacrosse coaches we want a high level of structure and consistency to our offensive and defensive schemes. On the offensive side, we want each player knowing where to be in space as a teammate initiates a dodge, set the appropriate picks at the right spots on the field at the right time, make the appropriate cuts, etc. On defense, we want good one on one technique with correct help defense ready for 2, 3, and (if we are very fortunate!) 4 slides; as well sticking with cutters.
On the other hand, as we drill down with repetition and verbal reinforcement of these concepts, we run the risk of creating quasi-robots that may end up lacking lacrosse IQ on their own without the structure of a scheme. This may inhibit players to think for themselves and go off script to take advantage of mismatches and other opportunities; or fail to have success as structured schemes break down as the often inevitably do.
I coached one particular young player named Jared on my high school tournament team for the past 2 years, for example, that by in large stuck to the script of our offense that we call 34 motion. The 34 motion’s basic structure has us constantly going in and out of 1-4-1 and 1-3-2 sets with dodges and off ball movement. Jared has an uncanny ability to note when his defender is ball watching or otherwise disengaged with him and at the right time in the game and would back door cut with an open look to the goal. He generally only does this when the ball is in possession with players he has extensive playing experience and chemistry with that know to watch for him to do this. Jared also sets picks in situations that the offense generally does not call for under regular circumstances simply because he notices that a defender on one of his teammates it not even remotely looking for it.
I teach my players at all levels that although we have a fundamental structure, it is important to understand that they are not robots and are encouraged within reason to get creative and use their lacrosse IQ. The concept of incorporating what some coaches refer to as free play facilitates this. In addition to helping to build lacrosse IQ and encourage free thinking, free play also is a great deal of fun for young players who get bored with structured drills and set offenses and defensive schemes.
A basic free play model of half field has teams of 5 split evenly with an even number of D-poles on each team and the goalie playing for both teams. D-poles play both offense and defense and the format is basically like half court basketball. If the defensive team gets the ball back, they have to “check” the ball by clearing it to a point 5 yards north of the restraining box to then be able to go on offense.
While middies are accustomed to playing both offense and defense, most D-poles and attack are not, so free play enhances their game by letting them experience life on the other side to to speak. Playing an opposing position in this manner enables players better understand and exploit its weaknesses.
During free play, coaches should not intervene and coach up the players at all other than call penalties, fouls, and out of bounds change of possession. The rest should be up to the players to dodge, move, set picks, and cut all on their own. The result almost instantly is that the players immediately start communicating with one another offensively and defensively, especially when their teammates are out of their depth playing an unfamiliar position.
Starting each practice with 5-10 minutes of free play invigorates the players with pick up style play, enhances their lacrosse IQ, and lets them cut loose and have some fun before getting down to business. Beyond enhancing lacrosse IQ, free play also builds bonding as the players perform free of the constraints of coaches critique or judgement, relying solely on one another.
To be sure, coaches providing consistency and structure in a team’s game on both sides of the ball is very important. Adding the element of free play in a practice offers them an added opportunity to improvise and create on their own while having a great time in the process.
Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and well regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms. In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport. He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.