“We are building a program not a team.” Anyone who’s been around Riverdale Lacrosse in 2015 has heard this statement many times. To us, it’s not just a matter of semantics. It’s a large part of our coaching philosophy. It was critically important that we lay the foundation for the lacrosse PROGRAM from the start and get the program heading in the right direction immediately.

Anyone can field a team. Get enough players together, pass around some jerseys, and any collection of people can be called a team. Performance can’t be guaranteed. Success will be hit or miss. Players may have fun; they may not. Either way, it’s not the way to approach high school sports. Here’s why…

One of the key methods of education is teaching in increments, each lesson building a foundation for the next. You learn to add and subtract, then do multiplication. Then you progress to harder and more involved math lessons. You don’t hand a Kindergartner a quadratic equation and them him or her to solve for X.

But that is exactly what happens at many high schools that offer lacrosse in Lee County. Very often, kids are given equipment and minimal training before they are pushed onto the playing field. It’s sink-or-swim in one of the most complex team sports. In the case of Riverdale lacrosse (at least on the boys side), it was go solve that quadratic equation…without experience…and without a teacher! (The girls at least had a coach who was competent and understood the game. Sadly, she had schedule restrictions that limited her involvement.)

Could you imagine taking a fifteen year-old who has never seen a football game, handing him a football, giving him three weeks of practice, and then sending him onto the field to play? Of course not. No one would do that. Football is taken too seriously—it is the flagship sport in high school and gets the most attention, funding and resources (the typical lacrosse or soccer team has a head coach and maybe an assistant…the typical high school football team has a head coach and up to ten assistants.) We don’t leave the results of football up to chance, but we do with lacrosse. It’s just the culture of high school sports in Florida and most of America.

But, let’s look at the model established by football. It’s smart. There is a freshman team, a JV squad, and, at the pinnacle, a varsity. Summer practices are required for ALL players. In addition, there’s mandatory weight training. There’s spring football. There’s more weight training. There’s camps, clinics, and, in some high schools, classes on fitness, nutrition and, again, weight training.

By their senior years, players are at their biggest, strongest, fastest. That’s a program. It’s tiered to develop players who, ultimately, will play at the highest level.

What happens BEFORE high school is equally important. Most of the kids who play on those high school teams started with Pop Warner at age 8 or 9 and have played six or seven years before getting to high school. By the time they are seniors, they have played 13 to 15 years! This feeder system is critical to the success of football in the United States. By the time they are seniors, the best football players have been trained and evaluated as well as any athlete in any sport anywhere. In America, we cater to football. No other sport has two official high school seasons in many states. Football is king. Don’t like it? Get over it. It is what it is and, even with the fear of head and knee injuries reducing interest in the game, it will still be king for a long, long time.

We’d love to start a JV team for boys. It doesn’t look like it will be possible in 2016 but we are aiming for the next year. Ballistic Lacrosse is starting a recreational lacrosse program in Buckingham Park that will serve kids in the East Lee County area. Those kids will go on to play at Riverdale, so the groundwork of a feeder system is being laid. The difficulty will be getting kids who usually play baseball to switch to a new sport. Possible, but it will be a rough first few years.

Whatever we do, the coaches at Riverdale lacrosse keep the concept of a program in the forefront of our planning. It’s important to make all training systematic so that every aspect of the program feeds the ultimate goal of creating successful teams. The biggest hurdle at this time is access to the game at a younger age and finding players. Second—barely—to that is teaching them about the sport in an accelerated way that will get them on the field and effective as players as quickly as possible. It’s not easy. It’s an uphill battle. But we choose to believe in the power of the program and the kids that are in it!