Charlotte Hounds head coach Jim Stagnitta credits his earliest coaches as being some of the most influential of his athletic career.
I was a late starter to lacrosse, playing my first organized season as a sophomore in high school after retiring from baseball. I was a three-sport athlete, which I firmly believe helped make this late transition possible. As I reminisce on my early athletic roots and development, I realize my greatest influences as an athlete and a coach came from my youth and high-school coaches — one of the most influential being my father.
This reality is the basis for a series of three articles I am penning on coaching from the youth level up to the college and professional. My earliest experiences in organized youth sports, and my initial experience as a lacrosse beginner, impacted and guided my approach to coaching and leading over my 30-year career as a college and professional coach.
The growth and popularity of lacrosse at every level (boys and girls) over the past decade has certainly impacted the sport in many positive ways, and at the same time created substantial challenges from this meteoric growth. The growth and interest in lacrosse nationally (particularly in non-traditional areas) created a huge market for youth programs. This need was addressed with the formation of recreation and club programs across the country providing opportunities for aspiring lacrosse players of all ages.
While these programs have allowed for tens of thousands of youth and high-school athletes to participate in lacrosse, it has also revealed a huge void as it pertains to the pool of knowledgeable and qualified coaches. Many of these programs are staffed with coaches who possess a minimal background in lacrosse, or current players who lack the experience and patience to truly develop young players. Often times these players are the product of the same program they now work with.
Unlike more traditional sports like football, baseball and basketball, the limited exposure and opportunity to play lacrosse at the college level from the 1970’s-1990’s did not lend itself to a deep or qualified pool of parent coaches. While this has not limited the growth of recreation, club and even high school lacrosse programs nationally (especially considering market demand), I do believe it has stunted the growth and development of our youth and high-school players.
I experienced this first-hand as a college coach, and it is more apparent than ever in my training facility where we work with youth and high school individuals and teams. My staff of current and former college coaches constantly lament the lack of basic fundamentals, discipline and acumen the players who come through our door possess. Most alarming is that most of these athletes have four to eight years of experience between youth and club.
When I look back on my earliest organized youth sports experiences there was a consistent set of traits, approaches and backgrounds that my coaches possessed. The make-up and approach my coaches possessed had a profound impact on both my peers and for me personally. This impact carried well into my adult and professional life. As, I reflect on my earliest organized sports experiences, I vividly remember an approach that is not necessarily the norm today.
First and foremost, the focus was on instilling a love for the sport and developing the basic fundamentals necessary to play the sport as it was meant to be played. These, the most important aspects of the game, were never fast tracked or compromised and serve as the basis for the Lacrosse Athlete Development Model supported by US Lacrosse. A positive experience, age- and skill-specific instruction to build a foundation for future success trumped individual successes and wins or losses. The focus was always on team and no individual was highlighted at the expense of the whole or to gain victory.
I find that these were the greatest strengths and traits of my earliest coaches. As a youth coach you have a greater impact on an athlete than any high-school or college coach ever will. If a young athlete has a bad experience, they may walk away from the sport. Youth coaches should be judged by how many of their players stay engaged and return the next year. That is a true measure of success.
Coaching at the youth level comes with tremendous responsibility, which needs to be understood and embraced.
Why do I think my coaches were so successful, inspiring and committed to doing it the right way? The commitment of the organization. The mission was to build the sport in our town and create a sustainable pipeline to participate at the local high school. There was a deliberate culture focused on insuring a positive experience for all participants and teams that truly functioned as a team.
The leader (head coach of each team) not only got it, but demonstrated it every day in how they directed, empowered and supported the assistant coaches (not always the most experienced) in their roles.
Assistants focused on what they did best, never coaching above their level of expertise, and we thrived on this approach. Assistant coaches continued to develop over the years and eventually became the leaders. They were brought up in and carried on this culture. Some years we won, others we didn’t, but the experience always brought us back.
We eventually won because we were allowed to learn from our mistakes and our mentors led us to do that in a positive way. There was not the travel team culture at the youth level that was driven by wins, reputation and revenue. The mission was never compromised. The most fundamental and patient coaches were assigned to the least experienced and youngest teams. This created a strong foundation and a group of players that moved up through the system together. As players progressed up the ladder and the fundamentals were established, the coaching became more capacity-based, building an IQ that allowed us to react to the uncertain situations we faced in game situations. I can say this approach served me well as both an athlete and in my professional career.
This approach and experience is not unique to me. It is a formula for a successful youth and club program, and a guideline to what is in the best interest of your people. A simple overview of this formula:
Head Coach (Leader) sets the tone. Drives the culture of development and focuses on the process not the outcome. Puts development of his coaches and players over his/her personal gain or success.
Focus on Fundamentals and Skill Development. Don’t fast track or skip steps. Experience over wins and losses. Team over individual.
Overwhelming goal of coach and organization is to inspire players to stay engaged and return to the team. Create a love for the game.
Next Article: Who is Coaching the Coaches
Jim Stagnitta is the President of Complete Athlete 360 and Founder of the MVP Development group. His group helps organizations and teams build thriving cultures, trusted leaders and valued people. He is the head coach of the Charlotte Hounds of Major League Lacrosse and has twice been named MLL Coach of the Year. Prior to coaching in the MLL, he was a successful coach at the collegiate level, leading Rutgers and Washington and Lee to a combined seven NCAA tournament appearances as head coach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org