12 Jan REC-LESS ABANDON: THE CLUB-REC DIVIDE
By Brian Logue
Charlie Shoulberg sees the trend. Some find it troubling. Others chalk it up to the natural evolution of a growing sport.
In New Jersey, where Shoulberg is the vice president of the New Jersey North Chapter of US Lacrosse, and nationally, youth lacrosse players are being asked to commit earlier in their careers to selective club and travel programs fulltime and leave their community-based recreational leagues.
“We’re at a crossroads right now,” Shoulberg said, “and a lot of people are in a tough spot.”
If the trend continues, what does that mean for those kids?
What does that mean for the sport?
“I don’t know of a single parent that doesn’t just want to do what’s best for their child,” said Kate Roper, president of Washington (State) Girls Youth Lacrosse. “But do you have a broad enough perspective to know what that is? It’s hard to know when you hear a lot of chatter in your ear.”
“Consumers are buying what everybody else is doing,” said Melissa Coyne, director of game administration for US Lacrosse. “If they see their children’s friends playing on a club team, then they feel like they have to do that. A lot of parents are operating out of fear.”
What’s Best for Your Child?
Club lacrosse has its advantages. Generally, your child plays with and against better players. You’re more likely to know who your child’s coach will be and what the quality of that coaching will be. Kids can build deep friendships due to the amount of time club teams tend to spend together, and many of them love the atmosphere of playing in tournaments.
But that can also come at a cost. Literally.
“Pretty soon club is going to be the same thing as rec,” said one lacrosse parent, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “You’re just going to be paying three times as much.”
The financial costs are real. Roper says that due to their location, most events for club teams in Washington involve a flight.
“We can’t drive to California. That’s like driving from Portland, Maine to Miami,” Roper said. “It’s just incredibly expensive.”
Even clubs in the sport’s more geographically concentrated areas often have significantly higher costs than rec programs due to tournament fees, paid coaches, facility rental fees and other costs.
But it’s more than just the financial cost. Time is an even more precious commodity than money for many families.
Princeton men’s lacrosse coach Chris Bates has a 12-year-old son, Nicholas, who plays soccer, basketball and lacrosse, juggling multiple travel and rec team commitments year round.
“How do you get the most bang for your time?” Bates said.
Even if club is the logical next step for your child, when does that step come?
“There’s not a set age or time,” Coyne said. “Kids aren’t one size fits all. It depends on their development.”
There can be on-the-field advantages to playing in recreational programs for some individuals, even if they’re good enough to play at the club level, and that’s especially true for some of the kids leaving rec environments at younger ages.
By its very nature, rec lacrosse is less pressurized. Kids can try out new positions, take on different leadership roles and play with friends that don’t have the ability, means or time to play club lacrosse. The reduced time commitment also makes it easier to participate in activities away from the lacrosse field.
What’s Best for the Sport?
Shoulberg founded STEPS Lacrosse, a competitive boys’ and girls’ club program, but also remains a staunch supporter of rec lacrosse.
“We believe in rec because we think it helps more kids develop,” Shoulberg said. “If the club players stop playing rec, what happens to the kids that aren’t playing club? We believe they’ll be lost.”
“It’s also about giving back,” said Pete Dunne, a former Virginia player who runs Davie (Fla.) Youth Lacrosse. “There was a time when you were the kid getting hit in the helmet with the ball. It’s a chance for you to be a leader in our game.”
Mike McMahon, the operations manager for the Sylvania (Ohio) Recreation District, oversees a program that covers multiple sports for about 45,000 residents in Northwest Ohio, including boys’ and girls’ lacrosse. His rec department has travel teams in some sports, but sees the danger of putting those teams ahead of the larger rec program.
“If we place all of our emphasis on those 16-20 kids, then the ones that get cut, that can’t afford it or their parents just don’t have time, they’re just going to quit the sport altogether,” McMahon said. “If we diminish rec, they wonder, what’s the point of even playing rec? I hate to push a kid away too early before you even get a chance to see their true potential.”
Dunne’s program in Florida has responded to demands by adding travel teams in the summer and fall, but the focus remains on building a strong base through the rec program during the spring. Kids are not required to play rec, but they do, and as they get older, some stay involved with the program by serving as youth coaches.
“My position is the rec program adds to the growth of the game,” said Dunne, who founded Davie Youth Lacrosse seven years ago. “We feel rec is critical.”
The Burnout Factor
“I’m not anti-club,” said Ruthie Lavelle, president of the Maryland Youth Lacrosse Association. “I’m anti playing a sport year-round that leads to injury and burnout. That level of enthusiasm that you used to see when a kid picked up the stick in the spring, you don’t see that anymore.”
While many club programs openly support kids continuing to play rec lacrosse and multiple sports, the demands on their time — from multiple coaches in different sports — sometimes make it difficult for that to be a reality.
Nearly all of Bates’ players on the 2015 Princeton roster played at least two sports in high school. He wants the same for his son.
“I’m doing everything I can to keep him focusing too early on one sport,” Bates said.
Juggling multiple sports isn’t easy, and it comes with some sacrifices. Bates recently said no to an indoor lacrosse all-star game. His son forewent indoor soccer this winter and will play only rec basketball this year instead of both rec and travel.
“Parents have to learn how to say no,” Bates said. “It’s too much.”
When Lavelle cautions parents about committing to year-round lacrosse, she often hears the my-kid-loves-it pushback.
“Your kid would probably also love to eat Doritos and M&M’s for dinner, but you don’t let them,” Lavelle said. “Parents have to stand up to the clubs and say no.”
“I’ve taken countless calls from club and travel parents telling me their kid is burned out, it costs too much money, it’s too much time in the car,” Coyne said. “I’ve never gotten that call from a rec parent.”
What’s a Parent to Do?
There’s no simple answer. Each situation is unique.
But knowledge is power. If you’re considering a club team, don’t be afraid to ask questions.
“There are a lot of great people involved in club lacrosse,” Shoulberg said. “Do research, talk to people and find out if they’re having a good experience. Find out if kids are developing or if they’re just churning and burning through kids.”
Many parents see club lacrosse as a path toward college lacrosse. That can be true in some cases, but lacrosse scholarships are minimal.
Understand what drives your child, Bates said, and whether the time and financial commitments are worth the investment.
“People want to come to Princeton, but you can sense when someone is in the process just to achieve the goal versus kids that just love it,” said Bates.
Club or rec? The choice, if forced upon you, comes down to what will allow your child to love his or her lacrosse experience.