Is it worth to practice plays?

What we do in Stuttgart…

We just finished our season, took a step back and reflected. Last week we started brainstorming about the next year. Probably some more teams will use the summer break to start the planning for next year. So we figured it is a good time to get back to our blog and share some insight about basics and plays, which is long overdue anyways.

We also had some fruitful discussions with other coaches in Stuttgart about plays and how great they work and how easy you could score a goal with it, if everybody knows what to do.

This rarely happens, so you could have probably guessed already what our opinion is: we rather spent our time working on basics.

Let me recite a part by John Madden and Dave Anderson out of the introduction of book: Run to daylight by Vince Lombardi with W.C. Heinz:

“Vince Lombardi’s teams had discipline. By discipline, I don’t mean wearing a jacket and a tie; I mean discipline in playing football. Not jumping offside. Not getting other dumb penalties. And Lombardi stressed fundamentals. „ You win with fundamentals,“ he always said. „ Blocking and tackling – that’s how you win.“ His teams didn’t have many offensive plays and the other teams knew it, but he didn’t care. He made sure that his teams knew how to run their plays better than the other teams knew how to defend against them.

That philosophy really helped me. As a young coach, you tend to overdo the X’s and O’s. You think coaching means having a lot of exotic plays. But you learn that’s not true. You learn that if you can teach discipline and fundamentals, you only need a few basic plays. “

This part directly stuck with me, when I read the book. It took me a while to find someone, who still had the drawing of our Sandy & Mandy play on his PC (see picture below). This is one of the plays we used in Stuttgart in the past, the really sophisticated and exotic part about it that you can run it in an endless loop. Sandy ends up in the starting setup for Mandy and vice versa. Mandy also involves all six players on the field. I do not know exactly but I think the Sandy and Mandy play is from 2006.

Sandy-Mandy Play

So we have been at exactly the point described above, even though the play is not from Eric and me, it reflects our own development as coaches and lacrosse program in Stuttgart. In the past we also tried to script the whole game with a lot of plays, several rides and clears and a huge playbook. In 2015 we did not use any offensive plays at all and tried to clear with basics rules instead of a set clear. We had it planned to put some Out-of-Bounce and Flag-Down plays in late in the season, but changed our plan because we felt our players were thinking too much about the game and doing things right instead of just playing.

There is no doubt about that plays can work great and they also have their right to exist and can be very useful (we plan to use more plays for our second team next season). We will go more into details on that now.

What are plays good for?

Depending where your team stands a play can be a great tool to bring some structure and control into the game.

The biggest benefit of plays for young teams is, they give your players a plan on what to do like a blueprint for the game. This takes the individual decision-making away from the players. A lot of players, especially young ones, struggle with decision-making on the field, because they do not want to make a wrong decision. With a play everybody has its role and knows what he is supposed to do. The decision are made in advance by the coach, who designed the play. 

Plays can be a good way to initiate offense and set the point of attack. Even tho passing the ball around is nice and helpful for a lot of teams, in the end you need to create offense. You do not want 6 players passing the ball around until it goes out of bounce.

Plays can force players to move off-ball, so you can give them something to do, when they do not have the ball and teach off-ball movement in the long run.

For more advanced teams Out-of-Bounce or Flag-Down plays can be used for certain situation to mix up your offense style and to create different looks.

Plays are a good tool to develop the lacrosse I.Q. of your players, but in the end they fail very often during games.

Why Plays often fail ?

  • Timing – players play it with different speeds
  • Some guys do not know them
  • The defense knows the play and knows also how to play against it.
  • The basics of the players are not sufficient enough to carry out the level of the play (see our Sandy and Mandy play from 2006)

For a play to work all players need to know it, have the same level, play at the same speed and the play needs to give you an advantage over the opposing team. For example this spring I had one discussion at halftime with a player about doing a little off-ball pick play from the crease to wing attack, because this way the attack man would be open every time. The player was totally right, the attack man would have been open every time. But in that game the ball carrier struggled with looking to the open man and passing the ball to him. We had lots of players open, so adding a play for that, would not have given us any advantage at all.

In general it is not too bad that plays often do not work during games, because you still create offense. But in our experience if plays do not work, it creates a lot of tension in the team and more practice time is used (in our opinion “wasted”) to work on the play again in the following weeks.

Practicing plays

Do you know the feeling that you spent a lot of time practicing certain plays until everyone got it and it worked. On game day you call out the play and it fails again, so next week you go back to working on the play in practice. Everyone who coaches a club team like us, also has the problem that not everyone is in practice all the time. So on game day you might have someone on the field who has not practiced the play in the prior week.

Practice time is your scarcest resource. No matter on what level you play practice time is your „money“. It might feel good and useful working on that play again all day and everybody goes home satisfied, but on the long run this is not the successful route. You need to work on the right things.

“Sweat the Right Small Stuff: Sharp Pencils Do Not Translate into Sharp Performance” is the headline of a sub-chapter from Bill Walsh’s book: The Score takes care of itself. So when planning on what to work on in practice, always think about it whether it is the right stuff for your team at this point. 

Also to run an efficient practice you should look out for the following things:

  • Keep players moving
  • The more time a ball is in the stick, the better
  • Players standing in line for drills or watching others play is not practice
  • Players listening to coaches explain concepts is not practice

Whenever I see a team working on their plays at the end of practice or when we work on them, it usually is the complete opposite of those statements. There are 6 players trying to execute the play while the rest watches (in the best case) or chitchats (our experience). When it goes wrong the coach stops it and explains it again. We usually have a hard time to get everybody in once in a 15 – 20 min time frame.

There are also some plays you need to do and you need everyone to know how to do it like clearing. One thing we did in the past, because we never had the same players in practice and on the game day, was to meet early on game day and do a 45 min walk-through practice before the game. This way we managed to get everybody at least on the same page and all players knew what we wanted them to do.

But I want to do plays…

So if you want to introduce plays, take them apart in their individual components and practice them separately. So in the end you are basically working on basics and putting them together at one point. The good thing you can always practice basics and they are not only good for the play, so this practice time will pay off definitely. So practice the basics, see what your team is good at during the season and then create a play on the base of their basics. In the end you will have the building blocks for not only one but for many plays that are tailored to the strengths and level of your team.

We call this method “scripting” and use it a lot to develop our players Lacrosse IQ. We will write a separate blog article about “scripting” as the next thing and have it on the blog by the end of July.

Plays are a great tool to help new players to get orientation on the field, but as you want to progress they might hinder you as they are not very good at teaching your players decision-making. In general Lacrosse is called a player’s game compared to American Football which is called a coaches game. That means in Lacrosse players are supposed to make the decisions on the field. So on the long run you want to teach your players decision-making, because this is the one of the most important and most difficult skills to learn. It makes the difference between a good and a great player on your team. If you focus too much on the short-term benefits of plays, you hinder your teams long-term development.

We would love to hear your opinions and experiences regarding plays. Do you think it is worth to practice plays? How much time do you spent on your plays or when do you start working on your plays? So feel free to write us a message or post a comment on the blog.


2 thoughts on “Is it worth to practice plays?

  1. Kuni

    I agree with the view on plays but want to add some points:
    Why do plays fail? :
    One big thing is because they assume a certain level of play both from the attack and the defense. Using “Sandy Mandy” is like going through tick tack toe, starting with the X top left then the opponent makes the O in the middle then you put the X bottom right then the opponent in down middle … But what you do if your opponent does not put the O where he should? Well you win but you need to know how.
    About the same time with Sandy Mandy we where winning high but one player said: “We play horrible, no passing just running through there defense.” and the coach replied: “No, our plays counter there slides but they are so bad they never slide….”.

    This said you need to learn to walk before you run.
    So go a step back and we ask what is the aim of a play? Well to score a goal by bringing a player into a good shooting position. This means a player with the ball in front of the goal without an opponent able to defend. This can be achieved in two ways: 1st the ball carrier moves into a good shooting position or the ball is passed to a player in a good shooting position.

    For both you need to get rid of your defender, typically by one combination of three ways: 1) outrun 2) be more agile 3) set a pick.
    Now a lot of plays start with something like: A1 cuts hard to draw his defender……
    Problem is that the cut is not a threat in most cases. Why should B1 follow? Well the idea is that A1 cuts is free, gets the pass and shoots unless B11 is there. But what team in Germany is able to pass the ball to A1, A11 catches it at full speed and shoots directly? My guess is that only 80% off all passes are good enough, 50% of them get caught and then 50% of the shoots miss the goal and 50% of those shoots are safes by the goalie. meaning 90% of the time the cut results in a ball thrown away and you don’t need to defend that. (note that A1 is not your primary shooter in this scenario)
    But without being able to do the cut and present a threat the whole play does not work. B1 is sloppy in the defense resulting in him being right there when the other stuff happens.

    Therefore it is much better to focus on the cut, catch shoot than on the play. Same then with pick and roles and dodges. You can run a whole offense with just 101 cut and picks and there is no need for a set play. But you cannot run a set play without cutting and picking.

    1. Jan Post author

      Great comment. Thanks alot Kuni.

      “One big thing is because they assume a certain level of play both from the attack and the defense.”

      That’s a great addition we haven’t mentioned yet, but which happens very often.


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