Coaching the Brain


McCallie (Tenn.) head coach Troy Kemp has tailored his coaching style based on developmental pattersn in young athletes.

Katie Bergey runs practices differently nowadays.

“The biggest difference is the small stations and the fun the kids are having, the free play they do, which I would have never considered doing years ago,” said Bergey, co-director with husband Josh Bergey of Bergey’s Lacrosse in Central Pennsylvania. “You want to play dodgeball? We play dodgeball.”

Hungry Hungry Hippos, Messy Backyard and Pinnie Tag are staples at Keith Bisotti’s youth practices with St. Alban Roe in St. Louis.

“I have not heard that much laughing in practices in my 12 years,” said Bisotti, who also coaches lacrosse for the St. Louis Youth Lacrosse Association and is an assistant girls’ varsity coach at Lafayette High. “It was a lot more fun. No one was standing around. It was a lot more active.”

Gone are lines more than two players deep and traditional drills that involved too much standing around. Coaches minimize their pre-drill instruction in favor of a few guided coaching cues.

Bergey and Bisotti are part of a US Lacrosse cohort of coaches that adopted the Lacrosse Athlete Development Model, a new approach to coaching backed by scientific findings.

“It’s like being on the ground floor of how I think this game should be taught,” Bisotti said.

USA Hockey introduced the American Development Model in 2009, and the United States Olympic Committee helped to spread the ADM to its sports governing bodies, along with US Lacrosse, in 2015. When US Lacrosse began to design its own LADM and revamp its Coach Development Program, it turned to research from such sources as Johns Hopkins professor Mariale Hardiman’s book, “The Brain Targeted Teaching Model for 21st-Century Schools” and Piaget’s theory of intellectual development.

“I don’t know if we’ve come to conclusion that the brain has changed,” said TJ Buchanan, technical director for athlete development at US Lacrosse. “We’ve done homework on how kids learn, mature and develop, and we’ve applied that research to how we teach lacrosse.”

The LADM stresses age-appropriate coaching designed to connect better with players at each level of their development and keep them involved longer in the sport. US Lacrosse offers training, an app, pre-made practice plans, a progression playbook and online education.

“It’s a whole shift to a player-centered environment,” said Erin Smith, managing director of education and training at US Lacrosse, “having an end goal in mind, but letting them get to it in a non-linear sort of way.”

Science is steering better ways to connect with athletes around the country. Troy Kemp has coached for 28 years, and the Director of the National Center for the Development of Boys spoke at LaxCon about more effectively coaching boys based on their biological makeup. He noted that boys need role models, and they need to feel important to a group so they can reach their potential. Talking side-by-side rather than confronting boys face-to-face in a heated moment, for example, shows an understanding of the science behind boys.

“There’s a certain level of patience you’ll have with young athletes once you know how they’re wired,” Kemp said. “Coaches are like the last frontier. Boys are willing to do hard things for coaches, and they’re not necessarily willing to do hard things for everybody else.”

Positive youth development is the goal of Up2Us Sports, which offers trauma-sensitive training to coaches. Studies show that trauma can block an athlete’s ability to reach his or her potential.

“Mental health plays such a role in athletics at every level. Trauma in one community might look very different from trauma in other communities,” said Mariana Folco, the regional training director for the Mid-Atlantic at Up2Us. “It is important for coaches to be able to identify certain behaviors that might be trauma-based behaviors and might be telling us a story about what may have happened to a kid or some experiences they may have had.”

Studies show that building relationships, complimenting progress and fostering a positive culture are critical steps for coaches to combat trauma and get the most out of players. Coaches need to create a safe space to play and learn.

“Being good at something like a sport is so important, but actually, if we can be really intentional about learning life skills at the same time, that’s what being a trauma-sensitive and sport-based youth development coach is,” Folco said.

Coaches of all different experience levels are finding that implementing scientifically backed findings into their practice plans produces results. Eight years after the Bergeys moved from Philadelphia and began to change the way their youth teams practiced, participation continues to rise and their retention rate would be the envy of any club.

“We had sort of a blank slate so we could take it any way we wanted to, but we also had to get kids involved,” Bergey said. “It was this whole coalition of ideas of how do we not only get them to come out and try it, but get them to like it, teach them in a way that’s fun and responsible and start building a culture in our area so that people are going to get out of lacrosse what we’ve gotten out of lacrosse.”

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