Kids are signing up in droves for Canada oldest sport – here’s why!
Calgary Roughnecks star Shawn Evans is currently leading the National Lacrosse League in scoring. Again. The Peterborough native cut his teeth in lacrosse playing for the Junior and Senior Peterborough Lakers and making life tough for teams in nearby Whitby and Brooklin.
He is the only player in history to win Championships at the Junior, Senior, and Professional levels in the same year and has won three gold medals at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships.
With a career like his, there are plenty of moments to look back on and many people to thank as influences. And yet his biggest influence remains his father. “My dad was definitely my biggest push,” he remembers. “He’d give me pointers after each game about what I needed to work on and what I could improve.”
For Evans, having a supportive family is a must for any young lacrosse athlete. “Just being there to play catch or to help you learn skills is a big thing,” he says. “And having them cheer you on and believe in you.”
Fast sport, with benefits
Lacrosse is Canada’s oldest team sport – and coincidentally, our official National team sport. Originally invented by Canadian First Nations people almost 1,000 years ago, it has evolved into a fast-moving game that’s like a hybrid between hockey and soccer. For those who have never seen a lacrosse game, the object is to outscore your opposition using webbed sticks to pass, catch, and shoot a ball.
More and more parents are enrolling their kids in lacrosse – in fact, it is the fastest growing sport in both Canada and the United States. With well-established leagues in Durham Region and Peterborough County, and a new league in Northumberland, local kids are taking to lacrosse like never before.
The reason it continues to gain in popularity? According to James Patenall, a lacrosse parent, Northumberland “Nemesis” Minor Lacrosse director at large, and secondary school vice-principal, it is because of the benefits of the sport for young people.
“I really think parents are beginning to understand how great lacrosse can be for the development of their children,” he explains. “Like any extra-curricular sport, it is going to keep kids involved and engaged in a positive way. At the same time it will introduce some very transferable skills.”
The social aspects of the game should not be overlooked, says Patenall. “It is an exciting, positive alternative to hanging out at the mall, or hours of video games. Team sports such as lacrosse help your children forge lasting friendships. They instill a sense of respect – for the game, for the rules, for teammates and opposition players, and for themselves as they work to become better athletes and better players.”
And there’s more. “Teamwork and team play translate beyond the game,” says Paternall. “They reinforce the importance of hard work, help build self-esteem, persistence and patience, and allow kids to become stronger communicators.”
According to Patenall, lacrosse also helps to build overall athleticism. “It is one of those ultimate cross-training sports. Take a look at the number of really great hockey players that came from a lacrosse background: Brendan Shanahan, Joe Nieuwendyk, NHL fitness guru Gary Roberts …”
And then, of course, there is The Great One. Wayne Gretzky has gone on record countless times stating that lacrosse made him a better hockey player – a ringing endorsement from one of the greatest athletes of all time.
Andree Davis, director of promotion for the Oshawa Minor Lacrosse Association calls lacrosse the perfect transition sport. “It takes some of the speed and stick skills of a sport like hockey and combines it with the strong running game that you see in soccer. It is one of those sports than enhances the skill sets needed for all kinds of sport.”
Patenall’s son, Thomas, at age 10, has already noticed the effect of lacrosse on his athleticism. “It helps me stay fit,” he says. “And has really improved my hand/eye coordination.”
There is really only one way to get young children excited about lacrosse. “Put sticks in their hands,” says Shawn Evans. “Make sure you have sticks around the house. Take your children to the park and play catch. Take them to your nearest school and teach them to throw and catch by bouncing off the brick walls. That way they can work on skills even when you aren’t around.”
It is also important to be patient. “Kids aren’t going to be able to scoop, cradle, throw, or catch the ball right away,” he cautions. “Catching is probably going to be the hardest part. But be positive and encourage them. They’ll pick it up soon enough, and then forget that they weren’t able to do it in the first place. But definitely work on those few fundamental skills first.”
Patenall suggests turning it into a family activity. He, Thomas, and his daughter, Madeline, 13, can often be found, sticks in hand, tossing the ball around. “You can play in the driveway or in a local park. We often take our sticks to the beach and toss the ball around,” he says. “If you get the kids excited enough, you’ll find them taking their sticks to bed with them.”
And then there is learning by example. “Take your kids to see a high quality game,” suggests Patenall. “It’s a fun and affordable family night out. Whether it’s a Junior “A” game in Peterborough or Whitby or a Senior “A” in Peterborough or Brooklin, competitive lacrosse is thrilling. You can even look into going to see a pro game. Watching a Toronto Rock game is substantially less expensive than going to watch the Leafs.”
Getting in the game
Ask almost anyone involved in organized lacrosse what parents can do to get their kids ready for league participation, and they’ll tell you to sign them up for clinics.
“We run new player clinics every year,” says Bill Watson, president of Whitby Minor Lacrosse. “They’re age-specific, so the kids will be learning with other kids their own age. It gives players an opportunity to learn the essential skills needed before the games actually begin and levels the playing field.”
Clinics for all leagues are priced affordably – generally around $10 per child.
According to most players and coaches, it is never too early to get your child started in lacrosse. Organized play begins as early as age 3 or 4, but really, your child can join at any age.
“Thomas began when he was 8,” says Patenall. “Madeline is just starting, and she is 13. While earlier exposure to the game is helpful, players mature and gain skills at all different ages. Particularly in house league, late starters usually blend right in.”
Lacrosse house leagues are particularly attractive to children who play other sports, or for parents who have summer plans for their kids. “Our season runs from April to June,” explains Davis. “And that’s the case for most lacrosse leagues. For some kids, it acts as a seasonal transition sport between hockey and baseball or soccer. For others, it is a short season in which to try out organized sports for the first time. It is also great for kids who go to camps for summer, or who are engaged in other activities.”
Lacrosse for life
For those who excel at lacrosse, academic reward often follows. While hockey scholarships are difficult to secure, lacrosse scholarships are just as valuable. And quite a few Canadians have managed to make their way onto college hockey teams after being recruited for their lacrosse skills.
Then there are players like Evans, who take the sport to the pro level and integrate it into their career future. As co-creator of Nationwide Lacrosse, he has started a program that sees professional players working with children and youth to help grow the sport and produce the next generation of lacrosse superstars.
“Lacrosse has always been there for me,” he says. “And I can’t imagine a life without it. I grew up loving the game, having fun, and meeting teammates that I’m still friends with today. And I’ll continue to be a part of the game for a long time, even when I’m finished playing.”
A little known fact: Lacrosse is one of the safest team sports there is. In fact, it is ranked as the 54th most dangerous sport in Canada, according to Sports Canada.
“Still, you need to consider steps to ensure that your child is safe,” explains Calgary Roughnecks star Shawn Evans. “Buy good quality equipment for your kids. Shoulder pads and kidney pads that fit well are important.”
Just as important is teaching some of the rules of the sport before kids begin league play. “There are very strict rules that go into player safety,” says James Patenall, a director at large with Northumberland “Nemesis” Minor Lacrosse. “Hitting from behind is not allowed. Any contact with the helmet is going to get an instant penalty. Because the sport is so quick, precautions are built in. And the best way to ensure safety for everyone involved is through stringent enforcement.”
For Bill Watson, president of Whitby Minor Lacrosse, it all boils down to teaching respect. “Parents should stress respect for the players, coaches, and officials. When there is respect in the game, the whole sport becomes safer – and more fun.”