Mental vs Mechanical Mistakes- Which kind are your players making?
No matter what level of lacrosse you are coaching- youth, high school freshmen, high school varsity, etc., your players are going to make mistakes. Even if you are coaching the elite U15 traveling club team for your area. There will be lots of them if you are a high school varsity team in a new or developing area. You probably have good athletes that just don't have many games under their belts yet. Your star Attackman will miss a pass, your Defenders will drop the ball on the clear, somebody will miss an easy ground ball. It is how you respond to these mistakes that will determine what kind of working relationship you will have with these young men (or women!) that are looking for your guidance.
It's very important that you recognize what kinds of mistakes your players are making. Today let's focus just on Mechanical Mistakes and Mental Mistakes.
Take into consideration the age and experience level of the individual players that you are working with. A lot of what might look like a "mistake" in practice or a game might just be a lack of coordination or athleticism in a younger player. Maybe they just didn't eat a very good breakfast that day. Especially as a coach of youth players, where positivity is key, you need to know the difference. Find the cause behind the mistake so you can offer a solution, something that will work better next time.
Mechanical or technical mistakes could be when a kid doesn't catch the ball, misses the scoop on a ground ball, maybe the ball pops out during cradling. Something involving the mechanical actions of the play. If a player doesn't make a catch, or can't jump high enough to catch a pass, or even trips on his own two feet when running with the ball- these are all coordination, athleticism, muscle memory, stick skill kinds of problems. Maybe his hand eye coordination isn't that good and he needs to slide his hand up to catch. Maybe the stick he just bought from the big box store or the thrift store for $30 is strung like a tennis racket and doesn't have a pocket. Maybe he hasn't been hitting the wall like the rest of his teammates and drops passes he should catch.
If you are looking for the cause, mechanical mistakes can be easy to correct. If you have young athletes, they probably just need active practices to develop strength, coordination and reflexes, practices where they get tons and tons of repetitions, lots of running around, lots of chances with the ball. They need to learn how to run and jump and stop and turn and sprint, and how to run past or push the other kids out of the way. They are still learning how to operate their growing bodies. They don't really know what it means to "run hard" yet. They need speed ladders for footwork, speed agility and quickness drills, hill sprints and piggy-back runs, bear crawls and crab walks, etc., etc. You could easily do 10 or 15 minutes of this at the beginning of every practice. You will go through this again with high school kids that have big growth spurts. They will have to redevelop coordination, athleticism, footwork, center of gravity, strength vs speed control, etc. as their bodies change and grow.
If their athleticism is good, but your players drop passes or miss easy ground balls, then you have individual stick skill issues you need to work on. They need the same thing- maximum repetitions to build muscle memory for catching, throwing, and picking up ground balls, slowly at first and then at full speed in game situations. Whatever isn't working, you can pick that piece in the machinery to work on.
- Make sure they have been taught correct catching and throwing technique. Check out our Wall Ball Workouts for help with catching and throwing.
- Three-man weaves are good running, catching and throwing drills.
- Try our pendulum drills, hamster drills, ground ball drills, shooting drills- all designed to maximize repetitions and muscle memory.
For example- If your players are in a 4-on-3 Fast Break in a game, and one of your Attackmen misses the pass before he catches the ball, that's a mechanical mistake and can be corrected. Emphasize watching the ball all the way into their stick at the next practice. Try placing a heavier consequence on unforced turnovers. When you run Fast Breaks at practice, try keeping score next time.
Mental or decision-making mistakes can be harder to diagnose and resolve. This could be when a kid doesn’t pass, doesn’t move the ball to the open man, holds the ball when doubled or tripled, over-commits on defense, commits penalties, etc. Usually it means your player doesn’t understand some basic concept of the game, or maybe even team sports in general: the basic 2-on-1 is not something they understand. Can you explain the 2-on-1 to them, Coach?
Especially with younger kids, make sure you know what they know and don't know. If it's something they've never been taught, then you probably shouldn't chew them out with Mom watching. They might not understand basic defensive positioning or footwork, or even understand what those words mean. You could try the Bucket Game, or play defense with no sticks at practice. Make yourself some "Stubbies," so that they learn how to drop step to stay in between their man and the goal and control the hips to turn him away, etc.
Your players might not understand or recognize the situation. If you have worked on the 4-on-3 Fast Break in practice, and your Midfielder runs the ball right into the waiting Defense and an easy save for the Goalie, that is a decision-making mistakes. Was he at practice when you worked on this? What then is the cause of his making the wrong decision? Does he know what the right decision would be?
Related: Check out our "Lax Lingo" section for very clear and simple terms that other coaches are using to communicate with players.
They might also come to practice in a bad mood, or maybe they just got grounded. Maybe they don't want to try very hard, or maybe they ate and drank nothing but sugar all day. Those are all mental or emotional issues, not mechanical. They decided not to be prepared for practice or to give their best effort today. They do not have the concentration or energy level or attention span to win ground balls today, or to hustle back to the hole, or play good, physical, body defense today. Is this a pattern, or just an off day? Maybe you have a player who is allowing small technical mistakes to snowball on himself and cause him to lose his emotional composure in front of his teammates. Not the same as dropping a pass.
Recognize where your individual athletes are and meet them on that level. Practice and games are supposed to be FUN. Being aware of mechanical vs mental mistakes can help you respond appropriately, right there on the sideline, and also helps you offer your players a solution instead of criticism. Do they know what would work better next time? Do you?
Offering a solution changes their emotional reaction to the situation. Instead of defensiveness, anger, or wanting to quit the team in the face of criticism and disapproval from their teammates and friends, can they find a path to success? When they know what to do to improve their technique or behavior, and therefore get positive reinforcement and attention from their coaches, teammates, and parents, most kids will take that path. This is what it means to get kids started on a win streak- tap into that wheel of effort, success, recognition, repeat!
Just like a college or high school coach would hopefully get their team some easy early wins in a season, you can also give your athletes easy early wins in practice. Keep it simple, and keep it fun!