Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States. As the participation numbers steadily grow year after year, more and more programs are popping up. These programs range from select travel club teams to instructional clinics. Two of the ways a program will separate themselves and promote its prowess is to focus on the recruiting opportunities available with them, as well as the number of athletes being recruited by collegiate programs. This is certainly a valid approach, but concerns that this strategy has started to filter down into the youth ranks have come up in recent conversations.
As the pressures to secure a spot on a college lacrosse roster increase, we are seeing kids as young as eighth grade commit to programs before they have even played their first High School season. A lot can happen to those young athletes as those years from middle school through high school are some of the most important in terms of their development not only as athletes but as human beings. That is why the US Lacrosse Tidewater Chapter, located on the eastern side of Virginia, is taking a step away from recruitment and a step towards building role models.
We had the chance to connect with Dan Neumann from the Tidewater Chapter to discuss their new Ambassador program that is kicking off in the coming month.
Before we jump into things, could you introduce yourself and tell us about your lacrosse background?
I grew up in Baltimore playing multiple sports, deciding during my senior year to play lacrosse at Penn State. I continued to be involved in sports through medical school, realizing that much of the same discipline you learn from athletics and teamwork makes you stronger in your profession and in life. I’ve applied that same philosophy and foundation to coaching both men’s and women’s lacrosse for the past decade.
What is your current role with US Lacrosse?
The Tidewater Chapter of US Lacrosse is in the midst of exciting growth and I currently work to develop the girls youth programs across the region. I am also the medical liaison to USL and help educate our chapter on injury prevention and safety standards.
Could you give us a brief introduction to the USL Tidewater U15 Girls Lacrosse Ambassador Program?
The main focus of this project is to grow lacrosse at the introductory grade levels by involving U15 players to help engage their younger peers and serve as role models both on and off the field. We put out a call for nominations to all area coaches and shared the project information with players and families. Nomination criteria included having a minimum GPA of 3.25, participation in multiple sports, and involvement in the community either through school or outside activities. Our goal was to attract a diverse group of student athletes that would represent many schools and programs across our entire region.
Where did the idea for the Tidewater Ambassador program come from and what is your role in its development?
The idea come about during a review of our chapter’s initiatives as they lined up with recommendations from US Lacrosse. We saw the challenge to come up with “other” programs that could help support growth in our chapter region. Through coaching and having daughters of my own, I began to pay attention to the interaction between the younger players and those a few years older. What I saw was a real connection, mutual respect, admiration and friendship between these girls. The Ambassador program was developed to mentor and support these relationships while highlighting everything that contributes to becoming an engaged student-athlete and community leader.
Could you walk us through the process that a student athlete would take to become a member of the Tidewater Ambassador program?
Student-athletes who meet our criteria can be nominated by simply asking their coach to submit a short online nomination form. Coaches can also approach players who they feel represent the values of the program to see if they would be interested. All nominees are invited to an on-field clinic where the project mission and expectations are explained before evaluating players’ interactions, sportsmanship and performance on the field. Finally, girls are selected based on attitude, skill, tryout performance, dedication, academic achievement, leadership, and coach recommendations. Those selected represent the chapter for one year as a USL Tidewater Ambassador.
Getting the girls of the USL Tidewater Ambassador Team together for the first time at the ODU clinic
Photo Credit: @uslaxtidewater
Most extracurricular lacrosse programs are focused on participating in multiple tournaments while your Ambassador program seems to have different priorities. Why is that?
The Ambassador team’s success will be judged off the lacrosse field. Priorities include a focus on the long-term values of sportsmanship, academics, and leadership along with athleticism across multiple extracurricular sports and achievements. While this program has some of the best lacrosse athletes in the area, it’s designed to share the very best all-around student-athlete role models with the next generation of young players.
In your opinion, what are some of the key components of this Ambassador program that will make this program a success?
The individual efforts of the ambassador student-athletes will be the legacy of this project. With this inaugural season’s nominees averaging a GPA of 3.9 and the diversity of young women representing the program, the wealth of new ideas and approaches to responsibly developing and marketing lacrosse is limitless. Their understanding of social media, desire to make a positive impact in the local region, and direct engagement of their younger peers is invaluable to shaping the future of the game.
With a focus on creating strong community leaders, how does your program plan to continue the development of these student athletes once they’ve graduated from the program?
The players selected as ambassadors have already proven to be academic and athletic leaders in our communities. The bonds they form with teammates, mentors, and younger players will continue beyond the program and will help shape them personally and professionally. We’re fortunate to have team mentors who are respected teachers, coaches and community leaders and the interactions between our ambassadors and these mentors will remain open for a lifetime.
There are a lot of youth programs popping up these days that have a focus on college recruitment. What role does recruitment play in your program?
Youth sports in general have become more big business rather than being focused on developing well-rounded student-athletes. Specialization has deprived many young players of the opportunity to experience other sports, participate in school programs, and mature alongside their social peers. We certainly have some college committed players currently in our program and several others that have the potential to play at the next level. There is a responsible process for students to make choices about higher education and how athletics may fit into that decision. The Ambassador Program mentors have competed at the highest levels of sports and understand the demands, pressures, and excitement of excelling at the next level. The trusted and unbiased support of the Ambassador program will help these student-athletes navigate the recruitment process or offer reassurance to those who find it not to be the right personal path. In return, the ambassadors will share their experience with younger players and help mentor them through the process for years to come.
Early recruitment has become a hot topic of discussion with a lot of varying opinions. Where does the Tidewater Chapter stand on this issue and how does the Ambassador program plan to impact it?
One of the reasons to begin this program with the girls was to follow and support the efforts of the IWLCA to curb early recruitment. Our chapter believes that placing demands on students to choose a college, sometimes before they even reach high school, is detrimental to not only the student-athletes but to higher education in general. The Ambassador Team program serves as an unbiased, non-profit, cost-free environment for players to understand and discuss the process, educate themselves and their peers, and ultimately take control of reshaping the recruiting landscape.
It’s been mentioned that your organization plans to move into U15 boys in 2017. Where do you see your program in 5 years?
Once we have had the opportunity to assess the process, successes and areas in need of improvement we do plan to expand the program to include U15 boys, hopefully beginning in 2017. As with any new idea, there will always be room to improve and we want to be sure we have a successful model before trying to expand. We have committed to a 5-year effort, recognizing that any program that challenges the status quo will have hurdles. By 2022, we hope to see our first Ambassador Team members sharing their experiences with current ambassadors, remaining elite academic and community leaders, and continuing to be respected promoters of the game.
Is this a program you would like to see instituted across the country?
We would love to share a successful model with other USL chapters across the country, eventually creating an association of program mentors and a separate educational program during the convention.
With your program now starting up, what do you hope to achieve at the end of it in 2016?
By the end of the first program year we hope to have collected tangible metrics to help us assess the positive impacts in our chapter region. We are tracking registration numbers in our regional rec programs, new lacrosse initiatives in elementary PE classes, followings on social media, and overall program development to name a few.
If anyone would like to get involved with your program whether that is by becoming an Ambassador or volunteering, how could someone get involved?
We welcome interest in the Ambassador program and would be excited to share our experience with other chapters around the country. Anyone interested in more information or becoming a partner in this project can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.