By Mike Muetzel, LaxCoachMike.com
It is interesting as I've interviewed college lacrosse coaches over the last six or seven years that we continue to see new tends in practice plans and drills. In 2016 and 2017 we have heard a growing number of coaches beginning to utilize tennis balls even more in practices.
There are many advantages to integrating tennis balls into practice that go far beyond just protecting goalies when we have them in the cage for "in tight" shooting drills. As an example, Coach Nick Myers at Ohio State and many others are now using of tennis balls in more than just shooting drills and goalie reps.
Key Advantages of Putting Tennis Balls in Play in Practice
1. Keeping goalies safe in shooting drills
2. Increasing reps for goalies on shots in tight
3. Improve stick skills with 'soft hands'
4. Improving offensive ball protection
When offenses are in a position where they can find an open player inside and in a position to finish successfully, it is an awesome opportunity to score. However, finishing these opportunities is much different in a game – with a goalie five feet away filling the cage and a stick that is reducing the amount of open net even more – than it is simply shooting the ball into an empty net in repetitive shooting drills in practice.
Conversely, it is a great opportunity to coach goalies on their positioning as well as offering those reps to improve reaction time in shots that are finishing in close, all without fear of getting hit or hurt by real lacrosse balls coming at them in multiple shots.
In my recent interview with Coach David Huntley of the MLL's Atlanta Blaze (MLL) and the Canadian National Team, he discussed at length the skill set involved in catching the ball in close. We don't often hear this critical element discussed as much as dodging and shooting, but finishing in close begins with getting into an open passing lane and then catching the ball where the player can actually do something with it.
It is not nearly as easy for players to throw and catch with tennis balls. Their softness and light weight compared to a lacrosse ball is significant. It requires better technique and extremely soft hands to catch, especially with the stick located behind the helmet versus reaching out in front to catch a pass.
This is a significant technique for players, because when they catch behind the helmet their sticks are already in a position to make a dodge with the stick protected as well as having it in position to make a shot or the next pass.
In using tennis balls more often in practice drills, I have noticed that initially players using poles have dropped a lot of passes until they learn to soften their hands on the catch.
Aside from shooting drills, we are also seeing many NCAA coaches actually run 3v2 or even 5v5 or 6v6 drills using tennis balls one or two days a week. The light tennis ball has a tendency to come out of the player's stick in many situations where an actual lacrosse ball will remain anchored. Thus, fundamentally, players not only need to catch the ball with soft hands, but to protect the stick as well.
The same characteristics occur on ground ball play, and using tennis balls can teach players to focus on better technique here as well. Love to get your thoughts!