Two years ago, I was asked to do a presentation for the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association (IMLCA). Considering the fact that I had never attended a game of lacrosse and never held a stick, I was out of my comfort zone and definitely OUT OF MY LANE. But I said yes anyway.
Within minutes of my presentation ending, I received a nice email from Lars Tiffany, the head men’s lacrosse coach at the University of Virginia: He said they were scrapping their planned conditioning tests due to my presentation. I literally typed his name into Google to learn that Lars led UVA to the NCAA National Championship in 2019. The fact that they ditched their conditioning tests heading into the 2021 season didn’t seem to hurt them. Virginia won the NCAA National Championship again in 2021.
After getting that first email from Coach Tiffany, I remained busy answering emails from dozens of other college lacrosse coaches. I’m just a retired chemistry teacher and high school track coach; why do these guys want to talk to me?
But then again, maybe I had an impact because I did stay in my lane. I did not research the sport. I didn’t try to fake expertise. I didn’t attempt complexity. I simply explained how to “Feed the Cats.”
For those of you who haven’t heard about this cat stuff, cats are athletes. Pure cats are fast, twitchy, and explosive but are often criticized for being lazy because their high outputs are built on a foundation of rest, recovery, and sleep. FTC coaches value athleticism and believe speed is the tide that lifts all boats. They think that athletes should perform in practice and that tired is the enemy. They also reject the traditional goal of hard work for hard work’s sake. Instead, FTC coaches want practice to be the best part of a kid’s day.
“If you are working on something that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed.
The vision pulls you.” –Steve Jobs
In some ways, that IMLCA Clinic in December 2020 changed my life.
I became very good friends with America’s Lacrosse Guru, Jamie Munro of JM3 Sports.
I spent two days working with Tim McCormack at Arizona State. Tim is now the head girls’ lacrosse coach at John Hopkins. I think Tim was feeding the cats before he met me.
I spent several hours meeting with Mike Murphy and his lacrosse staff at Penn. Speed guru Dr. Ken Clark arranged and participated in the meeting. What an amazing staff.
I also met with Matt Madalon and his staff at Princeton. I’ve remained close to Princeton’s S&C coach, Mark Ellis. Princeton now “Feeds the Tigers” and, in 2022, made the NCAA Final Four for the first time in 18 years. Recently, Ellis reported to me that they went from three guys running 20 mph per hour to 17 running 20 mph (plus three more guys at 19.8 or 19.9). One guy improved from 18.3 mph to 20.7 mph; another improved from 22.2 mph to 23.2 mph. Overall, average gains were over one mph (and one mph is hugely significant).
Mark Ellis is a fast-talking rock star of the S&C world. “For us, it’s speed and explosion before anything else. Some strength coaches are mainly focused on getting athletes bigger. Other S&C coaches prioritize conditioning. At Princeton we want speed, we don’t want the fastest milers. We prioritize fast, explosive, and strong…in that order.”
My message is not revolutionary to some college lacrosse programs. Coaches who embrace the “Feed the Cats” message are usually already leaning into the concepts, not the ones entrenched in fatigue-seeking practices where collective misery creates mental toughness.
Feed the Cats Lacrosse
I like to ask college lacrosse coaches what they look for when they recruit. The answer is almost always some version of “good lacrosse players who are fast and explosive.” In other words, they are looking for great lacrosse players who are also great athletes (cats).
My follow-up question is, “What are you doing to make your athletes faster and more explosive?” There’s usually a look of realization…realization that they are recruiting speed and then neglecting it. Sometimes the S&C guy will confidently talk about explosive lifts and running lots of repeat sprints.Slow kids need to develop the attributes of fast athletes. In the weight room, there’s not a single lift that fast kids do well and slow kids can’t do just as well, says @pntrack. Click To Tweet
I find this to be the biggest problem with S&C: their focus is on strength and conditioning. In other words, they lift lots of weights and work on endurance. Lifting and doing repeat sprints in a state of fatigue will not improve speed. Sometimes, I wonder if the weight room produces mainly “weight room strength.”
My solution is to train speed year-round. Speed training must be done when fresh, two or three times a week, and supplemented with what I call “X-Factor” work (a variety of exercises that we have a reasonable hunch improves speed). Most X-Factor work includes things fast athletes do well, and slow athletes don’t. Slow kids need to develop the attributes of fast athletes. In the weight room, there’s not a single lift that fast kids do well and slow kids can’t do just as well.
Some coaches fire back that lacrosse is not a sprint sport; it’s an acceleration sport. I try to explain that speed is the tide that lifts all boats, and fast athletes are great accelerators. If you take an outstanding lacrosse athlete and improve their speed, they will be quicker, better at accelerating, stronger, and will change directions more effectively. The improvements in their CNS (central nervous system) may also allow them to see the game in slow motion. Speed kills.
The other difficult concept for coaches to grasp is the positive effect that speed has on endurance. An athlete who improves his speed by one mile per hour will have “speed endurance.” In other words, for faster athletes, submaximal speeds will be more efficient and will feel easier. If the game is played at speeds of 10–15 mph, the 22-mph athlete still has a huge advantage over the 18-mph athlete. They will be fresher in the fourth quarter.
My final thought: GPS data has created an unintended consequence. If we know that one position runs twice the volume of another, that does NOT mean they need twice as much conditioning.
Let’s interpret the GPS data of Steph Curry. In the 2021–22 NBA season, Steph Curry ran 2.71 miles per game, playing an average of 34.5 minutes. If you do the math, Curry runs almost three miles at an average pace of around 13:00 minutes per mile. If anyone thinks these numbers should influence off-the-court training, IMO, they are nuts. Let the game train the game. Off the court, Steph needs to train athleticism (strength, speed, jumping high/far, and bouncing).
One lacrosse coach told me he liked my ideas, but “we must prepare our players for a 60-minute game.” My reply: “What game is more important, the first or the last?” In other words, I encourage coaches to let the games be hard and let the season train endurance and capacity. This is difficult for coaches. We want it ALL, and we want it NOW.I encourage coaches to let the games be hard and let the season train endurance and capacity. This is difficult for coaches. We want it ALL, and we want it NOW, says @pntrack. Click To Tweet
By no means is the prioritization of speed and athleticism the only topic of discussion when I meet with NCAA lacrosse programs. We talk about my Wave Theory of training. We talk about dopamine. We talk about Record, Rank, and Publish. We talk about the stupidity of conditioning tests and the soul-crushing effects of “the grind.”
But mainly, we talk about speed being the tide that lifts all boats.
Speed Training for Lacrosse Athletes
I’ve done lacrosse speed clinics in Rhode Island, Colorado, New Jersey, and Atlanta. I did a private lacrosse clinic on a 5-square-mile island (Fishers Island, NY). In addition, I’ve done around 60 Zoom talks with JM3 lacrosse athletes (sometimes parents attend the presentations too).
My message is not much different from the message I present to NCAA lacrosse programs. Get athletic! Speed is the tide that lifts all boats. To get recruited, you need to be good at lacrosse AND athletic.
Fewer than 5% of elite high school lacrosse athletes do speed training. Let that sink in. The traditional thought is that athletes who are genetically fast are going to be fast. The same can be said for those who are genetically slow. Speed is inherited, just like strength. However, strength is developed in the weight room, while speed is dismissed as an immutable part of the human genome. Crazy!If endurance and capacity made great lacrosse players, coaches would recruit skinny marathon runners, says @pntrack. Click To Tweet
I recently spoke with an athlete who had committed to a powerhouse NCAA lacrosse school. What does her off-season training look like? Her S&C coach has her lifting three days a week and conditioning twice a week. The conditioning consists of running 300 meters ten times. 10×300 is a workout for milers. Focusing on the weight room and endurance is a recipe for getting slower. And it’s everywhere.
My recipe is to lift heavy, sprint fast, jump high/far, and bounce. Let lacrosse train endurance and capacity. Athletes need to prioritize speed. If lacrosse coaches recruit fast and explosive lacrosse athletes, let’s not ignore the “fast and explosive” part. If endurance and capacity made great lacrosse players, coaches would recruit skinny marathon runners. They don’t. Get athletic!
When I first started remote coaching lacrosse kids, I made the mistake of prescribing optimal workouts. Why not? Optimal workouts are the best way to get fast. After reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, I learned I was wrong. I needed to start with minimal workouts, not optimal. I created the 15-minute Atomic Workout. I needed to help kids develop a joyful HABIT of speed training.
Strange how two things can be true at the same time. Speed training is both hard and easy. My atomic workout is only 15 minutes long with only 60 SECONDS of work. And you only need to do it two or three times a week. EASY! But you need to be consistent, and the workout must be done when alert and fresh. HARD!
The typical lacrosse athlete is never fresh. They are commonly honors students taking Advanced Placement classes, overwhelmed with homework. They play tons of lacrosse (too much, IMO) and often play other sports as well. Then they go to a private S&C coach who has never lived in the speed world, and even if they did, their facility isn’t big enough to allow for sprinting.
“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” –Abraham MaslowThe typical lacrosse athlete is never fresh. The fact that speed training must be done fresh forces athletes to reexamine their ‘rise and grind’ approach, says @pntrack. Click To Tweet
The fact that speed training must be done fresh forces athletes to reexamine their “rise and grind” approach. They must figure out how to create higher outputs. They must sleep more and plan better. Tired is the enemy, not the goal (the title of my upcoming book).
Ten Components of Feed the Cats Remote Training:
- Do the Atomic Workout two or three times a week. (But doing one is better than doing none.)
- Buy the Freelap Timing System ($535). The next best thing, buy a stopwatch. The next, next best thing: sprint like you’re being timed. (But, I often say, “If you aren’t being timed, you aren’t sprinting.”)
- Train with sprint spikes on a track. The next best thing is running shoes on a street or sidewalk. The next, next best thing: train with cleats on turf. (It’s hard to be fast with soft shoes on a soft surface.)
- Even though you are only doing 60 seconds of work, those 60 seconds need to be done at an 11 on a scale of 10.
- Prioritize speed. Failure to plan is planning to fail. If you have a weightlifting session, sprint first. If you have a lacrosse practice in the evening, sprint before practice.
- Always write down your times (Record, Rank, Publish).
- When the Atomic Workout seems too minimal, it’s time to go OPTIMAL. Workouts will be increased to 25–40 minutes in length, and X-Factor work will be added.
- Prioritize rest, recovery, and sleep. Getting championship sleep (8–9 hours) is the hardest thing you will ever do.
- Stay patient. Speed grows like a tree.
- Burn your goals, go on a mission, surrender to the results.
Sleep is hard. Intensity is hard. Consistency is hard. Do the hard work!
Lead photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire
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