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Stories/Op-Ed

Becoming a Professional Lacrosse Player

What young athlete hasn’t seen highlights of the NLL on social media or watched a game and thought “I want to do that.” I remember traveling with my dad, his best friend from college, my Uncle Rage, and my brother to watch the Rochester Knighthawks take on the Buffalo Bandits when I was in high school, seeing Hall of Fame Nominee Billy Dee Smith punish offensive players as they cut the middle or set picks. I remember Mark Steenhuis’ flowing blonde hair as he scored goals and Rochester fans booed, while Bandits’ fans chanted “Whose House? Steenhuis!” 

I was in awe as I watched the legendary John Tavares, Mike Accursi and Shawn Williams do what they do best: scoring extremely dynamic goals. A fight broke out mid-game, and I remember looking at my brother and saying – “I want to do this, this is AWESOME!” Little did I know my athletic career would take me down a different path, pursuing a dream of playing in the NFL. While in high school I was offered a scholarship to play Division 1 football in Fairfield, CT as a Sacred Heart Pioneer. My dream of playing professional sports didn’t waver, it just shifted. Fast forward ten years and I’d have the opportunity to play against my childhood idols Billy Dee Smith Mark Steenhuis. 

Having the chance to play professional sports is a rare opportunity, and all athletes will spend a large portion of their lives trying to attain this goal. Becoming a professional athlete is no easy task, and the path is through years of dedication to your craft, sacrifices, and consistency. Anything worth doing is typically challenging, or the road to success would be constant bumper-to-bumper traffic. 

Becoming a professional lacrosse player will test your mental fortitude, push your body to the limits and create an insatiable hunger for more. If your hard work is met with an opportunity to play in the NLL, you will reap the rewards. Playing professional lacrosse in the NLL will come with ample benefits: being compensated to play the game you love, competing on the biggest stage of lacrosse in front of thousands of passionate fans, and the chance to do what very few people are able to do. To the victor goes the spoils, and if you’re willing to be disciplined, face and overcome adversity and be mentally tough, you have a chance.

To play in the National Lacrosse League you must have superior skills, physical attributes, or an extremely high lacrosse IQ. Having one or more of these attributes will only help your case while NLL scouts and coaches watch you play. Any combination of these three attributes will work, but you will need to be above average or “expert” level in at least one of the aforementioned attributes, with the other two attributes being slightly above average. 

Becoming an expert in any field is extremely arduous. Malcolm Gladwell has famously claimed that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at any skill. Accumulating 10,000 hours in anything can seem like an insurmountable task, by now you’re likely asking yourself how many 2-hour practices will I need to become a professional? I’d argue the 10,000-hour mark is a fairly arbitrary number and for all intents and purposes essentially tells us that becoming an expert isn’t going to be easy. With that being said I’ve outlined some best practices as you prepare for your journey to the NLL. 

 

  1. Control what you can: mind and body.

Far too often young athletes get caught up on things they cannot control, for instance: “How do I get a tryout for an NLL team?” “How will I get a scholarship to my favorite school?” “I wanted to play attack but Coach put me at mid-field.” All of these questions do not matter if you do not control what you can. Oren Lyons, the faith keeper for Onondaga and legendary goalie for Syracuse University, once told me “Conditioning is the most important skill for box lacrosse. I’d take the guy who can run over the guy who can shoot any day.” I often reflect on this and realize if you’re dedicated and take control of your physical preparedness, that when it comes to the skill you’re more likely to do the same. 

Conditioning is an element of lacrosse each and every athlete can control. Finding a strength and conditioning program, coach or personal trainer who can get your body ready to perform is imperative. Having a “large engine” or “good conditioning” will allow you to perform at your best, and longer than the next player when it gets to the later stages of a game or in season. Being stronger and faster will allow you to outperform the competition, set harder picks, play better defense, and begin to positively impact games. 

There are so many resources out now for young athletes to follow strength and conditioning programs, ranging from those at home without weights, to more advanced training that simply requires a subscription. You can follow my daily functional training specific to box lacrosse training on my YouTube channel. Having excellent size, strength and conditioning are what opened the door for me to play in the National Lacrosse League.

Not only can a strength and conditioning program allow you to get bigger, stronger, and faster, but a training regimen will build discipline, mental toughness, and a small source of daily adversity to overcome. Challenge yourself to become better on a daily basis, and through your physical training program you will also be honing your mind. It is important to remember we control our energy and attitude, which in turn determines our future successes and failures. Having a positive mindset, being resilient, and determined will help you on your journey to the National Lacrosse League. The greatest athletes’ mental attributes far outweigh their physical. 

 

 2. Learn from the best.

Once you’re controlling what you can, you’ve developed your strength and conditioning, you’ve begun honing your mental toughness and you’ve remained disciplined, you must learn from the best. Everything you want to accomplish in life has most likely been done before by another human being. In today’s world, we can access almost anything from the comfort of our own homes with our smartphones and computers. Finding a mentor is much easier than it was before the age of the internet. When looking for a mentor, you’ll look to someone who achieved what define as success or is further along a similar path than you. In sport, finding a mentor or learning from the best is as simple as watching your favorite player play. In the lacrosse world, you can subscribe to your favorite players’ YouTube channel, follow them on Instagram or TikTok, and watch the tips they’ve created for you, practice them and even study how they play games. 

When I first entered the NLL with the New England Black Wolves, I was a big, physical Division 1 football player with one year of Can-Am box lacrosse under my belt. My learning curve was tremendous, so studying game films of great current players like Kyle Rubisch, Billy Dee Smith, and Steve Priolo helped me develop faster. Having the opportunity to work with Tracey Kelusky, Jim Veltman and Glenn Clark greatly elevated my game and molded me into the player I became. If you’re a physical defender and want a first-person perspective of what it is like playing in the NLL and various other leagues be sure to check out Thrilla Vision

If you ask any great player of any sport, they were inspired to play like an athlete that came before them. You can find small pieces of their inspirations’ playing style in the way they take the field. There is a reason the game is ever-changing and evolving. Every time a professional player takes the floor, there is a kid in the stands inspired by his move, and they make it their own, and they make it better. Find a mentor, a favorite player and study them. Watch how they carry themselves in the game between whistles, during play, how they train and eat, and find out what drives them. This will expedite your process of becoming a professional lacrosse player. 

 

3. Hone your skills.

You’ll get several benefits both physically and mentally from training your body and mind. You’ll learn a lot about box lacrosse by studying your favorite players, but if you’re not battle-tested you will not know where you stand. You must play box lacrosse, play the best competition available, and see how you stack up. The best way to learn is through experience. If you’re unsure where you can play or what leagues are available to you, take a look at the Lay of The Land. Box lacrosse is exploding in popularity nationwide, and more and more opportunities are available for athletes to test their skills against other players in live game action. This is where the real growth, exposure, and experience come from. 

Each practice, game, and tournament allows you to close the gap on that 10,000-hour benchmark Malcolm Gladwell famously created. And, more importantly, it gives you an opportunity to try something new, fail and learn something to add to your arsenal. Experience is what makes great athletes great, but experience does not always need to be live-action. After each game, take time to reflect on what you did well and where you could use improvement. Prior to games and throughout the week, take time to visualize yourself finding success in certain game situations, how you will react, and how you will move. As athletes, our bodies can only play so many games before our bruises catch up with us. Visualization is a great way to work towards those 10,000 hours honing your gameplay. 

In order to find success in any endeavor, you must control the factors that you can. Adversity will present itself and when it does you will be ready. Learn from the people who are successful and doing what you aspire to do. This will expedite the process and help shorten the learning curve. Lastly, you must visualize your success, execute your plan and take steps toward achieving your goals. Obstacles will be placed in your way, but with the right mindset and attitude you will overcome them. Remember if the road was easy everyone would walk it. 

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