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Pro lacrosse players and coaches take clinics and lessons digital during pandemic

Usually late spring into summer is a busy time for lacrosse camps, clinics and personal lessons across the United States. Just like the rest of everyday life, those camps and clinics were brought to a screeching halt in March by the Coronavirus pandemic. Players and coaches who rely on these events as a part of their livelihood found themselves scrambling to adjust and adapt. 

“Right away once things started to cancel that week that the IVY League announced their cancellations I went to my sister, who’s my business partner, and started discussing what our backup plan was,” Jules Henningburg, attackman for Redwoods LC, said. 

Heningburg launched Mission Primed, originally a four-day in-person clinic for committed rising high school seniors, in February. “Our immediate thought became how can we deliver this, and give everyone as much value digitally,” Heningburg continued.

“Early on we started putting out some zoom presentations and training videos for coaches and goalies for free with the hope that there would still be some kind of a season,” Boston Cannons head coach and Peak Goalie’s Sean Quirk said. “When the disappointment [of the season being cancelled] hit we really shifted to working with coaches, teams and goalies about the mental mindset of things.”

Ahead of the Original Schedule

When it became evident that seasons weren’t going to happen at the youth, high school or college level at all, it became more important for lacrosse business to provide virtual offerings sooner than later. The pandemic forced the hand of everyone causing them to accelerate plans that they had for digital platforms and offerings and bring them to market quicker. For companies like First Class Lacrosse, headed by Chaos LC midfielder Deemer Class, that was exactly the case. 

“We’d been ramping things up since really October,” Archers LC defender Matt McMahon, who joined forces with Class to improve the digital footprint and offerings of the company, said. “There were certain things we were definitely working towards and anticipating ahead of this, but we were able to adjust and continue to put out great content and videos.”

“At first it was honestly kind of evident who was scrambling and who had started to prepare and look ahead as things were shutting down,” Greg Gurenlian, co-founder of the Faceoff Academy and retired pro, said. “Once things started shutting down we began planning ahead, and I feel like we had things in place and ready to go with offerings on Zoom pretty quickly.”

A full slate of spring and summer camps for the PLL Academy also fell victim to the COVID-19 shutdowns, forcing them to adjust their plans for expanded digital offerings. 

“We always had a long-term plan for moving things digitally,” Redwoods LC midfielder Joe Walters said. “We had actually filmed a catalog of different drill videos on the field with some of our pros in February. It certainly helped to have that catalog ready to go and helped us fast forward a little bit.”

Joe Walters gives a virtual lesson to young players through the PLL Academy Virtual platform. (Photo courtesy of Joe Walters)

Helping Young Athletes Improve

Millon Lacrosse Camps have been around for the last 25 years and hosted over 28,500 boys for camps in the summer. Former pro lacrosse player and founder Mark Millon immediately realized that the ability to shift to virtual for the spring and potentially the summer carried more implications than just financially for his business. 

“The first thing for me was how can I make an impact on the game and provide a service to these kids right now?” said Millon. “What kind of outlet can I provide them with while we’re going through this? How can I help kids improve their game during this?”

Millon is no stranger to offering digital instruction. The retired pro was one of the first to offer lacrosse video instruction in the early 2000’s when he released his “Offensive Wizardry” home videos as a supplement for young lacrosse players who couldn’t attend his camps. Millon recently posted his “Offensive Wizardry” videos in their entirety on YouTube and  has been utilizing players who would normally be coaching at his camps like Gunnar Waldt, Matt Dunn, and Brent Hiken to offer specific webinars tailored to each position. 

For WPLL Fight star Taylor Cummings, that same question was at the base of the evolution of her current offerings through her website 

“I think we all tried to start small and then move forward after seeing what exactly we can handle,” Cummings said immediately after wrapping up a lesson via Zoom. “As it became more and more evident that this was going to be the only way to train and teach kids for a while I began to ask and think about “How can I help? What can I do to make something possible for the kids who would be going to training or camps?”

The question of “How can I help kids improve?” has led to the formation of all sorts of different tutorials, webinar sessions, drill archives and more. Nearly everyone has begun to host Zoom or other video based webinar calls that feature time “on field” aka in a garage, back yard, living room, wherever the kids are tuning in from. To use the famous line from Field of Dreams, “If you build it they will come.” And with these online offerings being built up, the athletes have come to stream them.

“I’ve had over 2,000 kids tune into one of our webinars so far and the feedback has been great,” Millon said.

Matt McMahon says that First Class Lacrosse has seen what was a steady growth over the last several months explode during the pandemic.  According to McMahon, individual membership numbers have nearly tripled and users on the website and Instagram through teams or other training has grown nearly eight times what it was. 

There has been a lot of focus on the web and webinar space, but seemingly only a few players have ventured into the app space. WPLL Fight attacker and KO17 founder Kylie Ohlmiller and Atlas LC attacker and Attack Academy director Rob Pannell have taken advantage of the smartphone culture so far, pushing out their own apps.

Ohlmiller launched her KO17 app on May 8, yet in just a few short weeks has been seeing a great return. The KO17 app provides users with drills as well as a chance to send footage to Kylie herself. 

“I was really nervous about launching [the app] and how it would do,” Ohlmiller said. “It’s been great so far and I’ve gotten a lot of love and praise on the app. It’s really about trying to be supportive and help the girls where they go, giving feedback year round.”

Connecting and Interacting

The ability to give feedback and connect with the athletes tuning in has added a much needed element to the virtual training that has provided the coaches as well as athletes a sense of community and team that they’re missing during this time. 

“As athletes we’re all kind of at a loss right now without our teams,” Taylor Cummings said. “We’re all missing our teams and we have the ability to share with others and help out.”

“Getting that personal interaction and seeing all the girls on there really fills my cup up and I hopefully do the same for the girls,” Sammy Jo Tracy, WPLL attacker and Director of the Draw Academy said when discussing the online training she has been doing through the WPLL+ platform.

“It’s so surreal. I’m sitting there and there are kids from all over the country and even the world tuning in to join when we host something,” Joe Walters said. “It’s a really cool feeling and there are so many positives.”

The touchpoint with athletes all over has been important for Kylie Ohlmiller as well. 

“The connection we all have is huge. Right now this is the only connection that we have so we get to share our passion for the game. It helps inspire and push me maybe as much as it does them.”

For the team at First Class Lacrosse, social media has proved the biggest tool. Most notably Instagram group chats. 

“It’s been fun to watch because it helps create that team atmosphere and positive buzz around what they’re doing,” McMahon said.

Kylie Ohlmiller launced her KO17 app to be resource for young players looking for advice for drills and direct, digital instruction. (Photo courtesy of KO17)

Learning and Adjusting

The adjustment from being able to teach on field to teaching through a computer or phone screen hasn’t come without a bit of a learning curve for the coaches.

“I’m a hands on coach. I like to be able to show and be hands on with the girls,” Ohlmiller said. “Now I’m really having to do a lot more explaining. It’s challenging because I’m not there to be hands on so I have to think about what words I’m using and how to make the most of my explanation.”

Nothing compares to the old slap on the back Mark Millon likes to hand out at camps, but the adjustment to virtual has its benefits as well.

“It’s all about technique and fundamentals now,” Millon said. “If you look at any sport the best athletes are amazing at the fundamentals. Now we can have kids walk through the fundamentals and skill breakdowns as I’m doing it and if they have questions they can ask or go back and watch the video later.” 

While the lack of in person reps as well as not being able to compete head-to-head against someone impacts someone taking faceoffs in a different way than other positions, Gurenlian and the Faceoff Academy team have pushed forward.

“Kids are seeing and going to see massive gains because they’re forced to listen more. This is a great time to dial in technique and that’s what we’re seeing,” Gurenlian said. 

Like every other camp, Jule Heningburg’s Mission Primed was set to feature a heavy dose of on field work, but now it’s shifted even more heavily to the off-field aspects of playing college lacrosse.

“There’s a lot that kids don’t understand as they head to school,” Heningburg stated. “There’s so many things that set you up for success. It’s more than just showing up to execute on that split dodge in a game. There’s other things we can teach kids to help make that college experience easier to navigate. Kind of a cheat code per say.”

Heningburg is focused on helping provide a sort of mental lacrosse training while sprinkling in on field help as well during the digital Mission Primed. 

Greg Gurenlian and the Face Off Academy were already preparing to roll out more virtual training and quickly adapted when a larger need for digital instruction arose. (Photo courtesy of Face Off Academy)

Moving Forward from a Pandemic

While some have mourned the loss of the lacrosse season on the college, high school and youth levels, others have looked for and found the opportunity for learning and growth. 

“Right now, it’s like we’ve been gifted time,” Gurenlian said. “It’s not always what the situation is, but how we can respond to it. Virtual training is very real and it’s now going to be more accepted as we move forward out of this.”

Joe Walters echoed the sentiment of his former teammate.

“This is the world we live in now. We can still accomplish a lot through digital trainings,” Walters said. “We’ve seen that it can still be effective and have great benefits. That’s not going to take away from going out to a camp or field and teaching a kid, but it makes things more convenient.”

As Taylor Cummings thought about what the future of training might look like it was summed up into one phrase.

“The future is now,” she said. “I can be sitting in my garage training a kid in California, three time zones away. In person will always be needed but this is opening other doors.”

In just the first year of running his Mission Primed, Jules Heningburg has embraced the challenge and adversity. 

“From a business perspective for me, this has been a great time and stepping stone. It’s just a little more adversity. I’m grateful for the understanding I have learned, and the chance to develop a new strategy on the fly. It’s been all about adapting.”

When life does return to “normal” and players are able to hit the field again one word sums up the feelings players and coaches will have.

“Appreciation,” Sean Quirk said. “I think we’re all going to appreciate the time we have on the field once we get back to being able to do that.”

Isaac Berky is a graduate of Adrian College and Syracuse University with degrees in Digital Media and Broadcast Journalism. Even though his playing career never took off, he's been able to cover the game on the collegiate level as a broadcaster, while also working around the sports industry before joining Pro Lacrosse Talk as a contributor.

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