A mini version of lacrosse is proving to be a big hit, says Crispin Andrews
Children at Ley Hill School in Buckinghamshire are discovering that lacrosse is not just a sport for Canadians and over-privileged girls.
Although the adult game might suffer from unfortunate stereotypes, coach Lois Richardson says pop-lacrosse, a mini version of the sport played with plastic sticks and a soft ball, is a highly enjoyable, fast-moving invasion game with a difference.
"Unlike in other invasion games, players throw and catch with their sticks and there is no pitch as such," says Lois, who is the England national coach and is leading the session at Ley Hill as part of a scheme organised by her own school, Berkhamstead Collegiate. "Even when the ball goes behind the goal, play continues until the referee deems it necessary to stop."
Undeterred by the cold and blustery conditions, the enthusiastic Year 6s are led through a series of paired and group activities before moving into small-sided matches. These focus on basic skills such as under and overhead throwing, catching the ball in the stick head and cradling, a technique that allows the ball to remain inside the stick head and away from opponents while running with the ball.
Although at first, the pupils find things difficult, over time they work out how to play with more control and consistency. In particular, they find it hard to work out how much force will propel the ball the right distance.
Making connections to the more familiar world of football, Lois, the Sven Goran Eriksson of women's lacrosse, points out how David Beckham trains for hours to gain pinpoint accuracy over his passing: "If you want to do well in the match later on, you too will have to concentrate hard while practising, communicate clearly and work together with your team mates."
Class teacher Anne Birkett feels lacrosse can benefit a wider number of pupils than more traditional sports: "Everyone starts on a level playing field. As they haven't played the game before there is no peer group pecking order as to who is or isn't any good. Often it is the natural athlete as opposed to the experienced games player who shines."
Ley Hill headteacher Paul de Koning says: "We want to give the children as varied a diet of sport as possible. Then everyone is more likely to find something they enjoy and can succeed in."
Children at nearby Elangeni School have also benefited from Berkhamstead Collegiate's lacrosse development scheme. After winning the local inter-school tournament and with levels of interest high, the school in Chesham Bois decided to set up its own after-school lacrosse club. "It's a bit like hockey in the air with poop-a-scoopers," enthuses assistant headteacher Simon Wilkinson, who runs the club himself. "We have around 40 children who turn up regularly. They love it."
Although a lack of development-minded lacrosse clubs means that the traditional route from school to club for keen players is not always open, both Simon Wilkinson and Anne Birkett believe that its simplicity and flexibility make the sport ideally suited for the PE curriculum, whether as a game in its own right or as part of a multi-sports approach to an invasion games module.
At Ley Hill, the Year 6s use their knowledge of invasion games to help them learn new skills. One girl explains how her position for overhead throwing is the same as for passing a netball. In both cases, having the non-throwing foot forward before release makes weight transfer easy as the ball is thrown, and with a stable base she can throw powerfully and accurately.
Another pupil's defence role in the school football team reminded her not to chase around the pitch after the ball when her side was attacking. "I've got to stay back and between the other team's attacker and the goal, otherwise if they get the ball there will be no one to stop him from scoring," she says.
There are many things in common with and beyond all sports. From goalkeeping, to cricket or athletics, through to collaborative work in class and even the quickness of hand-eye co-ordination required on their PlayStations, many of the children can think of previous experiences that had helped them improve more rapidly, in this new game.
"We even need maths," says one boy, with a grin. Seeing that his class mates appear rather bemused by this, he adds. "To keep the score of course!"