In The Lacrosse Hairs
Dom Starsia is widely regarded as one of the top coaches in lacrosse. After compiling a 10-year record (1983-92) of 101-46 at Brown University- transforming the Bears into the Ivy League’s elite program during that span- Starsia embarks on his 15th season at Virginia, where he has guided the Cavaliers to 158 wins, nine Final Fours, and three national titles, including the 2006 National Championship.
COACH: You’re a native of Valley Stream, N.Y. Tell us about your childhood?STARSIA: I was born in Manhattan and lived in Stuyvesant Town for a couple of years, and then moved to Valley Stream when I was four. The son of a New York City cop. Five brothers and sisters. I went to a public high school and didn’t play lacrosse growing up. We all grew up playing baseball, basketball, and football in my town. I was recruited to Brown as a football player and was kept on the Freshmen team in the years when you had to play on freshmen teams in your first year. A buddy talked me into playing lacrosse on the football team. I had heard of lacrosse, being from Long Island, but I had never seen it. So I was curious and it didn’t take much to talk me into it. I fell in love with the game as soon as I started playing it. It was an immediate distraction to my football career. I played two more years of varsity football but almost immediately began to concentrate on lacrosse.
COACH: Ironically, even though you graduated from Valley Stream Central High School on Long Island, which is a hotbed for lacrosse, you had never seen nor played a lacrosse game until you attended Brown University in 1970. Arguably the greatest lacrosse player in the history of the sport, Jim Brown, is the only person to be inducted into the halls of fame for pro football, college football and lacrosse, was an All-Star lacrosse midfielder at Manhasset (NY) High School on Long Island. How do you explain that?
STARSIA: Lacrosse was not something we ever thought about. In my town, we were an oasis of ignorance in terms of the sport of lacrosse. Brown grew up on the North Shore of Long Island in Manhasset. But in those days we just didn’t travel outside a small circle of friends. I had heard about lacrosse but at the time I wasn’t curious about it. I was more interested in what was going on in my own life. I thought I was going to play for the New York Giants or New York Yankees one day.
COACH: At Brown you showed a natural talent for the game, quickly assimilating to the sport, before becoming one of the best defensemen in the program’s history and garnering third-team All-America honors in 1973 and 1974. How were you able to adapt so quickly? How did your football background help?
STARSIA: I know it may sound melodramatic, but the first time I picked up a lacrosse stick it just felt like I was supposed to be doing that for the rest of my life. I literally never put the stick down when I started playing in college. I loved going out there and throwing the ball against the wall. I was determined to make my stick skills better.
The game itself, the feeling of a lacrosse stick in your hands, the history of the game, the Native American roots, I just loved it all. It’s the kind of game, even to this day – but more so when I was in school – where a good athlete can have a significant impact on the game. Most boys growing up in this country play eye-hand games. So it’s not that hard to acquire serviceable lacrosse skills. Somebody that’s bigger and faster than everybody else can manage himself or herself in a game and have an impact. And when your stick skills improve, obviously you can do more. Once I started playing I wanted to be thought of as a skill player. I worked feverishly to improve those kinds of stick skills. I was a good enough athlete where I could defend and run up and down the field and do things, that, to this day, I still look for in players.
COACH: What kind of offensive and defensive alignments do you employ at Virginia? And what are the benefits of each?
STARSIA: A lot of people say that we recruit athletes first. So we do look for kids who can move their feet first and foremost. If you have those kinds of players, I think you’d want to make use of the athletic ability that we have. Defensively, we’ve sort of been a Bobby Knight kind of program. We’ve primarily been a man-to-man team over the years. We want to push out to the perimeter and pressure people and make use of our athletic ability as best we can. The overriding characteristic of my teams over the years is that we like to push the ball quickly up the field in transition and try to take advantage of those unsettled lacrosse opportunities, similar to what you would do in basketball. We do a variety of different things on offense. I don’t think there is any one thing that characterizes us offensively. In terms of a formation, back to front, we’re probably a 1-3-2 more often than a 1-4-1.
COACH: What are the advantages and disadvantages of playing an invert offense? We know that with the invert, a team moves the players (usually midfielders) matched up with the shortstick defenders behind the goal.
STARSIA: There are a lot of similarities between basketball and lacrosse, in terms of offensive and defensive patterns. But the one thing we can do in lacrosse that you can’t do in basketball is attack from behind the goal.
As a defensive coach, the most dangerous offensive situation is when you can pressure from behind the goal. Because you force the defenders to turn their heads, and actually turn around, in order to defend and help out. What has happened in our sport is that we have lost the attackmen in the game. We’re a team that attacks the poles. But a lot of teams don’t do that anymore. Teams have gone to the invert offense. The thing about the invert offense is that you can still pressure from behind the goal, even though you have shorts on shorts, as it is called. So you can control the tempo by playing an invert offense. You can attack from behind the goal. The disadvantage of it is that essentially, you have your offense in the hands of your fifth and sixth best offensive lacrosse players.
In our world, the University of Virginia, we don’t believe the invert should be our primary offense. For us, it’s something that we use periodically. A lot of teams in our sport are using it as their base offense, either because they don’t have attackmen or they just want to get after you from that angle.
COACH: One of your key attributes is the ability to recruit and cultivate talent, producing 83 All-Americans at Virginia. What do you look for in a prospect, not only from an athletic standpoint but from an intellectual one as well?
STARSIA: The athletic ability, first and foremost, is what kind of jumps off the page at you when you watch someone play. My priority has always been somebody who can move his or her feet. I will take speed and quickness over size. When you get a big guy who can move his feet, better yet. When you talk about intellectual, what you are referring to is lacrosse IQ. And that’s a very important piece of the recruiting. It probably stands alongside physical characteristics.
Lacrosse IQ, in a lot of ways, is the ability to play the game when the ball is not in your hands. In our sport at our level, there’s only one ball, six offensive players, and seven defenders with the goalie. So a lot of times you’re either not covering the guy with the ball or you don’t have the ball in your own hands.
We watch players move without the ball, both offensively and defensively. Some players have a real knack for it and others don’t. It’s a difficult thing to coach. When I talk to young players, my trick question on the first day of camp is always, “How do you practice team offense or team defense, especially in the off-season?”
The answer to that is: Play football. Play soccer. Play basketball. Play ice hockey. Play other team sports. It’s very important that kids participate in other teams sports during the year. It facilitates their development on the mental side of things. We will often go to a prospect’s high school football or basketball game. Because I do believe I can look at kids participating in those activities and say and see, rather reliably, whether or not he’s going to make good decisions on a lacrosse field.
COACH: Lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the country on the scholastic and junior level. Why do you think that is? And why has it taken root at this juncture in time?
STARSIA: It’s just a question of exposing people to the game. The national governing body of lacrosse has had something to do with that. There’s now a central body where people can go for information to help the sport get organized, especially at the youth and high school level. To be honest, lacrosse is the kind of game where it’s easy for you to like it. It’s fast-paced, there’s lots of scoring, and you have guys whacking each other with sticks. To play it or to watch it, it’s a game that you grow to like quickly. When you expose kids to lacrosse, they usually take right to it.
The growth of lacrosse is primarily at the youth and high school levels. I think it has exploded at both those levels. There is limited amount of growth in college lacrosse. I think there’s almost a crisis pending with college lacrosse because of the gender equity questions, Title IX, and budgetary considerations that many schools have that are preventing the game from growing much at the college level. I don’t know where all of these young players that are coming up through the ranks are going to play in future years.
COACH: What about the importance of throwing and catching? What wisdom can you impart on how to develop the proper fundamentals essential for transporting the ball?
STARSIA: If you want to continue to move up the food chain, in terms of the level of play, your ability to handle the ball – your stick skills – need to improve along the way. Improving your stick skills, the neat thing about it, is that you can do it on your own. It’s always nice to go out and do these things with friends and all, but in lacrosse, you can take a ball and find a wall and you are good to go. That’s how I improved so well in college. I went out every single day and threw the ball against the wall. If you want to be a real lacrosse player, that’s the kind of dedication that you need to have.
COACH: You are considered by many to be among the finest teachers, motivators, and tacticians of the game. What is your coaching philosophy and how was it refined?
STARSIA: It’s been refined over the years just through the experience of doing what I do. I don’t know if there’s been a primary influence on my life but there’s been a thousand different influences on my life and my coaching career – from reading about other coaches and being exposed to all the people that have played for us and those who I have had the pleasure and privilege to work with over the years.
I view athletics mostly in terms of relationships. I know for other coaches it’s an exercise in X’s and O’s. It’s strategy and stuff. And I have grown to enjoy that part of the game even more and more as I have gotten older. But mostly I see it as bringing together a group of people and trying to convince them to make sacrifices for the common good. That’s what I feel like building a team is all about.
COACH: In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception when it comes to lacrosse?
STARSIA: Unfortunately with the events of this past spring that happened down in Durham [Duke University], there were a lot of words that were said that I don’t think were credible in terms of describing the game. Maybe 25-35 years ago it was considered a white, upper class, and private school sport. But now the game has grown, it’s beginning to diversify. It’s a public school sport in New York State. We’re starting to get into neighborhoods and beginning to see a more diverse population play the game. So it’s not just a game for the privileged, absolute elite population. For somebody that takes the time to get to know the game, I think there has been a lot of interesting growth in the past few years.
COACH: Has their been any kind of movement by U.S. Lacrosse to promote Jim Brown, who played at Syracuse, as a role model for the African-American community and to help develop a grassroots level in the urban areas of this country?
STARSIA: He has gotten a fair amount of attention for his background in lacrosse. I think the lacrosse people are very proud of Jim Brown’s history in the game. To this day, and I saw a television piece on him fairly recently, he has said that lacrosse was his favorite game to play. That’s the kind of information that people need to hear. I do think the game has had more diverse role models in recent years and I think that’s a trend that is going to continue in our sport. The more that we can trumpet the growth of the game, the better off we will be overall.
COACH: To the uninitiated, body checking is allowed if the opponent has the ball, but all contact must occur from the front or side, above the waist, and below the shoulders. How do you teach this so that it becomes instinctive?
STARSIA: We get a lot of guys with football backgrounds so the contact part of the sport is one of the things that attract young players to lacrosse. In some ways we have to get guys to kind of back off a little bit in terms of the contact part of it. It’s just something you need to reinforce every day in practice. What you find as you move up the levels of the game is that there is less physical contact at the highest level. Most of the contact occurs when the ball is on the ground. You can actually make physical contact with somebody in our sport if he is even within five yards of the ball. When the ball is on the ground, you will often see younger players running into each other everywhere. That confusion happens less at the highest levels of the game.
COACH: What would be an ideal practice plan for a novice coach developing a new program?
STARSIA: Just to work on a variety of pieces of the game on a regular basis. With a novice coach with young players, you need to have an emphasis on fundamental skills. Whether it’s stick drills or anything else. We even start with stick drills in the beginning of every practice. That not only allows our players to warm up, it also gives us a chance to reinforce the things that we think are important. We then usually move into a full-field stick work drill that allows us to strengthen the concept of using the whole field and begin to lengthen our stick work and passing.
We usually do some kind of 1-on-1 plays or 2-on-2, something that is going to have more contact. Then we will get into the team piece. There are a number of different things in our sport that need to be practiced on a daily basis. If your team is very young, then obviously you would spend more time on stick work than you would 6-on-6. I would practice things that kids can succeed in because that way they can develop some confidence and get better.
COACH: Is the screening and cutting that much different than what you see in a basketball game?
STARSIA: It’s very similar. You’re probably going to have more contact and a little more wiggle room for a legal screen than in basketball. But the principles are very similar.
Again, it goes back to people who are good screeners and cutters and who are effective players when the ball is not in their stick. That’s a very valuable skill. That’s one of the things that we work hard to coach young players. Players that come to Virginia are usually the players who had the ball in their stick when they were in high school. So being good at those parts of the game when the ball is not in their stick are the things they need to work on the most. We spend a lot of time working on screening and cutting at the college level.
COACH: Are there any specific conditioning tips needed for lacrosse players that may vary or differ from other athletes? Anything along the lines of increased speed and agility?
STARSIA: I think every sport is different. And I think sports-specific training makes the most sense. We’ll occasionally do some distance road work but much less so than we did earlier in my career. Now we do most of our conditioning in lacrosse-type distances on the field – long sprints, changes of direction, agility work. For young coaches and young programs, I wouldn’t waste time with conditioning. And if I did, I would make kids do 80-yard sprints with a stick in their hands and maybe a ball in their stick. Because those two things go hand in hand and young players need to improve that part of the game. Maybe they could also exchange the ball or pickup a ground ball and do those kinds of things, too.
COACH: What are some of the educational initiatives that have been set in place on the need for knowledgeable and experienced coaches as well as the development and nurturing of new ones to meet the demands for the explosive growth of lacrosse? The one that immediately comes to mind is the Coaches Education Program championed by U.S. Lacrosse.
STARSIA: There used to be a couple of different organizations for lacrosse coaches and some of them merged with U.S. Lacrosse about 10 years ago. The new college coaches organization, the IMLCA, is also big on the education of coaches. We have a big meeting this month that will feature a series of clinics. As a college coach I feel a certain responsibility to get out and go to different areas and do clinics. I’ve been to Kansas City, Florida, and Massachusetts, in just the past couple of years at the invitation of coaches and organizations in those different areas to talk to coaches and young players. There are a series of initiatives in place. A lot of the formal part of that is organized through U.S. Lacrosse.
COACH: One of the most common coaching mistakes is to provide inaccurate feedback and advice on how to correct errors. Good coaches can recognize when their players make two types of errors: learning errors and performance errors. What is your approach when it comes to detecting and correcting errors?
STARSIA: Learning from your mistakes is a big part of athletics in general, not just the sport of lacrosse. In the case of college players, they need to be able to see their mistakes and be able to learn from them. My job is to be a positive force in my players’ lives. So you don’t take their mistakes and bang kids over the head with them. You hold them accountable for their performance. You hold them accountable for their effort in practice. But you try and lift them as much as anything else. So you use mistakes as a learning tool, not as a club, as you try to help them improve.
COACH: How do you help your players develop character?
STARSIA: It’s what I do for a living, frankly. First and foremost, I have a very strong responsibility to be a positive role model for my players. There’s no wiggle room for me. I have to live the life that I expect of my players. We establish a set of standards for behavior amongst the guys in the program and then we expect them to carry themselves accordingly. I’ve also established enough credibility in the program and tradition that the players themselves will help me reinforce those standards. The players do most of the policing within the program, which is a huge help in establishing a model for behavior and reinforcing it at every opportunity.
COACH: What are you observing in your travels around the country as it relates to the tremendous interest and growth in lacrosse? We know that Upstate New York, New England, Long Island, NY, Philadelphia, and the Atlantic States are traditional hotbeds of lacrosse. But where are you and your coaching brethren seeing a significant rise in popularity?
STARSIA: Take your pick. I think Texas. We’re bringing in a recruit from Arizona. We started a freshman defenseman on our national championship team last year that went to a public high school in Illinois. That would have been unheard of 10 years ago. Johns Hopkins started a freshman defenseman from a public high school in San Diego. My assistant did a camp in Seattle this summer. There are pockets of the game everywhere. Look at what’s going on in Denver. They’re drawing 15,000 for the professional games. The University of Denver has a new lacrosse-only stadium. These are events people wouldn’t have dreamed possible 25 years ago. So wherever lacrosse is able to drop a seed, it almost always blossoms. It’s the kind of game that just gets into peoples blood.
Kevin Newell is the former editor of Coach and Athletic Director magazine.