Should a Player Practice Both Right and Left Hand?

Should a player practice to develop equally both right and left hand stick skills? I suppose this is a philosophy rather than a fact. But the answer is “no” – mostly.

Now, I just disagreed with the majority of the lacrosse world in this heresy, including a great many with much more knowledge and experience than I; so what is my point and why should you care?

First, let me qualify the audience here. I coach and write about player development applicable to the typical youth and high school lacrosse player. Essentially, I’m referring to the majority, not the elite. Thus, this is my philosophy in that scope. I can assure you no All Americans are ringing me for advice.

Before moving on to my point, let’s at least acknowledge the benefits of honing two-handed stick skills. A two-handed player, especially an attacker, can be a huge asset to an offense and add a lot of options to stress a defense and create opportunities for him or her and teammates. Past Tewaaraton winner and current MLL player, Steele Stanwick, is a great example of this. With an ambidextrous gift, he also logged countless hours on the wall, on the cage, and on the field to develop his skills. Steering clear of any Gladwell metaphors, which have been taken out of context and beaten to death; let’s just say Stanwick “worked hard” at perfecting right and left hand skills. He is rare.

Now let’s consider the “typical” player; the 4th grader, the 6th grader, or even the average high school player. The player with pretty good age appropriate stick skills, but still prone to drop a pass or throw a ball away.

Here is a quote from Dom Starsia, Head Coach, University of Virginia, which is a foundation to my philosophy.

“Play in your strength most of your time. I do not discourage guys from switching if they can do it effectively, but the bottom line is performance”.

I agree very much with this perspective. Also, so as not to misconstrue Coach Starsia’s words, his point was made in reference to defensive players (and not attackers or middies) in the men’s collegiate game, which is a much different scope than youth player development. But still, what is relevant is players need to “perform” and if it is one handed then it’s one handed. Some of the greatest lacrosse players ever, such as the Gait, Powell, and Thompson brothers  were / are almost exclusively one handed players coming out of the Canadian box lacrosse style. They are known for their “creative” and “unconventional” passing and shooting, but to them it is just how they get it done in a dominant hand fashion – which they have done very successfully.

What I really like about Coach Starsia’s quote is if a player should play in his or her strength shouldn’t he or she practice in his or her strength? I think so, finally getting to my point. First the player has to develop a strength. Players need to make the catches, passes, shots, and get the ground balls with proficiency and reliability. Every minute a player is working on his or her non-dominate hand he or she isn’t getting better with the dominant hand skills – “playing in their strength”. I never encourage a newer or younger player to practice both hands on the wall or in drills. In theory, doing so actually doubles the length of time it will take to improve dominant hand stick skills and gain confidence. For younger players that can take multiple seasons or even years, unless they are putting in substantial hours outside of practice, which of course, we know, is not true of the “typical” player. They are essentially becoming very average at both hands and not developing strength.

The bottom line, to reflect again on Coach Starsias’s comments, is “performance”, which of course varies by age and experience. My advice, for what it is worth, is to develop some competence with the off hand, but strive to excel with the dominant hand with the old 80/20 rule. I actually believe that if a player is really proficient with one hand he or she can use the off hand effectively solely on mental understanding of technique and well developed hand-eye coordination in the absence of “muscle memory” gained by repetitive training.

Consider this; both soccer and basketball require the use of both feet or hands constantly. And often a player needs to pass or shoot as best they can using the “off hand or foot” given the circumstance. However, when it really comes down to practicing and playing, players are using the dominant hand (or foot in the case of soccer) for most shots and passes.

Only once a player has developed really proficient stick skills with the dominant hand is it time to expand the training diversity to improve the non-dominant hand, which can offer a whole new dynamic for a player and a team, but that is much further down the road than many people coach.