What Does it Mean to Grow the Game? A WPLL Player's Perspective

I started playing lacrosse at 8 years old. If you had told me at my first practice 16 years ago that this sport would take me halfway around the world to Tokyo ever in my lifetime, I would’ve been shocked. I certainly wouldn’t believe that I’d get to make the trip twice in two years.

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to meet and share the game with countless individuals. From coaches, teammates and rivals at all levels, to fans and families, to players of my own, and sometimes to strangers in the airport who, despite my best explanation, might still think I play field hockey. Forming connections over shared passion as a member of the lacrosse community each and every day is already special. To do so overseas is an added privilege, and as such I take my role extremely seriously.

But what does it really mean to “grow the game?” What does it look like? How can you measure it?

Well, after two trips and more than 12,000 miles flown, this is where I landed.

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Pro
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Lauren Murray
Body Section One: 

Exposure to Communities

The story of lacrosse in Japan starts in April 1986, when a group of students from Keio University visited the American Embassy, keen to learn about the sport gaining momentum and popularity in the United States. Just a year later, the Japan Lacrosse Association formed and hosted members of the Johns Hopkins varsity team for its first training session. Fast-forward three decades and I, too, would have the special opportunity to work with a handful of players from Keio and other programs, but more on that later.

This phase of growth is simple to summarize but difficult to execute. It entails laying the foundation upon which an entirely new construct will forever be based. A huge undertaking, but where to start? Teach the basics — everything from the anatomy of a stick, to throwing and catching, and eventually to establishing the high-level objectives of the game. Offensively? Score. Defensively? Don’t let them. Here are a few ways you can accomplish both.

Exposure operates in a one-way flow of information. It’s not necessarily top-down, as to create some sort of experience-based power dynamic, but rather as a river runs from source to sink, with a dam controlling the pace to match comprehension. Often overlooked but perhaps the most valuable piece is the immeasurable quality of generating excitement, enthusiasm and encouragement amongst players and coaches to participate in the moment. And more importantly, to continue to practice long after you’re gone.

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Enhancement Within Communities

My first trip to Japan lives here on the growth curve. In the summer of 2016, shortly following my college graduation, I received a text from Liz Kittleman Jackson about a trip she was planning to run an immersive, three-day program with the team from Tokyo Women’s College of Physical Education, with an offer to join her. Sounds insane right? Well picture me trying to explain to my new employer how eager I was to make an immediate impact in the company, just not as immediately as we had initially thought, as I requested a later start date.

We arrived in Japan and for three days we lived TWCPE lacrosse, dedicated to building in a layer of added complexity and sophistication to an existing skill set. With the help of a translator and a full personal commitment to emphatic body language, we covered everything in the playbook. Power shooting on the move. Establishing lanes and layers in transition. We even put in a backer defense in a single afternoon, something that has historically taken me considerably longer to install as a coach and a player. We spent nearly 30 hours in practice sessions, and I can’t think of a moment when we didn’t have the complete and undivided attention of each individual.

Information flow is still primarily one-way here, as we introduce new concepts and fine-tune existing skills, but a feedback loop sprouts and matures as the players and coaches teach us about themselves. Their tendencies, motivations, relationships, personalities. Some of it happens right there on the field, but a lot of it happens off the record, just by enjoying meals together, telling stories, asking questions.

We had a meeting one night with the seniors to talk about what they wanted to achieve in their final season with TWCPE. The informal conversation had a subtle yet definitive structure to it, and their captain explained that they wanted to win the league to qualify for admission into Division I, warranting nods and affirmations from the surrounding desks.

We discussed commitment and leadership, and for the rest of the trip we framed drills and game-like situations with that mentality in mind. For the first time, the relationship evolved from purely an info-share to a tailored and collaborative effort, tapping into the strengths of individuals to mobilize the group towards achieving their goals.

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Lacrosse is arguably at its most pivotal moment of development as it attempts to achieve ultimate system lift as an official Olympic sport.
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Body Section Two: 

Exchange Between Communities

Two years passed before I would have a second opportunity to visit Tokyo. This time, I traveled with the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League (WPLL) to participate in the World Crosse games organized by Cross Crosse. Our team, a combined roster from each of the five WPLL teams — the Baltimore Brave, New England Command, New York Fight, Philadelphia Fire and my own Upstate Pride  — and a similarly styled men’s team arrived in Tokyo on Nov. 6.

We packed a lot of lacrosse into three days, from clinics with local players and families to a WPLL draft camp that drew more than 60 hopefuls and generated buzz about a few Japanese players potentially joining the league in its second season.

The draft camp ran in a familiar tryout format with warmups, small-sided stations and scrimmages setting the evening’s cadence. From start to end, they played every repetition as if it was the only one of the night. But more impressive than the in-drill intensity and relentlessness were the moments in between — transitioning out of one station into the next, when we would assemble as a group for a brief explanation and quick demo with the WPLL players, then disperse to the various cages. There was no walking. There was no confusion. Most of all, there was no wasting a precious moment that could have better been spent playing.

And while I will remember many faces and experiences from the trip, it’s the overwhelming respect for the game that will always stick with me.

The tempo and energy spilled into our own game day, when we competed against the Cross Crosse team in what would officially be Japan’s first professional women’s lacrosse game. In the highly competitive exhibition matches, both ended in two-goal differentials favoring the American teams, meaning either could have been sent into overtime by a single shot in the final seconds thanks to the 2-pointer featured in both rulebooks.

Across the board, the Japanese players were overwhelmingly fast, their quick first steps rivaled only by how efficiently they moved the ball in and out of their sticks in transition. Beyond skill and strategy, there, under the stadium lights, amid cheering crowds and spellbound by a booming loop of NBA halftime show-esque music, we started to experience style.

Style, which is inherently based in creativity and individuality, versus what is necessarily correct or incorrect. Style, which transcends language and culture and evolves continually and continuously. Style, which creates an even and openly shared flow of information between each of us as players, most evident at the final whistle, when opponents-turned-friends took pictures, shared compliments and even reenacted highlights from the game.

This equal exchange of information extended beyond the reciprocation between our teams and even beyond our countries, as exchanges between different Japanese communities revealed themselves. Like the connection between generations of lacrosse players in the tunnel during opening ceremonies when youth players joined hands with their role models, symbolizing the bright future of Japanese lacrosse. Or the Japanese media’s nationwide distribution of the games in a clear endorsement of the value of the sport, its players and its fans.
 

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Lift for All Communities

As is true across organizations in all industries and disciplines, diversity within and across a community undoubtedly strengthens the whole. Leveraging multiple perspectives facilitates the discovery of creative, innovative and often more efficient solutions to seismic environmental shifts that otherwise may never have surfaced in a homogenous group. And considering moves from every angle enables a thorough evaluation and mitigation of potential risk.

Consider lacrosse as an abstractly defined, worldwide organization, with stakeholders scattered around the globe. This particular trip, and the partnership between Cross Crosse and the WPLL, is only a window into the ongoing efforts of many to actively equip and inspire diverse perspectives to come to the table, and to make sure they have a seat when they do. As an organization, lacrosse is arguably at its most pivotal moment of development as it attempts to achieve ultimate system lift as an official Olympic sport. And with the highest level of global interest the sport has ever seen, a new depth and breadth of resources and the commitment of so many individuals to its future, lacrosse has its strongest argument to date.

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So what does it really mean to “grow the game?” What does it look like? How can you measure it?

To be totally honest, I’m still not sure. But where I first drew frustration in the abstract, I now find comfort and inspiration. I laugh thinking about how many times I’ve run to the sideline with a “what should I do when” question. And I echo my former coaches now when I repeat, “Well, it’s situational. Let’s talk about it.”

Lacrosse is situational, just like life is situational. There isn’t always a textbook answer — in fact, there rarely is. And it can be tempting to hesitate or fail to act altogether when unsure of the right move.

But growth resides in the doing. It’s personal and at times uncomfortable. It’s both visible and invisible. It’s a process that’s forever unfinished and often opens the door to more questions than answers.

The most interesting of all: Where to next?

Lauren Murray, a 2016 Northwestern graduate and native of Cross River, N.Y., is a midfielder for the WPLL’s Upstate Pride.
Short Summary: 
Upstate Pride midfielder Lauren Murray pens a powerful piece contextualizing the WPLL's trip to Japan.
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Photographer Main Image: 
PHOTO BY CAROLINE CUMMINGS
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PHOTO BY CAROLINE CUMMINGS
Photo Main Caption: 
Lauren Murray, a midfielder for the WPLL's Upstate Pride and 2016 Northwestern graduate, was among a contingent of WPLL players who gave clinics and participated in the World Crosse games in Tokyo earlier this month.
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Baltimore Brave midfielder Dana Dobbie demonstrates shooting during a clinic in Tokyo as local youth players take note.

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