It’s a simple concept that follows that most basic of military concepts – out flank the enemy – and yet it’s one of the most difficult skills to instill in youth players (or several adult players I know, for that matter).
One of my earliest youth sport memories was standing around a soccer ball stuck in a mud puddle with a dozen other seven-year olds thumping away. Our collective efforts got us all splattered with muck and slime and was a great deal of fun but the ball didn’t leave that mud puddle. Eventually, the ref blew his whistle and gave one of us a free kick just to get things moving again. At which point we all immediately swarmed to the ball once more.
This is the prevailing image of the early stages of most team sports. A bunch of kids piled up around a ball kicking, hacking, and sometimes picking each others noses while coaches and parents beg, scream, yell and wail for them to spread out and make a pass.
In order to teach kids to pass a number of sports have adopted unique rules. At a recent 3-4th Grade Eastern Maine Youth Lacrosse match the game was played under a three-pass rule. Before a player could shoot at least three passes had to be made. This was the first time my son’s team operated under this rule and a good deal of confusion set in as to when to shoot and how many passes had been made. It was, at times, a hard lesson but as could be seen in last weekends games under the same rule, one that has started to settle in. Kids were making passes, they were looking for an open teammate and they were spreading out on defense.
The highly skilled players believe, often rightly, that they are be best option the team has to score a point, goal, or basket, right up until they’re surrounded by the entirety of the opposition and even then they’ll often try to bull their way through and will, at times, succeed. For the less skilled player possession of the ball, puck, Frisbee, whathavyou can be a moment of both triumph and panic. They desperately want to pass but often get frozen looking for the perfect, wide open opportunity which eventually leads to a turnover. Passing takes poise, and above all, trust. The rewards for learning this concept however are great.
During his last Atoms hockey game, Augi (5), learned first hand the reward of the pass. While the mad pack of little hockey players circled about in pursuit of the puck, Augi went to the mini-net, slapped his stick on the ice and yelled, “Pass! Pass! Pass!” until someone heard him and did. He calmly gathered the puck in and slid it into the net for a goal. He later got an assist by sliding the puck between a defenders legs to his buddy Colin who then had a clear breakaway for another goal. These passes enabled individual triumph but also contributed to team success.
The best teams act as teams. They pass. As one of our coaches said last year of the Maranacook Black Bears, “They’ve got a kid, #14, who can pass. It’s a devastating weapon.” It’s devastating because the defense, used to chasing a single puck-or-ball carrier is unprepared to defend everyone else. They do learn however. Team offense does lead to team defense which leads to more precise passing through more dangerous territory increasing skill and reward. Tom Brady and his quarterback brethren are paid millions of dollars because they can pass a (slightly deflated) football through windows the size of a dinosaur’s brain while his teammates are paid millions of dollars to either catch these (slightly deflated) balls or protect him long enough to see that the (slightly deflated) football is thrown.
It is particularly important to instill the practice of the pass on the elite player because eventually those kids will face tougher competition and will need the skill. As good at puck handling as Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks is (as seen here), he’s not going to beat all five defenders on a consistent basis which is why he passes. NBA MVP Steph Curry is known for his ankle breaking cross-overs and step-back 3 pointers but he also averaged 7.7 assists per game this season. Two of Michael Jordan’s six NBA titles were sealed with passes out to teammates for the final shot. Beckham was famous not only for his free kicks but his fifty-yard on the toe passes while US Women’s Team member Abby Wambach’s header against Brazil in the ’11 is one of the iconic goals in women’s soccer and came off a gorgeous pass from Megan Rapinoe (see here).
For all of the other players, the pass allows them the chance to improve their skill level as well as score. You don’t have to be a great skater to put the puck in an empty net from two-feet away, you just have to angle it in….which is pretty much how I score most of my goals in pick-up-hockey. Move your feet, get open, good things will happen, and if you’re covered, make the pass.
How do do we teach young players to pass? Drills that emphasize passing, mini-games where a certain number of passes must be made before a shot can be taken, praising the assist as much as the goal, reminding young players that it’s a team game and showing them that Wambach/Rapinoe video.
The pass is not limited to team sports, of course. In racing knowing where and when to pass is crucial. In tennis there are passing shots and in beer pong the idea is not to pass out. Even baseball is played with a version of the pass. The second baseman passes the ball to first for the out. The pitcher attempts to “pass” the ball to the catcher while the batter seeks to disrupt the “pass” and most little league games are decided by passed balls.
Jousting, fencing, judo, and wrestling have versions of a “pass” in their language even as vollyballers set and spike for each other. Heck, even golf can claim to allow passing when a slow group waves the players behind them on allowing them to “play through” or, essentially, to pass them.
Perhaps the ultimate passing game is Ultimate (I’ve been told by a ten-year old not to add Frisbee to the end) in which a player cannot run with the disc once they possess it but must pass it for the team to advance.
In conclusion, the pass is the most important skill in all sports. Every sport. Pass it along.