Coaches on Coaching: Cat Thoreson September 26, 2019 11:13

Cat Thoreson of Little Lacrosse Academy Baltimore MD - Coaches on Coaching with Swax Lax Lacrosse Training BallsCat Thoreson is the founder of the Little Lacrosse Academy that has partnered with Coppermine in Baltimore, MD. Cat has played D1, coached at the collegiate level, and has a marketing and communications business background. She has a passion for coaching and a unique vision for Little Lacrosse Academy and how it will help build not only players’ minds but the game of lacrosse.

Here's what Cat told us:

How did your love affair with lacrosse begin?

My love affair with the sport is 25 years strong. Kind of insane when I see that in writing. 😊 I was introduced to the sport at the age of seven as a new transplant to Maryland. Having never played an organized sport before, lacrosse seemed like the “Baltimore” thing to try. If I’m being honest, there are very few things I can tell you about my first season playing. There was a first home, a second home, and a third home. There were no boundaries. (Am I dating myself yet?!) I made an appearance in goal — my first and last. As you might have guessed by now, it’s not the finite details of that first season that stayed with me as much as the overall takeaway — that 25 years ago is when I knew I loved lacrosse. 

What I likely couldn’t verbalize then, but understand now, is that I loved the physicality of the sport and the opportunity it provided me to compete. I loved the team concept behind the sport; the “we over me” philosophy as well as the social opportunities it afforded me. I loved the community it created for me and the family that I remain a part of. After that first season, lacrosse inevitably became a big part of who I am and how I define myself. I went on to play travel, club, and varsity high school before eventually landing at Hofstra’s Division I, then top 20 team from 2005 to 2009. In 2007, the program claimed the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) title, which equated to an NCAA tournament appearance. That, coupled with the academic rigor I experienced as an honors college student, solidified an incredible foundation for me both personally and professionally. Privileged to be a part of such an incredible experience, I aspired to provide the same opportunities to other athletes. And so, upon graduation in 2009, I went on to pursue various coaching opportunities at a multitude of levels to include youth recreation, high school, club, and, most recently collegiate. Coaching is now a part of my DNA. I love the challenge it provides each and every day. I love the athletes I have the opportunity to coach and mentor. I love the responsibility I have to not only make them better players, but better people. Lacrosse has led me to continue to pursue one of my greatest passions: coaching.

Why did you start Little Lacrosse Academy? 

The Little Lacrosse Academy started as a passion project that has since turned into a labor of love. While I officially launched the Little Lacrosse Academy in the spring of 2018, the concept was a long time in the making. 

It was late 2015 and I was living in the city of Chicago with my first son, who was just over a year old. We were on the hunt for another Mommy and Me class. Not just because it’s what you do when it’s bitter-to-the-bones cold outside but because I wanted to provide my son with a wide range of experiences and interactions from infancy onward in the hopes that he would have the building blocks to eventually pursue his own interests and passions. 

We left no stone unturned. We sang endlessly in music class, danced our hearts out in dance class, and mastered an admittedly less than impressive tumble in gymnastics class. And as I pondered “What’s next?” lacrosse came to mind because, of course, it had been such a large part of my upbringing. And what parent doesn’t want to share their own passions? I hadn’t come across a class during our hunt for something new and stimulating, but maybe I hadn’t looked hard enough.

With research, I determined lacrosse programming simply did not exist for children under the age of three. Not in Chicago. Not in my hometown of Baltimore. Not anywhere. I understood that lacrosse was, of course, more technical than most other, ever-so popular toddler sports programs, like soccer. I also recognized that lacrosse was a relatively new sport nationally. For me, this largely explained why it hadn’t been done; not why it couldn’t be done. Admittedly, I could have done what most other lacrosse enthused parents did, introduce the sport to him at home and wait the requisite few years until he could enroll in a local recreation program. But that just wouldn’t sit well with me. There was a class for toddlers for just about every interest, so “why not lacrosse?!”

Unable to shake the “why?” question, I was determined to answer it. Coupling my love for the sport with my experience as a mom, I set out to develop a program to teach the next generation of future athletes’ lacrosse. Fast forward six months, the name was solidified, a mission shaped, and a rough curriculum had been penned. And then I found out that I was expecting my second son. While momentum had undoubtedly been created, my priority to return to the east coast, where my boys would grow up near family, took precedence. And so, I pursued and eventually accepted my second collegiate coaching job in Baltimore at Goucher College. I was thrilled to return to the mecca of lacrosse, coach for a long-standing program, and was even more excited to be in a place where I felt certain I could create and grow a legacy.

My return to Maryland to coach was, needless to say, a whirlwind. The roster of 22 I had been promised, quickly dwindled to single digits. Four of the best players had announced their intent to transfer to the prior coach’s new institution. A handful of others, unsettled from the behind-closed-door conversations that had happened before my arrival, transferred. Others just straight up quit. Conversation by conversation, and just days following my start date of June 1st, the program crumbled. The icing on the cake? Recruiting had been nonexistent for the incoming class the subsequent year.

As you might have guessed, my coaching philosophies and deep belief in them were truly tested during the summer of 2016. So was the delicate balance (if that even exists) of being a working mom. I hit the recruiting trail with total abandon, spending every bit of daylight evaluating talent at camps, clinics, and tournaments and tireless nights sending emails. I was eager to find those who, like me, felt that the sport of lacrosse was more than Xs and Os. That it was a vehicle for pursuing excellence both on the field and in life. My pitch, which has since been ingrained in my brain, was: “I can’t remember stats nor scores of games. What I can remember though is the friendships I gained, the memories I made, and the indescribable feeling of being a part of something bigger than myself: a team. I am looking to provide those same opportunities to you as we create a Landmark Championship team.” Thankfully, my pitch stuck. And, over the next year and a half, we made progress.

Throughout all of this, my desire to launch the Little Lacrosse Academy remained and, in fact, only intensified as my boys grew. They were, of course, my number one fans. They attended games and the occasional practice, rocked the gear, and were a part of team events. For all intents and purposes, they were honorary members of the team. I feel strongly that coaching is a family affair; it’s not a job, it’s a way of life. It’s a part of the very fabric of you and in turn, your family. Having my boys be a part of it all, ingrained within that culture, and a part of the legacy I was creating was thrilling. But I wanted them to experience the sport on their own terms, not mine. And so, after a great deal of thought, I decided it was time to officially launch the Little Lacrosse Academy. 

The process was both terrifying and exhilarating. But I firmly believe that when you pursue your passion, good things follow. Starting the Little Lacrosse Academy has been, absolutely and unequivocally, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and is proof that good things come to those who work hard — and believe. 

I launched the Academy with an Open House in the spring of 2018 and more than 60 registrants. While confident in my abilities, I admittedly felt uncertain navigating toddler lacrosse for the first time. Despite those moments, the feedback was incredible and confirmed the fact that I “had something.” With my collective experiences coaching coupled with the successes and failures that day, I set out to write a curriculum that introduced the sport of lacrosse in a fun, nurturing, and age-appropriate way. While it was uncharted territory, I relied on incorporating a ton of early childhood research and standards, as much as I relied on my personal experiences as a mom.

To date, we’ve had seven sessions, with over 600 registrants. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history. 

Cat Thoreson of Little Lacrosse Academy

Why did you join forces with Coppermine?

Coppermine was a natural fit for the Little Lacrosse Academy. After running the program successfully for six months solo, it was evident that I needed to find a more permanent home for the program. The move to Coppermine would not only help to expand our audience and the growing demand for classes, but would also legitimize the program. Coppermine, for those who aren’t familiar, is positioned as one of the premier providers of youth programming in and around the greater Baltimore area. They offer a diverse array of classes, clinics, camps, and teams for children 18 months to 18 years old. The Little Lacrosse Academy seemed the perfect complement to their existing youth programming (like Lil’ Kickers Soccer, Move with Me Dance, and Preschool Gymnastics) as well as a fantastic foundation for their progression of lacrosse offerings which, just a short time ago, only spanned from an initial introductory class for 4- and 5-year-olds, to Player Development Clinics, followed by club teams (boys and girls). Even more important than our fit within Coppermine’s current programming for youth, was our fit within their culture. While the Little Lacrosse Academy is a licensed program within Coppermine (I, as the proprietary owner, retain full rights to the curriculum, training, and direction of the program) their values as a company replicate that of both the Academy and my own coaching philosophies. Their motto of Achieve Excellence is found in their commitment to delivering outstanding curriculums within their programs, hiring the most amazing coaches, and providing the Best-In-Class services in every aspect of the experience. There is no place I’d rather be aligned with and headquartered within than Coppermine.

How did your collegiate coaching experience impact your teaching philosophy for Little Lacrosse Academy? How are you able to adapt/evolve that philosophy from college to beginners?

Ironically enough, my collegiate coaching experiences affirmed my belief in focusing on the fundamentals, empowering the athlete through play, and providing a nurturing environment that develops the whole athlete, socially, emotionally, and physically. In August of 2013, I accepted my first collegiate role as Head Women’s Lacrosse Coach at Benedictine University, located just outside of Chicago, Illinois. While my accomplishments in the field of marketing had been significant, each position left me wanting more from a job. Eager to pursue an opportunity driven by passion, I took a leap of faith and combined my playing and coaching experiences, knowledge of the corporate world, and passion for the sport of lacrosse to take on a full-time coaching role. 

I happened to be Benedictine's third Head Coach in a little over a years’ time. My roster consisted of just seven players. And, while most would likely run for the hills, I embraced the challenge. In my first few weeks on the job, I had spoken with nearly every female on campus with a simple plea: give lacrosse a try. After explaining that lacrosse was a sport, not a city in Wisconsin nor Buick’s newest full-size luxury sedan, I promised to teach them everything they needed to know, give them all the gear they’d need, and, more importantly, provide them with the incredible opportunity to be a part of something that would leave a lasting impact on them. I had 45 girls step on the field the first day of fall ball. 

Over the next four weeks of practice, that number, as you might have guessed, thinned out. I still laugh to this day about some of those conversations. “Well, yes, there is running in lacrosse, and if we’re being honest, it’s a sport that does require a bit of endurance which is why all of our drills account for this.” “And yes, coming to practice is an expectation, not a suggestion, just like class or a job.” And the list went on. 

Despite the obstacles, I ended fall ball with an incredible group of young women who gave me their all. We hammered the fundamentals of the sport day in and day out. We focused on executing (them) at each individual’s highest level of play, accepting nothing less than their best. We empowered the girls through endless play, not highly structured schemes or exacting Xs and Os. Their IQ was built on seeing, feeling, and doing. We provided a nurturing environment where athletes could fail — again and again — but stand up confidently with the love and support of their teammates. 

I firmly believe that it was the commitment to those ideals that laid the foundation for success of Benedictine’s program, when in 2015, we made history both on the field and off. We secured our first ever berth to the Midwest Women’s Lacrosse Conference (MWLC) tournament, finishing in the top four of our conference. Two of our players received Player of the Week Honors, both of whom I had recruited and taught the basics of the sport of lacrosse just a year earlier. Three athletes secured all MWLC Honors, another first for our program. It was an amazingly successful year for the program and an incredible experience for me as a coach. I’m the first to admit that it wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies, but I look back with an incredible sense of nostalgia, immense pride, and a profound sense of accomplishment. Those three years (and my next three rebuilding the program at Goucher) affirmed for me some of the very foundations the Little Lacrosse Academy is built upon. The basic tenets apply whether you are one or 21, a beginner or a veteran player, on the field or off.

Custom Swax Lax lacrosse training balls for Little Lacrosse Academy

How has the use of Swax Lax balls helped your program?  

The use of Swax Lax balls has transformed the replication of the sport for our littlest athletes. It has provided the Little Lacrosse Academy with a safe(r) alternative to a regulation ball without compromising the integrity of the equipment we use.  

I want the experience of the program to be both genuine and authentic. While it’s certainly relevant to the child-coach relationship, it’s also relevant to the equipment we use. Our “gear without fear” motto further embraces this philosophy. I believe that children should be able to play without fear; fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of — you guessed it, gear. For many children, the thought of wearing full lacrosse gear is terrifying. Believe me, I’ve seen the reactions firsthand. And so, beyond replicating the most authentic equipment we can for sticks and ball within every age group of the Little Lacrosse Academy, we also allow children to experience “next level” lacrosse equipment like helmets, goggles, and gloves on their own timeframe and on their own terms within our curriculum.

What is some advice you can give to a coach who wants to follow your lead and start a program in a new lacrosse area?

I would tell them “Why not?!” The Little Lacrosse Academy is the most challenging, yet most rewarding endeavor I have ever been involved with. It’s nonstop. It’s constant. It’s uncharted. It has been profoundly impactful for me both professionally and personally. The Little Lacrosse Academy is my passion and a legacy that I am confident will assist in the development of our youth both on the field and off. The Little Lacrosse Academy never would have started without my attempt at answering that very question, “Why not?!" so take the time to answer yours. In the end, I believe in using the sport of lacrosse as a development tool by creating a space where a child can be nurtured, build confidence, and ultimately find success — whatever that looks like to them individually.

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