Coach Keith, originally from the East, moved to Southern California 25 years ago and has been working with and coaching children in the areas of sports, recreation, enrichment, and education for that time. A former two-sport athlete, Keith started PUCKidz 10 years ago to introduce the game of lacrosse (and hockey) into a totally new market of players that had not experienced the game. Here's the vision and philosophy Keith brings to growing the game.
You started as a hockey fanatic, how did your love affair with lacrosse begin?
My father gave me my love of hockey growing up. He was a big time NY Rangers fan from the Bronx. At Peekskill High School, a bunch of my hockey teammates and I decided we would try out for the lacrosse team. I fell in love with lacrosse too and ended up playing all four years in high school and then one year at New England College in New Hampshire. I ended up transferring to Ithaca College and decided I really needed to focus on my academics. I found there were so many similarities between hockey and lacrosse and felt playing both sports only made me better at the other sport.
I was also very attracted to the history of lacrosse with it being such an old game starting with the Native Americans in the 1400s.
You moved to Southern California and established PUCKidz, which runs a range of options in a new lacrosse market. How did you first start the business? What do you offer players?
I’ve been in Southern California for more than 20 years now. Growing up back East everyone was playing both hockey and lacrosse. So when I got to the West Coast, in Chula Vista (10 minutes from Mexico) I couldn't really find many lacrosse programs for the local youth. I decided to start my PUCKidz nonprofit organization so that kids from 1st grade to 12th grade would have ample opportunities to participate in a variety of lacrosse programs. It was exciting to get all of this started because lacrosse was so new to many of the people out here.
Through my PUCKidz organization we offer afterschool programs, camps, clinics, private lessons, small group lessons, club teams, and a spring league for elementary school teams. We also try to spread the game by doing lacrosse demos/clinics in PE classes.
Your program's name is based on your philosophy of Positive Understandable Coaching for Kidz. Can you give us insight on your overall approach and its results?
Growing up playing sports for many years through elementary school on up to high school I remember too often that many of the coaches were negative, loved to yell, loved to discipline with a punishment style and honestly sometimes just weren't fun to be around. When I first started creating my PUCKidz organization I really wanted the word “positive” somewhere in the organization’s name. I simply feel there needs to be much more positive coaching in all sports. And what I mean by that is creating an environment for the kids where it is safe, structured, fun, and uplifting. We want the kids to succeed and have fun! It’s not about creating the next player to start for a Division I college. It’s about players wanting to participate because they enjoy it and be taught a variety of life lessons through their participation. And also get their daily exercise!
So my overall approach is simple. Make sure the kids are having fun while learning new skills and being part of a team. Through this style of coaching, I feel my results have been positive. What I mostly hear from parents on why their kids continue in my programs is because I lead with a positive style and I set the tone for a fun and structured environment right from the get go.
What have been your challenges introducing lacrosse in a very new market with many different cultures, limited lacrosse exposure, and a wide range of ages?
My biggest challenge has been getting the word out that I offer a variety of lacrosse programs for kids of all ages and then getting the kids/families interested in trying out this non-traditional game in Southern California. I try to explain to the parents that lacrosse is like a mix of hockey, basketball, soccer, and football, so they can get an idea of what the game is all about.
Once I get a lacrosse stick in their hands they usually fall in love with the game! It’s just about getting them to try it out. What is most exciting to me is spreading this game to the many different cultures in my area. As US Lacrosse is working so hard on and doing an amazing job with, it’s all about getting more diversity in the game.
How has using Swax Lax training balls helped your program?
We love the Swax Lax training balls! I’ve been using them in my programs for a few years now. The kids love them too! Using these balls as a training tool has really helped many of my players. The kids simply feel safer and more confident using them, especially my newer players. What I also really like about these balls is we get more reps in. We’re not wasting time chasing balls around because they don't bounce all over the place. Sometimes I give some of the Swax Lax balls away to my player of the day, hustle award, etc. I tell the kids to take them home and practice cradling, etc. since they have the same weight as a regulation ball.
What is some advice you can give to a coach that wants to follow your lead and start a program in a new lacrosse area?
I strongly feel that if you want to do something like this, especially in an area that is not so familiar with the game of lacrosse, you really have to love what you’re doing. It takes tons of time, effort, partnerships, positive community relationships, etc. But it’s also extremely rewarding when you see the kids simply having fun playing this great game. Early on I created a Board of Directors with a variety of backgrounds and experiences so that I can use them for support, guidance, and advice. I also developed very positive relationships with the local schools, principals, and teachers knowing that I really wanted to start afterschool lacrosse programs. I also felt it was important to develop a strong relationship with the local Parks & Recreation Departments since I knew I would need to rent fields from them.
All and all, I say go for it! We need more grassroots lax programs that are especially all about diversity and inclusion.