Since it’s always a good idea for a business to have goals, NXT Sports has set out one clear vision for its future. “We want to take over youth sports in the United States,” co-founder Andy Hayes says.
That lofty aim, coupled with the total-domination vibe, may define NXT’s ambition, but it isn’t how the company operates on a daily basis. Far from readying an army of stick-wielding kids for an assault, NXT chooses to teach lacrosse to players ages 4 and up in a way that emphasizes skill development and fun, rather than some of the more traditional methods, which can unnerve just about everyone involved.
Make no mistake: Hayes is a competitive monster. As head of Episcopal Academy’s lacrosse program, he’s built the school into a regional powerhouse. And if some of the cream of NXT’s lacrosse continuum happens to find its way to EA’s Newtown Square campus, that would be great. On Sunday mornings at locations throughout the Main Line, the goal isn’t winning the Inter-Ac League championship; it’s getting kids ages 4-7 to spend an hour being exposed to the sport. “It’s the coolest gym class ever for kids,” he says.
Now in its second year, Cradle Lacrosse is getting more and more young athletes active and interested in the sport. Though some may look at the target age group and scoff at what appears to be another example of youth athletics run amok, Dylan Brown, NXT’s director of boys programs, disagrees. To him, the program is not about adding to the craziness, but creating an alternative to it. “Parents are starting to realize that there’s a new sport out there—even though they may not know a lot about it,” says Brown.
And the Cradle name has its own obvious connotations—one, the basic means of transporting a lacrosse ball; the other, a haven for children. “We provide an energy and a focus,” Brown says. “And the kids get to run around for an hour with sticks in their hands.”
Those familiar with the sport at its higher levels needn’t worry. They won’t find 5-year-olds wearing a full complement of pads and a helmet, crashing into each other in pursuit of a compressed rubber ball. That simply doesn’t happen. Kids get a plastic stick and play with either a tennis ball or a softer “squishy” version. Drills are noncontact, designed to teach skills without droning instruction or boring repetition. Some kids are preschoolers who can’t sit still long enough to have their shoes tied. Putting them through rigorous sessions similar to those endured by older players in need of fundamental training would be counterproductive.
Instead, they play games like “Sharks and Minnows,” in which one child (the shark) chases the others (minnows) while they practice the dodge moves so crucial to the sport. After teaching the three basic dodges—roll, split, face—coaches yell out a corresponding color for each, and the kids try to execute the move. Music plays constantly. “And everyone dances,” says Brown.
In 2007, Hayes and University of Hartford men’s lacrosse coach Peter Lawrence started Trashcan Lacrosse as a way to get younger kids (9-13) to enjoy the summer camp experience. The two-on-two game, invented by Lawrence, includes two trash cans (as goals) and a tennis ball. One player is a goalie, while the other is in the field. It teaches all the right skills and is less threatening than the full-field lacrosse model that prevails at camp.
Three years later, Hayes and Lawrence began to branch out. They started the Philly Showcase, a recruiting tool that allowed local players to be seen by college coaches. They also founded a group of elite club teams and started hosting tournaments. Then came Cradle Lacrosse.
“We’re trying to redefine youth sports for every stakeholder—kids, parents, coaches and refs,” says Hayes.
Dylan Brown grew up in Ardmore and graduated from Episcopal, where he played lacrosse, basketball and football. After earning his degree in 2009 at Ohio Wesleyan University—where he played lacrosse for four seasons and was team captain as a senior—he spent a few years with a local software company.
But Brown soon found that he missed the sporting life, and when the opportunity arose to join Hayes at NXT, he grabbed it. Now, he presides over something of a Montessori program for the sport, where the method of teaching is nearly as important as the lesson itself. “The trick is applying the fundamentals in a way that’s kind of hidden from what we’re trying to do,” he says.
If the young kids get a sense that they’re going to “practice,” rather than to a fun activity, it might not work. As you can imagine, the player population is pretty athletically diverse. It’s a given that most kids have had little to no formal sports training.
But even within the novice group, there are subsections. “Some kids come in extremely shy and don’t want to leave Mom and Dad,” says Brown.
Others are quite comfortable and already “have their legs under them,” adds Brown. The trick is to avoid creating a hierarchy that won’t discourage players who are in it more for the participation than development. “All the kids play together, and then there are specific parts of the hour where we will split them up by skill and by age,” he says. “Or we’ll have groups of all boys or all girls.”
In addition to teaching the basics, Cradle provides a service to parents who’ve had little exposure to the sport. Lacrosse isn’t cheap, as anyone who’s had to outfit a preteen boy with pads, helmet, stick, head, cleats and other gear will tell you. By the time Cradle alums turn 7 or 8, they should have an idea of whether continuing in the sport is a good idea.
“So many parents, at the end, will ask, ‘What should I buy?’” Brown says. “I say, ‘I’m not sure, but get ready to spend a lot of money.’”
Cradle’s on-field staff is comprised of recent college graduates; no one is more than four years removed from the campus experience, and all played at the collegiate level. The program has a huge social media presence and uses its Facebook page as a clearinghouse for photos and information. Every week, all parents receive an email with updates and notices about that week’s curriculum.
This past summer, Cradle Lacrosse expanded to Avalon, N.J., along with other seasonal destinations, to offer more families an opportunity to experience the sport. The ultimate goal is to develop a portable template that can be used all over the country. “Lacrosse is growing 1,200 percent a year,” Hayes says. “Cradle isn’t going to expand at that rate, but as long as it has kids springing out of bed early on Sunday mornings, eager to grab a stick and get going, it will thrive.”
And if you listen closely, you might just hear young voices singing: “Cradle, cradle, cradle for me. Cradle, cradle, cradle on three. One, two, three, cradle!”