The Most Important Player

Updated Monday January 9, 2017 by Richard Schwartz.

The Most Important Player

Every year, without fail, I am approached by a youth coach with this question:  How do I get my off ball players (the players that don’t have the ball) to move, get open, cut, set picks, etc., so they can be in a position to catch a pass, rather than standing around waiting to get the ball?  It’s a common problem in a lot of team sports, like hockey, basketball and soccer.  Until about five years ago, I struggled with the same dilemma, and went about my practices bewildered like every other youth coach.  Then, one day, I was given the secret sauce, and the answer was shockingly simple.

I was at the 2010 US Lacrosse national convention, listening to a speech presented by Ryan Boyle (Princeton, Boston Cannons), perhaps one of the most intelligent players to ever play lacrosse.  He turned to the audience and asked “who is the most important player on the lacrosse field?”  Naturally, I was quick to think of a response, but stopped short of saying the goalie sensing a trick question.  Is it the team as a whole?  If so I was going to be mad because that’s a trick question.  Is there a most important player on a team in a team sport?  I gave the question another few seconds of thought, then started to blurt out the “face off middie”, but again stopped short, not wanting to embarrass myself.  After a few more seconds of head scratching, I thought it must be the player with the ball, since that player decides when and where to pass or shoot.  If he gets an assist or a goal, well then, that’s pretty important.  I imagined everyone in the audience giving me a standing ovation, as I proudly responded “the guy with the ball, of course, everyone knows that.”

Boy, was I ever wrong. 

“The answer” said Boyle “is the off-ball player.” 

Say whaaat? 

And then it hit me…Boyle was right.  For the team in possession of the ball, every player who does not actually have the ball in his stick, is the most important player.  Think about it.  Does the guy with the ball (the on ball player) really decide anything?  Can the on ball player pass to an off ball player if that other player doesn’t move to get open?  Can the on ball player initiate with a great dodge if an off ball player doesn’t clear space or set a pick?  Can the on ball player even get a good shot off unless he was, a moment before, an open, active and ready off ball player?   This was an epiphany of immense proportions.

Youth coaches always moan and groan about how hard it is to get their off ball players to move and how they can never seem to stop them from standing around like statues.  Teaching players the Most Important Player concept is the key.  Players need to understand more than that just because they don’t have the ball, doesn’t mean they don’t have to do anything.  In fact, the opposite is true…it is because they don’t have the ball that makes them the most important player.  The more ingrained players become in realizing that performing well off the ball creates opportunities for the on ball player, the less they will stand around doing nothing.  Since every player on a lacrosse team will be the most important player on the team far more often than they will be the on ball player, the strategy and tactics of the game become easier to grasp.  Questions like “when do I cut?” or “where do I rotate to?” are answered because players will start to visualize the playing field in a different way.  For those of you that have seen the Matrix film series, it’s like staring at the gibberish green lines on the computer screen and actually understanding it. 

Understanding the value of the most important player is a fundamental aspect of the game, and should be taught from the earliest ages.  At Lovejoy, we need to focus our players’ minds on the concept just as much as we focus on making one more pass.  Indeed, the two are dependent upon each other.  For players reading this message, be the most important player every moment you are on the field.  It is the most important player that truly makes things happen.

As a coach…teach and encourage players to become important.  The results will be amazing.


Richard Schwartz