December 13, 2012

How to buy a lacrosse stick -- correctly

By Chuck Jaffe

There’s not a lacrosse player alive who, at some point in their life, didn’t want a new stick for the holidays or his or her birthday, a slick new spoon with the latest technical advances, made of the best new materials, used and/or endorsed by his or her favorite players to watch, ready to bring their game to new heights.

The majority of players who have lived that dream — with a friend or relative buying them the dream stick —also have gone through the nightmare of being disappointed by that dream stick.

Picked out by a friend or relative, it looks great, but it’s not adjusted to the player. It feels different and throws different than what the player is used to; those great features that supposedly make the stick “better” also may make it more frustrating.

“We ask ourselves all the time, ‘If Grandma went into a lacrosse store to buy a stick, and she knew nothing about the game except that her grandkids love it and want a new stick, could she buy one?” said Tom Burns, senior product manager for Warrior Sports, which has been reorganizing its line around making sticks and heads “more shoppable.” “Right now, she couldn’t. She’d see hundreds of heads and colors, and she wouldn’t understand all the specs and the differences.

“And then, when she buys one, there’s a chance it won’t be the right one anyway, because sticks are so personal that it’s just hard to find one that’s great right away.”

What’s important to recognize about a new stick is that all of the world-class technology that can be put into a stick can only go so far to making a player better; as children learned in the Harry Potter books, it’s not the wand so much as the wizard. Even the best, most-advanced new stick will only be as good as the player’s work and practice habits.

What’s more, the technological advancements that make a stick “better” may not suit your game.

Talk to the guys in the stick business and they tell you that whether you are buying a stick with the player along to pick it or on your own as a surprise gift, there are certain key considerations.

Start with the basics: What level do you play at, and what position do you play?

On the wall, you’re looking at a bunch of white or colorful heads. The ones for beginners and youth players typically have wider heads and flatter scoops. Wider heads with a slightly bigger face are easier to catch with, while flatter scoops make it easier to pick up a loose ball when your approach angles aren’t perfect; each facet of the stick increases the player’s margin for error, so that the ball is less likely to clang off the side walls or roll away from the scoop.

The position for a player also makes a difference because it may help determine the kind of balance they want in a stick.

For example, the shaft affects the balance point of the stick. If you go with a titanium shaft, for example, it tends to draw the weight — and therefore the stick’s balance — away from the head and more toward your hands, a condition some players call “head light.” A lighter shaft — which tends to make a stick “head heavy” — typically draws comments about how players can “feel the ball more.”

As a result, heavier sticks typically sit lower down in the product lines, with the heads getting lighter as the end user is expected to be a more developed player. The same goes for pointier scoops, which provide more control than a flat scoop, but which also require more precision from the player trying to pick up the ball.

That said, it often takes years for players to develop a real feel for the top technologies. So while specifications such as offset and flex and other attention-grabbing attributes sound great, they’re typically wasted on all but the top players; the most experienced of middle-schoolers — the kid who started playing in first grade — won’t be able to tell the difference in flex points on different sticks to recognize which one might work best with their shooting style.

Said Burns: “There are little subtleties and, depending on your level, you can either feel those things or you can’t. At the top level of the game, some of the best players know exactly where a stick flexes or the right balance. A young player may like the same stick or think it makes their game better — and maybe it does — but they don’t know why, or what about the stick makes it work for them.”

Further complicating the issue is the pocket, which can make all the difference in how a new stick throws regardless of the stick’s balance, face-width, shaft flex and more. It’s not just depth of the pocket but throwing strings and how tight they are that determine the stick’s release point.

It’s easy to find two skilled players and have them swap sticks and see how both suddenly can’t throw; one is sailing everything high, while the other is banging everything into the ground. Even if their throwing motions look similar, it’s clear in those cases that each has grown accustomed to different pocket depth, release point and tension, and has adjusted their game to the stick they use.

Ultimately, that’s why most players should try a stick before they buy it, or suggest to their family that it would be a great gift. Borrow the stick from a friend who has one — preferably a friend with the same kind of throwing motion — or at least see if you can use it on the rebounder at the lacrosse store just to see how it throws and catches. Try to get a feel for the balance and weight and the ease of use.

Armed with that information, you won’t just get the cool new stick from the catalog for your next big gift, you’ll get a stick that actually helps to make your game better.

This article originally appeared in the November-December 2012 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.

Twitter: @NELaxJournal