Overview:

The "ground ball" statistic in lacrosse just may be the best quantifiable indicator of an athlete's grit and character.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Lacrosse fans from all over the world will tune in to watch the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship, featuring a Maryland team poised for history. But lacrosse aficionados will be attending to a facet of the game the neophyte will likely miss: ground balls. One of the best, most telling statistics in all of sports yet recognized by few sports fans, the “ground ball” statistic captures grit, character, and so much more. 

My 9-year old son, Knox, recently discovered a love for lacrosse. I arrived for pick-up after his first practice and he shared with me that he won a prize. “For what?” I asked, worried this was some sort of gimmick to entice first-timers to return or, worse, a version of “everyone gets a trophy.” “Ground ball competition,” he responded.

When I mentioned this “award” to the veteran lacrosse coach at the high school where I teach, he immediately responded, “That’s the one statistic I focus on with my team. That stat just says so much about a player’s character.”

It might seem odd to the uninitiated. Essentially, you could go out to your local park having never played lacrosse, grab a lacrosse stick, and perform this purportedly essential “skill” flawlessly. You get your lead hand high on the stick and your body low to the ground, then, scoop. As with all things sports, instructional videos abound. For me, there’s a hint of Monty Python in this as, essentially, the coach is instructing us on how to pick a ball up off the ground with a net: just bend down and pick it up!

This is what’s so great about the ground ball statistic: everyone can do it. This stat doesn’t capture an athlete’s skill, ability, or athleticism so much as it does his character, his grit.

This is what’s so great about the ground ball statistic: everyone can do it. This stat doesn’t capture an athlete’s skill, ability, or athleticism so much as it does his character, his grit. Sociologist William Cameron was right for the most part when he wrote, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Determination and fortitude count, immensely so in the sport of lacrosse, and yet is nearly impossible to measure in any quantifiable way. The ground ball statistic may just be the one way to do this.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

-William Cameron

For those unfamiliar with lacrosse, let me play out what exactly goes into achieving a successful ground ball acquisition.

First off, I’m coming from a bit of a lacrosse background and a career that ended, essentially, because of ground balls. Lacrosse was one of my first loves as a young person. In 7thgrade I joined the local high school team (which was a club team at the time) and played in Australia with a travel team that summer and then to a week-long camp at Johns Hopkins. Two factors resulted in my retirement from the sport, despite having aspirations of playing college lacrosse. One, another love developed in the sport of water polo, which I eventually followed, in part, because of the second factor involved in my retirement which I can almost singularly blame on one thing: ground balls.

Going after a ground ball is by far the most dangerous part of lacrosse. This is the one time when players get hit hard, checked by defensemen with sticks longer than the players are tall, and just knocked to the ground. Worse, to get to the ball, much like a football receiver who must keep his eye on the ball despite knowing a hard hit is coming, the player must move his eyes away from the ensuing defenders and to the ground, essentially blinding him momentarily leaving him as a sort of sitting duck. For me the transition away from this and to water polo was easy: I could handle the occasional 50 MPH ball to the face or, as was the case my freshman year at Stanford, being out for 18 months with surgery from an elbow bent backward. But no more ground ball picking up for me: just too intensely scary.

And there’s yet another, even less-celebrated facet to this whole ground ball phenomenon. When two teammates encounter a ground ball situation, one takes the responsibility of taking out the ensuing opponent, often in the form of a hard hit. This allows his teammate a more viable opportunity to acquire the ball, unscathed. There’s no statistic for the more grueling of the two tasks as it would just be too difficult to measure, and if anything, the player who takes on the opponent forgoes earning a “ground ball” statistic for the sake of the team’s success. And this is where the trust-component comes into play: on good teams, players trust their teammates to protect them as they pursue the ground ball. While neither gets much credit, without this team-first approach, the team’s chance for success greatly diminishes.

“It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

-Harry Truman

To state the obvious: without the ball, you just can’t score. This is yet another instance where Truman’s famous quote rings true: “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

It’s often said that the grit and determination involved in something so unsung and, well, gritty as a ground balls falls into the category of, “Something you just can’t teach.” In a sense, it’s true: like speed or toughness, much of it is innate. My son Knox is a good example: since a young age he’s been exceptionally tough, determined, and someone who just won’t give up. But in another sense, this isn’t quite right: Another opportunity to explore the balance of nature-versus-nurture, I suppose.

This is where team culture—nurture—plays a key role. The culture of Athletics and lacrosse at my school explicitly celebrates a growth mindset, a sense of commitment to purposes larger than yourself, and exhibiting courage, all built into the Athletic Department’s Mission Statement. Likewise, Knox’s newfound club team, the Firehawks, which we chose in large part because of their stated Program Philosophy, listed on their website more prominently than any game results. This includes their acronym for FIRE—Fun, Inclusiveness, Respect, Effort—as well as other character-driven values such as, “Honor the game,” “Player development trumps wins every time,” and, “Teach life lessons.”

It’s likely few if any spectators recognize something noteworthy even happened. The guy picked up the ball: it shouldn’t have been there in the first place! Plus, what am I going to text the grandparents, “Knox picked the ball up off the ground! *grass emoji*”?

I must admit, even with all of this insight and core values focus, I too fell into the trap of a results-focused mindset. In the opening minutes of Knox’s first lacrosse game, he won a face-off, got 2—two!—ground balls, and scored the first goal of the game. Proud dad immediately texted grandparents: “Knox Goal!! *goal emoji*.” Because this is what culture celebrates. When a goal is scored the game stops, people cheer, and teammates crowd the goal scorer to honor the feat. Groundballs are more surreptitious. It’s likely few if any spectators recognize something noteworthy even happened. The guy picked up the ball: it shouldn’t have been there in the first place! Plus, what am I going to text the grandparents, “Knox picked the ball up off the ground! *grass emoji*”?

So if you do watch the NCAA Championship game, watch for those guys going after the ground balls. Pay special attention to Maryland’s Luke Wierman, third in all of college in ground-balls-per-game at 8.94. And maybe we can all look more at our own “teams” in life for those picking up the proverbial ground balls and, even, we too can drop our heads and go after a couple ourselves, hoping we have teammates we can trust along the way.

The author of 5 books, including Amazon Top-500, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times. Spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe. Graduated from Stanford...