Lacrosse for Special Needs Players Scores Big

Anthony and Savannah gear up for some lacrosse. Credits: Mike Cohen
Mike Nelson and his son at a clinic for lacrosse for children with special needs. Credits: Mike Cohen
Mike Cohen, director of Throwback Sports.

Editor's Note: Mike Cohen, a Westfield resident, freelance writer and director of Throwback Sports wrote this story about a lacrosse program on Long Island for people with special needs. Mike and Throwback Sports, which works with children with special needs, is looking to bring lacrosse for special needs kids to our area soon.

This article first appeared in Education Update.

Anthony, 25 years old, is down in the ready position with his lacrosse stick held upright. Then with a quick reverse pivot to break free from a defender, he catches the ball and begins his move to the goal, dodging around another defender, and splitting two more before it’s just Anthony and the goalie. In this case the goalie is Michaela, a high school volunteer who plays on her school lacrosse team. She has no chance to block Anthony’s bullet-like shot, which is perfectly placed in the upper right corner of the net for a score. As his coaches, teammates and fans cheer the play, Anthony’s already beaming smile becomes even brighter and wider.

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“It makes me happy that he has something to live for,” said Anthony’s mother, Eileen. “Sports are his world. When he’s happy, I’m happy.”

For Anthony and the other participants who have special needs, such as autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities, playing lacrosse has been a great outlet to learn a new game, overcome physical and cognitive obstacles and, perhaps most importantly, provide a much needed social environment for the players and their families.

“It’s the action,” said Eileen. “It’s the greatest thing for him. He looks forward to it. He likes to be on a team, the uniform, lining up at the end and shaking hands. Really, everything about it is exactly what he needs.”

The program is run by the Nassau County Police Activity League Special Needs Unit and runs throughout the winter months on Saturday mornings at the Levittown Memorial Sports Center. Participants can begin as young as age 5 and go into their 20s. Each session, which is run by professional coaches, consists of stick skills, fun fitness movements, modified game play and always with an emphasis on lots of fun and camaraderie. Mike Nelson is the county’s PAL lacrosse director who has also been credited with having developed the concept of lacrosse for special needs players on Long Island. Mike came up with the idea when his youngest son, now age 7, was diagnosed with a hearing disability as a toddler. Mike had been an avid lacrosse player himself, having played four years at Adelphi and then gone on to play professionally. Mike wanted to get his son involved in the sport.

“I was thinking about the other kids,” said Mike, who began the program roughly five years ago. “Their daily struggles and the things that the families have to go through. How can I help? What can I do to make a difference?”

The difference can begin immediately when the kids get to hold their first stick in their hands.  When a kid holds a stick, a bat or a ball there is a feeling of freedom and an outlet for pure play. For the players with special needs, lacrosse is no different. As they become more adroit at developing their stick skills, the game takes on more meaning. Running around scooping up balls, having catches with their friends and enjoying playing is what Mike envisioned when he thought about special needs lacrosse. Since the success Mike has had in Long Island, he has been asked to go to national conferences for special needs athletics to expand the program to other parts of the country.

“I’ve seen some unbelievable connections that children have made through lacrosse,” said Mike. “Kids that were shy and tentative in their own shell are now outgoing, not just here but in general, wherever they go.”

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