Harlem Lacrosse and Swax Lax — A New Partnership Initiative

Harlem Lacrosse and Swax Lax — A New Partnership Initiative

Swax Lax is excited to be the Official Lacrosse Training Ball of Harlem Lacrosse. Harlem Lacrosse (HL) shares our commitment to training and skill development while providing student-athletes with the tools they need to find success at every level. As part of the partnership, every HL program will receive a donation of Swax Lax lacrosse training balls to enable its athletes to train anywhere with confidence.

Devin O'Brien is the Executive Director of Harlem Lacrosse in New York. Before joining Harlem Lacrosse, Devin co-founded and operated Memphis Inner City Rugby, a sport-based youth development non-profit in Tennessee. He also spent two years in the classroom as a Teach for America Corps member at Kingsbury High School. Upon returning to his native New York, Devin worked as the General Manager at Coney Island Brewery before joining HL in 2018 to further his passion for sport-based youth development and social justice. Devin played lacrosse growing up in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, though he says, “I am likely the worst lacrosse player in the history of Harlem Lacrosse.” 

We spoke with Devin, who provided in-depth insight into our partnership and the joint initiative to continue to grow the game of lacrosse. Here's what he said:

Would you provide us with some background information on Harlem Lacrosse for those who may not be familiar with your programs?

Our organization dates back to 2008 when Simon Cataldo, a special education teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy (FDA) in Harlem, was struggling to motivate his students and turned to lacrosse as a strategy to engage his kids and teach foundational skills like self-discipline, growth-mindset, and the ability to collaborate with others. As the story goes, he initially took 11 kids and 10 sticks out to the handball courts behind the school for practice. By the end of the year, these students earned the largest gains on the state math exam that special education students had achieved in school history. 

Harlem Lacrosse was formally incorporated in 2011 with 35 students and has since expanded to five schools in Harlem and the Bronx and to five cities across the country. Today, Harlem Lacrosse fields programs in New York, Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia and reaches over 1,300 student-athletes living in under-resourced communities.

What makes HL unique among our peers in sport-based youth development is our uniquely holistic and comprehensive school-based model. Rather than providing drop-in recreational and educational services after school, our team fully integrates itself within our school communities such that each becomes an essential and easily accessible resource that remains consistently present in our communities. We ultimately aim to engage students in 6th grade by putting a stick in their hands and supporting them through their enrollment in a post-secondary education.

Harlem Lacrosse employs full-time Program Directors to deliver our programming in a school community, all day, every day, for the entire school year. Program Directors act as tutors, mentors, counselors, and advocates for students providing an additional layer of support and structure for struggling students and filling gaps left by limited school resources. Harlem Lacrosse trains Program Directors to be Case Managers, who ultimately oversee the academic, socio-emotional, athletic, and personal development of each of their student-athletes and provide individualized interventions and support responsive to each students’ unique needs. Program Directors deliver push-in and pull-out classroom support, lead behavioral interventions, and track academic data to inform individualized academic interventions. Afterschool, Program Directors lead study halls, organize one-on-one tutoring sessions, deliver daily character-building, run lacrosse practices, and plan an array of overnights, clinics, competitions, team building, and enrichment activities on weekends.

Harlem Lacrosse players on concrete

What impact have Swax Lax balls had when teaching/coaching in your program? 

Swax Lax supported Harlem Lacrosse long before my time here. We are also passionate advocates for free play, and we want to give all our students the resources they need to play and on their own in a way that is fun, engaging, and encouraging to continue skill development and growth. Having Swax Lax balls allows students to continue to play the small-sided games (trash can/box/etc.) that facilitate lots of repetitions and efficiency of stickwork without the barriers that too often make those types of training too difficult for those with limited resources. Encouraging small-sided games that are safe, fast-paced, and fun is a fundamental tenet of what we do and how we want all our student-athletes to fall in love with and explore the game on their own. Swax Lax balls encourage and foster feelings of fun, growth, belonging, mastery, and a growth mindset that make our program more effective and give the kids an experience in the program that will last a lifetime.

Our team rarely has the opportunity to practice on turf or grass and a vast majority of our practices take place on handball courts, playgrounds, and public spaces in our cities. Especially in the winter, school gyms are booked tight with basketball practices and without access to other indoor spaces, our team frequently turns to hallways and other small spaces to get reps. Using lacrosse balls in a school hallway with 20 kids is dangerous and — especially in these situations — Swax Lax balls provide us with a tool that enables our kids to get quality reps practicing anywhere. On blacktop, handball courts, hallways, public parks, and school gyms, Swax Lax balls are a critical tool for our coaches to drive skill development in nontraditional situations.

Swax Lax balls are also powerful tools for player development and confidence building. Playing with a ball that is softer and has more give allows players to learn how to catch without worrying about a ball hitting them. This has also been incredibly helpful in working without goalies and playing small sided games.

Boys from Harlem Lacrosse practicing lacrosse drills

If people are interested in getting involved with Harlem Lacrosse, how can they best support you and do so? 

During normal (non-Covid) circumstances, there are Harlem Lacrosse programs and activities happening seven days a week in five cities across the country. Many folks choose to get involved by organizing a clinic/play day with their local club where we build new relationships, take to the field together, and then share some pizza and shoutouts to wrap the day. Many others come out to volunteer at a practice in Harlem or join us as tutors to work with an individual student once a week. 

Especially as a rapidly growing nonprofit organization committed to serving our students all day, every day, we rely on the generous support of partners around the country to make our work possible. From year-round corporate partnerships to small individual contributions, every dollar makes a big difference for us and goes directly towards ensuring our students have the resources and support they need to reach their full individual potential. 

Girls from Harlem Lacrosse playing on hard concrete surface

Where do you see Harlem Lacrosse going in the future?

One of the core principles in our strategic plan, which will guide our growth through the years ahead, centers on ensuring every middle school student in our program has access to a full-time Harlem Lacrosse high school program upon their 8th grade graduation.

Harlem Lacrosse began as a middle school program in 2011. The powerful academic and socio-emotional impact of our first middle school program fueled our expansion to nine more middle school programs in New York over the course of the next six years. Until the 2017–2018 school year, the services we offered students after their 8th grade graduation were limited to independent and boarding school admissions counseling, informal academic support, and ad hoc lacrosse instruction. In 2017, to meet the demand of teachers, parents, administrators, and a growing body of middle school alumni, Harlem Lacrosse piloted its first high school program at Frederick Douglass Academy. That year, nine students made double digit gains in GPA, 100% of students enrolled in college, and the program registered our highest scores in socio-emotional learning growth as measured by The Student Success Network. Since then, we've won the PSAL City Championships twice and our students have gone off to play at schools like Hobart, Hopkins, Albany, Siena, UMBC, Bryant, Colby, and beyond.

We still have a ways to go to make sure every HL participant has access to high school programs, and we are currently searching for partners that can help us realize our vision across the country.

If you're interested in learning more about our partnership programs, please contact us.

About the Author

Theresa Shafron is in charge of social media and marketing for Swax Lax and Swax Lax Lacrosse. She's also the Girls Director at Swax Lax Lacrosse where's she's been a coach or director since 2013. She played Attack at Drew University.