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Lacrosse in America has a reputation for being a blue-blood sport, like polo or servant-wrestling or whatever else people do at Ivy League schools. Shanghai is the great equalizer though and brings together a motley crew of folks together for an afternoon filled with sweat, sticks and smashing some Harbins. So, always one for sports and smashing beers, I took a rare sunny Saturday in February and moseyed on up to Hongkou Football Stadium to swing some sticks with the Shanghai Lacrosse team.
Mike Elefante, Shanghai Lacrosse Kingpin—I’m assuming that’s what his business card says—is really the driving force behind the expansion of lacrosse in Shanghai, and he has done an admirable job bringing this lesser known sport to a wider audience. Mike is the coach for the lacrosse teams at all the big universities around Shanghai, and he is gathering a solid following of Chinese students, both men and women.
But what about us, the wayward, wind-scattered laowai that call Shanghai home? Fear not, for Mike and his band of lacrossians became the 44th member of the Federation of International Lacrosse in 2012. The numbers for the expat team fluctuate from season to season, but Mike said there can get up to about 60 guys during the season. I went there on the first day of the preseason and there were about 15 or so guys playing. During the regular season they keep it to two teams because you’ll need a sub at some point and if people don’t show, they don’t want to have to cancel any games.
What you need:
Mike and crew provide all the equipment that you will need for the games, but if you’re going to get serious about the sport it’s a wise decision to invest in your own gear. For games, you’ll need shoulder pads, arm pads, helmet, a stick, and at least a few balls. Other than that you’ll just need your normal gym stuff: workout clothes, tennis shoes or football cleats, towels and water or Gatorade. Some beer wouldn’t hurt either.
It’s pretty much a trial by fire. If you’re a complete novice, it’s advisable to borrow some equipment first and get a little bit of practice. At the beginning of the season there is a draft so teams are set, but if you’re new you’ll get put on one of the teams that need a spot filled. Once lineups are full, there is a short warm up period that involve various stick drills and then you pick up your position—attack, midfield or defense, and away the game goes. The tactics are kind of like basketball, with players cutting and setting screens for each other and boxing out the opposing players but the scoring system reminded me a bit like ice hockey because you can swing around the backside of the net. On defense, there is a lot of pushing and checking and stick slapping—which sounds dirtier than it actually is—but there is no straight-up tackling like in rugby or football. The game is divided up into 30 minute halves, with about a ten minute break in between.
What happens next:
My favorite all-time Shanghai hobby: chugging beers outside the Family Mart. This is followed by a taxi down to Big Bamboo, which sponsors the Shanghai Lacrosse Team, for more drinking, which is in turned followed by more drinking, and so forth into infinity/Sunday morning.
Who goes in for this:
Stars and stripes, baby! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! I think there was a Japanese guy hanging around, but yeah, it’s mainly mei guo ren out there. There was quite the range of ages out there though. There was a sixteen year old kid from one of the international schools all the way up to guys in their forties. Most of the guys who were out there had played lacrosse before, either in high school or college and wanted to get back into the game here in Shanghai but if you’ve never played before they are more than happy to help you pick up the game.
In addition to Americans, it’s also mainly dudes. There was a lot of testosterone out there. Don’t worry ladies; Mike is working on organizing an expat women’s lacrosse team, and while they do have some interest, there aren’t enough ladies to field a full team yet.
Also, as an aside, Kung Fu Komedy maestro Butch Bradley and local internet hero Donnie, from Donnie Does China, go in for lacrosse too, so at the very least you’re going to have an interesting afternoon.
How much of your life will this take up:
At the bare minimum, your Saturday afternoon. The season lasts 15 weeks and the lacrosse guys play a game every Saturday at 2pm during the season. Also, once a season, Mike and crew go to another country for a pan-Asian lacrosse tournament.
How much does it cost: Lacrosse has the reputation of being a rich person’s sport for a reason, but Mike works really hard though to make it affordable for everyone to join the Shanghai club. If you’re just coming out for the match on Saturdays, it’s free for the first game and then 100 kuai (50 for students) for each subsequent match. For 13 games it will cost you 900 rmb, and that includes a jersey, shorts, and access to the common pool of gear.
Lacrosse is a great cardio workout; you’ll be running and diving and dodging a lot so if you play regularly your dexterity and stamina are going to improve. Also, while you might not think lacrosse as being as rough as, say, rugby, it’s still a serious contact sport. Checking and hitting with sticks is allowed, so it's a good way to get some aggression out in a controlled atmosphere. Other than the physical benefits of the sport, the guys who play are fun as hell; it kind of felt like I was in college again. It's a pretty close group who hail from a diverse cross-section of industries (see: Butch Bradley and Donnie) so it could definitely help you for your guanxi. They also win the best-in-show prize every year at Bubba’s Chili Cook-off, so there’s that too.
If your hand-eye coordination is not that great, lacrosse is tough. Catching the ball, especially at full game speed, was by far the most difficult part of the whole afternoon. Once you actually got the ball in your stick’s net, it was a lot easier keeping it from falling out than I anticipated, but still required a bit of finesse. If you’re good at baseball or hockey you should have a bit of an advantage over your average plebeian. Lacrosse takes some time to get good at, so chances are if you’ve never played before, you will have to put in the hours to learn the rules and the manual skills required to not embarrass yourself.
Also, regarding the violence inherit in the system: you’re going to get scraped and bruised up a bit. A few of the guys had bloody knees at the end of the game but nothing too serious. So, if you’re the type who likes a peaceful round of tai chi with the ayis and shu shus, then lacrosse probably isn’t your game.
You can contact Shanghai Lacrosse by email email@example.com . The website is shanghailacrosse.com and you can find them on facebook as well. Special thanks to Mike Elefante for all his help with the column.