Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve had the opportunity to play for Scotland’s national lacrosse team, culminating in a trip to the European Championships this summer. My first time with the national team was a trial weekend in Glasgow, during late March of my second year at the University of St Andrews. Over the past years, I’ve come to appreciate the ins and outs of a team, organizing a league, and growing a foreign sport in a country an ocean away from America’s East Coast hot-bed—and my home town of Boston. Things I took for granted during my elementary and high-school career were brought clearly into focus as I grew through the ranks of my university team and logged my first international caps for Scotland. What at first seemed like a past-time sport, actually came to require individual and personal efforts. In a small country, one player on one team can truly impact the sport’s national growth.
In Scotland, the approach to athletics is radically different from the States. The university team has no coach, and there are no fans attending the games. Players have to organize it all. There is no field, locker-room, or bus set aside for the team. We book shared facilities through the Athletic Union. The university team is barely a team by U.S. standards. There are no incentives for players to show, other than the desire to play. As a freshman I didn’t take my lacrosse commitment very seriously; it was only extra-curricular, and didn’t matter enough for me to really care. I still looked up to the older players, mostly Americans, who like me, were in a foreign environment. I enjoyed it, they were fun to play with and our team socials were some of my first introductions to the school, but I didn’t make an effort.
In my second year I became more involved in the program, showing up consistently and somewhat resembling a real player. I wasn’t, though, organized about how I approached the game. If you really want to improve yourself in Scotland, you need to do it on your own. Sports are truly recreational in the B.U.C.S. league (British University College Sport), unlike its N.C.A.A. counterpart. There are no major endorsements or TV contracts for schools to gain by fielding dominant programs. If you are going to become a professional athlete, your path is chosen during early teens or younger. At university, that chance has passed. The university’s sports department (Athletic Union), like most in the U.K., is essentially a separate entity from the university. The A.U. President is an elected student who, along with a few permanent employees, rules everything athletic.
The Athletic Union itself is a small, brick and cement building from the 1960s. It has one gym, one that wouldn’t even suffice for a small, under-budget high-school in America. School teams are not seen to represent ‘the spirit of the school,’ as they so vehemently do in the U.S. Academics are definitely a priority. The sports department is just a healthy addition to student life. University in Scotland costs about a third compared to the States, and could be a much more accurate reflection of what an education is worth. Scottish universities are institutions built-to-learn, without any American college frills. Overall, the experience is much closer to learning how to live after graduation, and that usually excludes professional sports. Schools are accordingly realistic in their resourcing.
The University of Sterling is an example of Britain’s collegiate efficiency. As Scotland’s ‘University for Sporting Excellence’ since 2008, Sterling is where you go to either become a professional athlete, or something in a related field such as sports medicine. They offer a slew of degrees beyond sports, but athletics have an official focus and a particularly large budget. The program’s success can be seen on the national lacrosse team, where a solid core learned to play at Sterling. St Andrews is lucky to have a small crop of North Americans join the team every year; at schools like Sterling, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, or clubs like the Glasgow Lions, Edinburgh Thistle, and Granite City Gladiators, it is a home-grown operation.
Lacrosse is a young sport in Scotland, a small sport in a small country. Considering this, what Scotland puts forward on the international stage is impressive. At the European Championships, the team Scotland fielded was solid and deep. I would argue—and my teammates would probably agree—that we were more of a ‘team’ than anyone we faced, and maybe anyone in the tournament. Our pre-game national anthem didn’t need background music, singing O Flower of Scotland won the hearts-and-minds game before it started. The national team brings the best together from Scottish lacrosse. Although I am only a passing foreigner, filling a limited ‘non-passport holder’ roster space, I still feel pride for what the team has accomplished and where it is going. Like a St Andrews teammate once told me, “Scotland is my home for lacrosse.”
The current squad of St Andrews players with the national team joined at the first trials held after the World Championships in 2010. When we started, it was very much them and us. In the league our team was secluded, with almost no Scotts and little organization. Though we always had a good deal of talent, it had all been given to us before. We didn’t have the same drive as the locals. Having helped build Scotland half-way to the next World Championships in 2014, it is personal now. It matters and we want our team to win. The national team wants to finish top five in 2014. Improving the Scottish University league is a big step there. Scotland came sixth out of eighteen in the European Championships; more importantly, we swept our division and improved on our 2008 result. Ironically, O Flower of Scotland speaks of the last time Scots sent the Auld Enemy South of the boarder; in 2014, they will hold a referendum on Scottish independence again.