Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Commitment is not a four-letter word

A little rain isn't going to hurt you. Honest.
This past summer, at my request, my colleague April "The Hockey Mom" Bowling was kind enough to switch our regular columns in the New England Hockey Journal. I just wanted to get something off my chest, something which had been percolating for years but really bubbled over last spring, at the intersection of hockey and spring soccer seasons.

For a long time, I've been frustrated by what I feel is a very casual approach on the part of too many parents regarding youth sports. Now, I don't think youth sports ought to be life-and-death, but I also feel that signing up for a team requires more than a passing commitment. Which led to this column, which first ran in the August, 2013 issue of the NEHJ.

Commitment is not a four-letter word

Every year, it seems I write at least one column that I know is going to set people off. So this year, I'm being clever, and switching columns with April "The Hockey Mom" Bowling for my annual grenade launch.

All right, that's only partially true. The real reason I asked for this forum is because the topic I want to discuss isn't just about goalies, goalie parents, goalie gear, or goalie coaches. It's about hockey players. All of them. And all their parents. It's about commitment.

I live in a small town north of Boston where the high school nickname is the Generals, after one of our more famous residents, Gen. George Patton Jr. "Old Blood and Guts" was a complex man, a bold wartime leader who could be equal parts condescending, arrogant, brilliant, and loyal. He could be quick to criticize, and quick to praise. He may not be the perfect school mascot, but his ability to inspire, and no doubt his fame, make him a solid choice. In one corner of the high school gym, up by the rafters, is a banner that reads: "General Pride – Tenacity, Spirit, Commitment." That pretty much sums up Patton. But youth sports? I have my doubts.

It's that last quality that really concerns me. Commitment. Part of me can't resist laughing, acknowledging the irony. As a guy who didn't get married until his mid-30s, I was usually on the wrong side of conversations regarding commitment. But, as I always told my mom, I was just waiting for the right woman. Having just celebrated 19 years of wedded bliss with my wife (23 years together!), I've learned a thing or two about commitment.

Which brings me back to youth sports. I've witnessed an erosion of commitment over the past two decades, and I place responsibility for that phenomenon largely on parents. Not every parent, mind you. But far too many parents allow their children to pursue as many pastimes as they'd like, oblivious of schedules. Admittedly, sometimes conflicts are unavoidable, given the lead times when you have to sign up. Other times, however, parents just take a shotgun approach. It apparently doesn't matter how many conflicts are created, or what effect those conflicts might have on the kid's team, as long as Little Johnny or Little Jennifer get what they want. Or what Mom and Dad want (say, skiing every other weekend).

So I'm going to ask you – the parents – to consider something radical. For once, stop and consider the other kids on the team before thinking about your own child. Why? Because it's a "team" sport, that's why. If we should be teaching our kids anything, it's that the team in more important than the individual (a basic tenet of hockey, by the way).

My own experience was pretty straightforward. Mom, who raised six kids, supported any pastime we wanted to pursue, with two crucial caveats. First, we had to keep our grades up. If our schoolwork suffered, the pastimes would go away until we set things right. Priorities. Second, if we made the decision to join a team, we honored that commitment. For me, that meant missing family ski vacations in high school so I could make hockey practices.

Now, the obvious dilemma is the question of "When?" When do you start requiring kids to make a more serious commitment. We want youngsters to have a broad array of experiences, so they can learn what they like best, what motivates them. However, reinforcing this approach during developmental years creates a culture where kids (and their parents) accept that it's fine and dandy to show up whenever they please. I draw the line at middle school travel teams. It's a perfect time of transition, for academics and for athletics.

I've attended countless practices – both on the soccer pitch and at the hockey rink – when only a handful players show up. Games are problematic too, but missing practice is a major stumbling block. The absent kids not only fall behind in getting fit and learning the requisite skills, but they also lag in developing a sense of teamwork. That becomes painfully obvious during games. How many of you have seen everyone suddenly show up for a playoff game, only to realize that the kids don't know how to play together.

Here's another example. This past spring, I was an assistant coach for my daughter's 8th grade soccer team. We had 18 players, 11 of which could be on the field at any time. Seven extra players seemed like a lot, but manageable. During practices, we were lucky to get half the squad, and game-day attendance was a constant question mark.

So, halfway through the season, I wrote a lengthy email to the parents, detailing our shortcomings. I finished with the following: "In short, soccer isn't a game you can 'dabble' in, especially now that the girls are on the big fields. Players who aren't in shape, or don't know where to be, or can't control the ball, or make simple passes, are easily exposed. And I think that's exactly what's happened to us. Former Patriots coach Bill Parcells once said 'You are what your record says you are.' I think our 0-3-1 record is indicative of where we're at. I'd really like to see the [team] turn it around for the second half. But that requires everyone to be all in."

Not one parent replied. At least not directly to me. Instead, one mom wrote to the head coach. That parent's daughter was a quiet girl who wasn't a gifted athlete, but worked hard. When she was at practice. Which, unfortunately, wasn't often. Here's what her mom said: "Many kids do pull on their boots in the spring for the pure joy and sole pursuit of dabbling in the beautiful game. The fast, slow, fit, unfit, tactical and tactically challenged, bring to the field the athletic gifts they have and are willing to share. Increasingly uniquely with no try outs, [the town program] offers all comers the opportunity to continue the experience of team sport. Some choose not to sit, but go out and join their efforts with others, not to win but to take part. And I am proud of all those youthful dabblers who make our town such a joyful and colorful celebration of sport every weekend."

That sounds like a really sweet sentiment, on the surface. I see it differently. I would like that mom to explain to her daughter's teammates why they had no substitutes (including her daughter) during a Saturday game played in 95-degree heat. Not exactly "a joyful and colorful celebration of sport." But that's exactly what can happen with this type of "my kid first" parenting style. What was accomplished by this child missing half of her team's practices and games? Certainly not an "opportunity to continue the experience of team sport."

Of course, this parent probably never gave it a thought. When parents lack any awareness of how their actions affect their child's teammates, they can drag down the entire team. That's wrong.

If you're still with me, I'll emphasize that I believe the hockey season is too long. No question. Many programs and leagues are run by people more concerned about profits than our kids. I understand that, and fully support my local program's policy of encouraging kids to play a fall sport (for the last three years, my daughter's first hockey game was scheduled before her first soccer game; how crazy is that?).

Once the fall season ends, though, I ask my players to focus on the winter sport they signed up for. Make practices, and make the games. If you can't make practices, don't be surprised if your playing time on game day gets trimmed. Because playing time isn't something that's guaranteed just because you show up, or something Mommy and Daddy pay for. It's something you have to earn.


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