A Sporting Chance

April 15, 2014

“Victory is in the quality of the competition, not just the final score.” – Mike Marshall, American baseball player.

I agree with the first part of that quote only because I’m sure the “competition” in a 10-0 game is not of the highest quality, for either team.

Team sports are a great way to make new friends, exercise and learn life lessons. I have coached my son and daughter in various sports since they were four years old and I am slowly retiring from the position as the coaches we have now have forgotten more than I know but I have learned more about life, kids and sports to last a lifetime and I would like to pass it on to you.

Kids, ages 4-9, should be exposed to all kids of activities and sports. Individual sports are great for personal development but I believe team sports can teach a child more about camaraderie, responsibility, communication and friendship. When a child sees another child working hard to master a new skill they, too, try hard and learn by example. Competition, both from within a team and from an opponent, also teaches a child to push themselves beyond their perceived limits.

Practice, practice, practice. Practice makes perfect. Or as Allen Iverson once said, over and over again, “Practice? You’re gonna ask me about practice?”

USA Hockey highly suggests to youth coaches that their practice to game ratio should be 3:1. That is THREE practices to ONE game.  Practice is important. Practices can be fun. Practices can have games within games and skills sessions where every kid plays the whole hour, no one sits on the bench and everyone touches the puck or ball. Yet, I know of good coaches and programs where the inverse is true. You may have one practice during the week and 2 or 3 games on the weekend. I’ve also seen practices where everyone waits in line for most of the practice. That kind of practice does NOT make perfect.

Now, as kids get older, burnout can become a factor. I have seen it.

The “experts” say don’t “specialize” your child into any particular sport too early because they may burn out. Again, I have found the inverse is also true. If you keep your child in too many sports not only will they burn out but they will be exhausted going from a hockey game, to a lacrosse game, to a soccer game and then to a basketball game; especially, if they are playing at a high level. After one game they should be spent. If they play another game in another sport, or even the same sport, on the same day their performance will suffer and the risk of injury will increase.

As your child gets older, 9-13, I believe it is ok to limit their participation based on THEIR preferences. If you notice they excel at one sport and not the other, if they complain about going to practice; perhaps its time to move on. One less thing on the schedule wouldn’t hurt anyone.

“Let the kids be kids”, they say.  Unstructured time with friends is just as important, if not more important, than organized team sports. However, I believe it is beneficial to have a set schedule for sporting activities in every season, if possible, so the kids are not just watching TV or playing video games all day.  Aim for a balanced life for both you and your children. A day or two off every week should be good enough to put off the dreaded, “I’m bored.”

Which leads me to the old “he just wants to play with his friends” situation.  If your son or daughter shows promise and passion for a particular sport, sometimes you may need to find a more competitive environment for them to fully develop.  Town programs and recreational sports are great and the foundation of all youth sports but sometimes they are limited by time constraints, budgets and resources. Most times they are fully staffed by volunteers, i.e. busy parents, and can only run one practice a week. We have had some of the most memorable times and have made lifelong friends in local youth sports but there are other options out there once your child gets in that 9-13 range.

I have a great story that illustrates the concept that sometimes town and rec programs have their hearts in the right place but their processes are not quite up to snuff for kids who want to play the sport at a competitive level. I was going to leave it out but it is sweet: When I was coaching my daughter at a younger age we would designate a parent to bring snacks for AFTER each game. The kids and parents loved it.  So, one day, we are playing a team and we reach the half and the other coach opens this cooler and all his kids dive in. He mentioned to me that my team can also have some of what I assume is water or gatorade. Before I can say a word my whole team is armed with ice cream, candy and ice pops. I try to tell them to save it for AFTER the game to no avail. Next, when I am setting the line-up for the second half; no one wants to go in!  They want to finish their sugary snack. Some kids even have a back-up in the their other hand. Now, this is sweet, I know, the heart is in the right place; but, can’t we play a game for ONE HOUR and save the snacks for AFTER the game?  We are there to play a sport for one hour on a Saturday. They can have snacks and candy and play and talk to their friends during the remaining 8 hours of sunlight. Geez!

Legitimate travel teams, AA, AAA or Elite programs are competitive programs which have rigorous tryouts for acceptance. There are usually no “politics” involved in who makes the A or B team.  If your child does not meet a certain standard they will not be accepted. These programs are expensive, yes, but you get what you pay for: professional or semi-professional coaches, detailed skill development, multiple weekly practices and highly competitive games. You may pay triple the price of a regular town program but you are, usually, still paying the same hourly rate while getting more practice and skill sessions of higher quality and tight focus on player development.

Why should you have to go to a different program and pay extra money to get your child a quality sporting experience? Well, you don’t. But the issue is consistency. If you join a legitimate Elite program you know that you are practicing and playing at a high level, maybe the highest possible available, with dedicated coaches, players, parents and quality competition.

One of the reasons I am writing this post is I came upon a local Facebook post where a parent/coach was complaining about a very lopsided loss in a rec league game. It was a long thread with complaints about coaching ethics, unfair player drafting, lopsided teams, parent behavior, etc.  I tried to step back and think it through clearly.  Sometimes the heart of a program is in the right place but the processes are sketchy.

For example, drafting teams with no tryouts and no player rating system where every team is “supposed” to be equal. Some coaches know the players but most don’t. Coaches pick their kid’s friends or kids they know. Some teams practice. Some don’t. And by the way, a scrimmage is NOT a practice; but, don’t get me started on that…Some kids just are there to play the games with their friends. Which is fine. Other kids work at their game in the driveway everyday for hours. But don’t call for parity when you don’t factor that into the process.

Last year, my son’s hockey team played 4 weeks of parity play before the season started to seed the teams in the proper divisions and it worked perfectly. That season games were close with no blowouts and the standing were tight.

Parents get caught up in the “stigma” of their kid being on the B or C team. If they are a B or C player they should play on the B or C team. They will have a better experience. “A” players don’t get a prize for making the A team. It is better for all involved: coaches, teammates, opponents, parents;  if players play at the proper level in their development.

When a parent complains about their kid’s playing time in the game, the first metric the coach should look at is practice. Did they come to practice? Did they work hard in practice? Regardless of skill the kid should get playing time based on their work ethic. And, if they are on the proper team for the skill level there should be no issue with getting sufficient playing time.  If its a “C” level kid who doesn’t come to practice on an “A” team with committed players and the game is close in the final minutes. I’m sorry Mr. Jones but I can’t put your kid in that situation.

On most Elite, AA, AAA and travel teams, the parents are committed (they are paying for it), the players are committed and the coaches are committed. There is little or no fooling around during practices and games but the kids still have huge smiles afterwards. They are still having fun with their friends while competing at a high level against tough competition which can be exhilarating for all involved.  And again, winning isn’t the goal. Some of the best games I can remember in my kid’s sports have been tough 1 point losses.

And let me say, we still play both Elite and local recreational.  There is no need to push your child into EVERY top, high level program for EVERY sport they play.  One (or two if you must) sport that they love and can compete in at a high level is sufficient for club or elite play.

“Playing with their friends” is great but it is also beneficial when your child can make friends from different towns in a new, challenging environment and push themselves beyond what they thought they were capable.  Later in life, they may have to move on from some of their old friends and make new ones in a new place. This early experience will guide them and give them confidence in themselves and others. For the time being, they can play with their friends during unstructured time and play anything they want. They don’t always have to have their friends on every team and play the same organized sports together. Sometimes the best “practice” is a kid-run game of pick-up with no coach in sight.

Now, back to the quote:

“Victory is in the quality of the competition, not just the final score.” – Mike Marshall, American baseball player.

As I said earlier, I agree with the first part. I have been on both sides of the 10-0 blowout, both as a coach and a parent and a young player.  It is no fun for anybody.

As a coach, one season we were put in a division below our ability and won each game easily.  We decided our team goal was to have everyone score a goal over the course of the season, which we accomplished early on. But, after that, we struggled to come up with creative ways NOT score without disrespecting the other team. It was not good for our players and it was not good for our opponents. It was not good for our defense and it was not good for our goalie, who was rarely tested.  Now you can see why I agree with the first part of the quote and not the second.

I tell my kids every game that I would rather lose 3-2 in a great game where everyone tries their best than win a game 10-0 where everyone is just lolly-gagging around not trying hard and not challenging themselves.

If your child shows promise and passion in a particular sport who they play “against” is just as important who they play “with”. If your son or daughter is scoring 6 goals a game then I’ll bet the competition isn’t that great. And that is no victory, no matter how many trophies they have on their shelves.

For example, if your son or daughter is a defensive player who never gets a ball hit to them, never takes on a talented forward or never has any quality shots taken on them; do you think they are going to develop into the best player they can be?

“But, they are not going to be a pro player”, you hear parents and coaches say on occasion. Well, how do you know? SOMEONE has to play in divisions 1,2 and 3 in college. Someone has to play in AA, AAA and the minors. Someone has to play in Europe, Juniors, MLS, QMJHL, KHL, NHL, MLB, NBA, NFL, CFL and on and on.  The odds are slim but it is possible for some.

Milan Lucic, power forward for the Boston Bruins in the NHL, was told by one of his math teachers in high school that the odds are astronomical for a player to make it into the NHL. He retorted that someone has to make it; otherwise, no one would be playing in the NHL. The teacher had him calculate the probability of a high school player making it to the NHL.  I can’t find the exact story source but I’m sure his answer was “one” in a “large number”. (i.e. 1:xxx,xxx) However, I do know that Milan is one of those “ones”, as are 25 other players on his team.

I am not saying that you should count on your son or daughter getting a scholarship or making the pros. What I AM saying is that if they have passion and show promise in any given sport GIVE THEM A CHANCE to compete at the highest level possible WITH the best players and AGAINST the best players. They may not even make the high school team (i.e. Michael Jordan) but they will make great memories, good friends and learn life lessons taught through the love of a game well played.

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