October 5, 2010
Hey parents, it's just a game By Stu Cowan
"Everything about youth sports seems to have become so serious and complicated." Multimillion-dollar professional contracts have turned youth sports into more than just a game for some parents, who are spending thousands of dollars on training.Sometimes I wonder how my 40-something generation ever survived our childhoods.
Seatbelts in cars were the things you stuffed into the back of the seat so you wouldn't have to sit uncomfortably on them. Nobody wore a helmet while riding their banana-seat bicycle, and the helmets we did wear for hockey weren't much more than a margarine bowl with a chin strap and one of those useless little mouthguards attached to it.
Sometimes we even had to lose at sports … and there were games when we'd get our butts kicked. But as long as one of the parents brought in a tray of Cokes after a hockey game or had popsicles after a baseball or soccer game, life was great - even if you lost. And if a loss did hurt - or even bring you to tears - the pain never lasted very long.
I was thinking about all this last week after reading a National Post article about an Ottawa youth soccer league that introduced a rule stating that any team that wins a game by more than five goals will lose by default. The rule replaces the Gloucester Dragons Recreational Soccer League's five-goal mercy regulation, whereby any goals scored beyond a five-goal differential would not be registered. The league has 3,000 kids enrolled, ranging in age from 4 to 18.
The Post reported that under the new rules "coaches of stronger teams are encouraged to deter runaway games by rotating players out of their usual positions, ensuring players pass the ball around, asking players to kick with the weaker foot, taking players off the field and encouraging players to score from farther away." I'm in favour of mercy rules in youth sports to prevent total blowouts and keep the fun in the game, but giving a team a loss because it won 6-0 or 7-1? Telling kids to play with their weaker foot? I don't get it. And I don't understand why everything about youth sports seems to have become so serious and so complicated over the years, and why so much importance is placed on the final score - who won, who lost, and by how much.
Sure, winning is great … but losing shouldn't be the end of the world in youth sports - even if the final score is 6-0. It's just a game. But I think the multimillion-dollar contracts in professional sports have changed things over the years and turned youth sports into more than just a game for some people. These days you have 8-year-old hockey players spending more time on the ice than the Canadiens, and if a young kid shows promise at one sport, that sport becomes a year-round commitment, whether it's summer hockey or indoor soccer during the winter.
With that comes the expense of extra ice time, special camps, professional coaching, etc. Some parents are making a huge investment of time and money in their kids' sports - which can make it become a serious business.
The Hockey News wrote an article on Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane a couple of years ago, estimating that his parents spent $250,000 U.S. over the years to help their son develop his skills in the minor-hockey ranks while growing up in Buffalo with power-skating drills, extra ice time, equipment, etc. Kane, the No. 1 pick at the 2007 NHL entry draft, is earning $875,000 U.S. this season and last December signed a five-year contract extension worth $31.5 million. His parents' investment obviously paid off, but I wonder how they'd feel if Kane didn't make it.
With that in mind, it was refreshing to hear the father of Taylor Hall, who could be the No. 1 pick at this year's NHL draft, talk about the importance of the old-fashioned backyard rink.
"It's hard to be a hockey player without a backyard rink," Steve Hall, a former Canadian Football League player and former member of Canada's bobsled team, recently told John MacKinnon of the Edmonton Journal. "There's no question, that's where the kids learn." Taylor Hall told MacKinnon about the happy memories he has from his childhood on the backyard rink. "It was a great experience," he said. "You get a sense of what you can do when no one's watching, that's when you develop your skills. It's got to be part of the reason why I'm the player I am today, for sure."
When I was speaking with the Canadiens' Mathieu Darche recently, I asked him what advice he had for young players with a dream of one day making it to the NHL. "I would tell them if you believe in it and you put in the effort to achieve it, good things happen. I would also tell them all to stay in school, too, because there's not even one per cent of players that make it," said Darche, a 33-year-old hockey journeyman who has a business degree from McGill University and hopes to land a management job in hockey after he hangs up his skates.
That sounds like good advice to me. When it comes to youth sports, I think sometimes as parents it's not a bad idea to take a step back and just let kids be kids … even if they lose. I think they'll survive.
Check back next week for another great coaching article.