Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Grooming the Child Athlete

Ever since I was a young boy, I have loved sports. Sports has remained a major part of my life since I became a teacher, because, until I retired from my hockey position in March, I've always been a coach. A couple of days ago, I came upon this article that was run by the New York Times: A New Competitive Sport: Grooming the Child Athlete. Maybe people who read this article would think that coaches love to see parents who will do anything for their kids athletic careers, but here's one who definitely doesn't. I think that by loving sports so much, we are wrecking what should be a good thing.

One problem with this is that we are pricing a lot of people out of our sports. Hockey people are as guilty as anyone for the excesses in youth sports, and we are paying the price in many communities. Hockey used to be a sport for kids from working class families. The Minnesota State Hockey Tournament used to be dominated by towns like Eveleth and other iron range communities in northern Minnesota, but that is no longer the case. Unfortunately, the game is turning more and more into an activity for the upper-middle class only. Working class parents just can't afford the sport anymore in most communities. From reading this article in the Times, it looks like a lot of other sports might be on their way to doing the same thing.

Another problem is that we end up with parents who become more dedicated to their kids' sports than the kids are. For the past several years, I have worked at hockey schools in the summer, and I've always felt uncomfortable when I've walked out into the lobbies of the arenas I've worked in and watched some of the parents. Hockey parents, like parents of athletes in all sports, tend to have high hopes for their kids, and they certainly can't be faulted for that. But so many of them seem to think that if they can find the right hockey school, or if they buy the right pair of skates, and get the perfect equipment, that this will be the key to stardom, scholarships, and maybe even pro contracts for their children. There are few things I find more sickening than seeing hockey parents doting over their young future stars. I can say that because it was just a few short years ago that I was doing some serious doting of my own. I've often said that temporary insanity is a pre-requisite for being a hockey parent, and I passed the test with flying colors.

All high school coaches have some problems with parents, and there is no better sport to illustrate why this is so than hockey. For starters, children often start playing before they are five-years-old. The parents spend huge sums of dollars on equipment, and they are expected to provide transportation to and from practices and games until the player is in high school. The number of games youth hockey teams play varies from place to place, but it may well be fifty or more. Many parents have to plan nearly every weekend in the winter around youth hockey games and tournaments, and it's not unusual for the hotel bills by the end of the season to be in the thousands of dollars. Then in the summer, they often plan their vacations in such a way that they can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to send junior to the best hockey schools.

The result is that by the time the youngster is in high school, the parents have made enormous investments in time, travel, emotion and money to their child's athletic career. We have very, very committed parents, and some of these committed parents are going to be very hard to please. There may be hell to pay if the coach doesn't put junior on the varsity as a sophomore, or if he simply doesn't play him enough. As anyone who coaches knows, what "playing him enough" means for some parents can be an impossible standard to achieve. Worse yet, sometimes junior isn't very good, or sometimes he just gets tired of the sport. Now it's the coaches' job to put him on the junior varsity, or more fun yet, to cut him from the team. For some reason, the parents who have made all those investments in hopes of stardom, college scholarships, and pro contracts aren't very understanding when that happens.

The pressures on coaches these days are enormous. Not only do many parents expect the coach to feature their sons or daughters as the star players on the team, but they also expect that the coach should be able to produce a championship team. After all, with all that talent, how can they lose? It is a rare parent who is able to look objectively out onto the field, court,or arena and say to his neighbors, "You know, our kids just aren't that good."

Once again, the majority of parents of kids I've coached have been wonderful, and the only times I'd hear from them was when they thanked me for my efforts at the end of the year. The problem is that during the season, the more difficult parents make it hard to remember that those reasonable parents even exist. If a student getting a bad grade in an academic class can cause a parent to become unreasonable, you can multiply that unreasonableness by a factor of ten or more when it comes to sports. Parents who are unhappy with a teacher usually don't like him. Parents who are unhappy with a coach often view him with unmitigated hatred.

Don't get me wrong! Despite all this I still think being involved in sports and other extra-curricular activities is a wonderful thing. I also think it's wonderful when parents encourage and support their kids. But parents have to be very careful. The activities our kids are involved in need to be things that they really want to do rather than things we really want them to do. And today, that's a lot easier said than done.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I've always heard that hockey is a sport that should only be played by orphans. Now I see why ;-)


6/28/2006 1:09 PM  
Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

Very insightful post. It takes a special person to be a coach.

6/28/2006 5:47 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Doug, thanks for stopping by. It's always great to hear from the guy who does the Blue Skunk Blog!

DCS, thank you, but coaching has really been the frosting on tne cake of my educational career, and I think most coaches feel the same way. I'm really going to miss it!

6/28/2006 7:23 PM  
Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

Dennis, what do you mean you're "going to miss it"? As I understand it, you have to put in another two decades of coaching. Didn't you read the fine print in your contract?? ;-)

6/29/2006 2:52 PM  
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