Contributed by Jorge Oliveira (Greater Sudbury Area, ON)
I AM A FATHER OF TWO young boys who play minor hockey at different levels ranging from house league to AA and I have volunteered as a team manager and team trainer over the years. It will come as no surprise to my fellow Canadian hockey parents that even though my sons play summer sports, we barely take a break from it, and every season hockey takes over our lives. Over the years, I have noticed that as the level of competition increases, so does the level of intensity. And it’s not just with the kids, but with the parents.
The time and money that families commit to the minor hockey lifestyle is growing, and I feel like I need to find meaning in all this craziness, as if I am having a midlife, hockey parent crisis.
So, I came up with a short list of life skills that kids could learn from playing hockey.
Why do we spend our weekends and weeknights in arenas? Why do too many of us lose sleep over ice time? Will our children make the NHL? Will hockey provide them with a full-ride scholarship to a U.S. university? Will they enjoy a professional career in the minors? Whether parents choose to believe it, or not, the answer is almost always a statistically-documented “No.” Some of us have unrealistic expectations. Others do not.
What motivates us season after season to continue?
Competitive sports like hockey teaches its participants lessons they carry forward in their lives beyond their minor hockey days.
The most important factor, of course, is fun and to realize it is all just for them. We forget it sometimes, but we are not the ones strapping on skates, the players are. And that they enjoy the game and have fun playing is the ultimate goal. No child should ever be robbed of that by being bullied, or belittled by players, coaches, or parents. Ever. If hockey is not fun to play and enjoyable, kids will quit and we risk losing the potential value of the experience far too early.
Sure, every parent wants to see their child smiling when they come off the ice, but the game is not just about fun in its simplest form.
If it was pure fun at all cost, and there were absolutely no other important rewards from competition, then there would be no need, or desire for competitive sport. Parents and kids would never bother to sacrifice the time, or money. Sure, fun is always at the heart of the game, but players develop other skills in addition to those they learn on the ice. And we ought to focus on the lessons, or we waste the opportunity.
Can playing hockey actually make them better people for the experience? When we start to realize that we can actually impart some real life character lessons to them while we drive back and forth between all the ice times, then the actual wins, losses and goals become instantly less important. Here are a few that I would like to share with you.
- Those playing the game are fortunate to do so. They have the opportunity and support to play an amazing game that many can’t. Lesson: Don’t take things like this in life for granted.
- If we hockey parents do our jobs right, competitive hockey can provide kids a safe environment and the support structure to set the bar higher and drive for some pretty tough goals. Why? Because it’s hard. There is nothing wrong with setting tough goals in sports, in school, or in life. We as parents and coaches can help propel them to realize their maximum potential and the success, pride and fun will come. I think it’s okay to teach our kids to work harder when they truly need to do so to realize that potential. If we don’t, we are not teaching them the real link between effort and reward.
- Nothing truly bad ever comes from breaking personal barriers. When it hurts a bit, it’s physically uncomfortable and you have to sacrifice some things once and a while, then you are actively choosing to push yourself beyond your comfort zone to try to achieve new levels of success. Most of us find this very hard to do in life and it impacts us in education, careers, promotions, exercise, and lifestyle habits. If the kids or even parents and coaches see little value in pushing to this level, then teams become fractured and we all end up talking more about the after-effects then the real causes. But, if we can teach our kids that they already do this in sport and illustrate how important the ability to do this is on their own, then they have the potential to do anything on the ice, and in life, for that matter.
- Work like you are the weakest player on your team and you will never be. In other words, if you consistently work with the notion that you have things to learn and improve on in every practice, every training session and every shift, then you can be confident that you will never let your team down. Whatever happens with the outcome of a game, it is always okay. As long as you gave an honest, 100% effort, were humble, and did everything you could before, during, and after every game to support your team, even—or especially – when no one was looking. (There is really no such thing as 110% effort. I checked).
- When you lose and things don’t go well, how do our kids react? Do they crumble and fall apart? We can teach them that there are valuable lessons in these setbacks and just because they (and we) are hurting, it’s not okay to hide from it. Be gracious in defeat! It is definitely not okay to lash out, or to point the finger at everyone else. Pointing the finger and adopting the “it’s not me” approach when things go poorly never works as a long term strategy for success. We as parents and coaches often have a harder time with this one than the kids do. (Guilty as charged.) Sometimes the lesson to focus on in these situations is to ask if there is anything they can do for next time to help their team because that is all they can control and that is ultimately how they can help the most.
- Not working as hard as teammates and coasting lets down the entire team. You have a responsibility to more than yourself when you are on a team and in life (work, family). There is nowhere to hide when the full commitment, sacrifice, effort, and work ethic are absent day-in and day-out. Everyone sees it, everyone knows it and unfortunately everyone will talk about it. There is really only one simple way to teach them to improve on, no matter how much we talk about it.
Kids can carry the rewards with them for the rest of their lives outside of organized sports. If we don’t focus on the character lessons that playing competitive hockey gives us, or if we are too afraid to have our kids face the challenges of competitive hockey that relate to life outside the rink, we risk building a thin bubble that is filled with success, pride, and fun, but one that bursts easily with every loss.
These lessons may seem harsh to some of you. Maybe you think that they are too intense for young kids. You don’t want them to feel overwhelming pressure, as if everything is completely and solely their responsibility. I agree. These lessons must be kept in balance, especially for their age and level. I know that pushing kids can be taken way too far causing serious emotional and physical damage. However, I am convinced the damage happens only when the real motives for us pushing them are out of whack.
In my preliminary search for added meaning in all the chaos of minor hockey life, if we want our kids to truly feel good about their accomplishments and to experience meaningful rewards that can come from competitive minor hockey, we should focus on these lessons instead of trying to shield our kids from the reality of them. Then it might all be worth it for them later in life, whether they recognize and relate back to the sport, or not.
After all, we want our kids to eventually move out of our basements one day and find success and happiness in life. Don’t we?