Daydreaming at a stoplight last fall, I noticed an elementary after-school football practice on the field next to me. No helmets, no pads, just a dozen or so kids standing around as a couple of adults demonstrated what appeared to be the proper technique for a hand-off.
It didn’t appear that anybody was having fun.
That is when it hit me. We have convinced ourselves that teaching and coaching these 8-year-olds the finer points of the game is fun for them. We may have also convinced the kids that this is the way sports are intended to be: boring, with lots of standing around listening to coaches talk. If you haven’t stood before a group of 9-year-olds lately and tried to get them to listen, you don’t have a clue what I am talking about. We throw terms and concepts at them that they are ill-prepared to grasp. Many at this age are still mastering reading an analog clock. A fake 32 blast with a backside George reverse is equally confusing.
Sitting and listening to someone talk is quickly becoming a lost skill for our children. When they have a screen in front of them they are engaged. When the power of technology isn’t available to them, the gene inside of them that wants to run and play still exists. The problem with “coached-up” sports as opposed to play is coaches spend too much time lecturing and teaching, and in turn the kids get less time playing. As coaches, we are stepping into their lives at younger and younger ages and replacing their free play time with structured games.
The demise of their play instincts is evident.
Recently, as I watched a high school baseball game, a youth team assembled for a practice on a nearby field. Player after player arrived with bats, balls and gloves, and proceeded to sit on the bleachers until their coach arrived. Not one kid played catch or hit some fly balls. Instead, they just sat and waited for their coach to appear and give them permission to “play.” I was stunned. We are convinced that our anal attempts to teach them the game through our lens is what they really need to develop their full potential at age six.
Parenting has become the most fiercely competitive sport. The result is a heavy diet of coach-dominated camps and high-pressure teams. Our desire for our kids to be the best athlete in their age group has reached toxic levels. We have attached our own self-worth to the t-ball batting average of a Kindergartner or the won-loss record of a Mite team. While we seldom miss our kid making a mistake during a game, we have been completely blind to the evolution of play into structured sports. And, in the process, we have convinced ourselves that they are one and the same.
They are not.
I remember taking my son to his first t-ball practice on a warm, muggy, mosquito-infested June evening. It was two hours of complete boredom as players swatted more mosquitoes than baseballs. After it was finished, my son asked, “Do we have to go to that again?” We didn’t and his baseball skills developed nicely during backyard whiffle ball games with his neighborhood friends.
What we are creating is a generation of little sports robots that only respond to a coach’s command.
We have to beg kids to go outside and play – for one hour a day. That would have been the equivalent of being grounded when I was growing up. If I had to spend one hour a day in the house, it was punishment. In the summer, our next door neighbor would send their kids outside, seemingly at dawn and not let them back in until sunset. They even had to eat outside!
Our paranoia between sending kids outside – unsupervised – and our fear that we might be falling behind the neighbor kid’s athletic development has sentenced our kids to a childhood of structure and instruction that would have sent child development psychologist Jean Piaget to therapy. I have seen the glazed-over look in the eyes of kids and the body language that tells me they don’t want to be here. The difference between unstructured play of the days of old and today’s ridged high-leverage formula is significant.
At some point we need to ask ourselves is this even fun anymore?
You might think I am being hypocritical as the operator of a summer hockey program. If you have ever seen my summer program, you would understand that it is more like an afternoon on the pond than another highly regulated practice. At HbB (Hockey by Bauer) we clearly still believe in the “power of the pond.” Our summer is all about exploring and learning the game from the game.
I had a parent tell me recently that his kids loved my summer program because it was fun. He talked about all the camps they attend, yet HbB was their favorite. Throughout the conversation, he continued to apologize for labeling my camp as fun, like I would be offended. I wasn’t. In fact it was the best compliment he could have paid me.
My goal is for kids to enjoy the experience, try new things, not worry about mistakes or turnovers or systems and just play the games we put before them. Case in point, after a failed attempt to alley-oop the puck from behind the net, over the net to the slot, a youngster sheepishly began to apologize for the failed attempt. A decision that likely would get him benched during the season got a, “I like it, try it again” from me.
My belief is kids today have enough high-pressure practices and games and far too little time to experiment with their skills and the game itself. In short, a famine of “rat hockey” ice time. It is a drum I will continue to pound on because nurturing a passion for the game is what I believe is the key to becoming not only a good player, but a hockey enthusiast for life.
Then the hockey experience for the 99.9% that won’t get a Division I scholarship is a success story and not a bitter, failed dream. We all know someone who hung up their skates after high school and never put them on again. As parents and coaches, none of us should want to be a part of that tragedy.
Fun is still the No. 1 reason why kids play and stay in sports. In our race to build the next Patrick Kane or Connor McDavid, we sometimes lose sight of that. I grew up loving the “sandlot” neighborhood sports we played, and I will never apologize for doing my best to make teaching the game fun.
Dan Bauer is a freelance writer, retired teacher and hockey coach in Wausau, Wis. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.