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Monday, January 25, 2010

Something to play for

There are a substantial number of very important and very different reasons for kids to be involved in sports. Ultimately, the list starts and ends with fun, because without that none of the rest really matter. If it’s not fun for the players, it won’t last very long and it won’t be nearly what it could be.

But beyond the fun there are a host of other elements including health and fitness, development of physical skills, social interaction and teamwork, establishment of a work ethic and mental toughness, building self-confidence, time management, the challenges presented to improve during practices and while competing in games and learning how to appropriately handle the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Obviously, it is much, much more than a game. Unfortunately at times we make it much, much more than the much, much more than it already is.

Keeping score
Over the years I have heard many adults roll out the old "something to play for" phrase in a variety of different situations. Oddly enough it always seems to come from those who aren’t actually "playing" at all.

It starts early, from the parents of 5-year old Mini Mite players participating in cross-ice 3-on-3 hockey games where the score is not kept on the arena scoreboard.

With two games happening on the ice at the same time and goals being scored every minute, it is both impossible and unnecessary to keep score. Yet there are parents who feel that without the scoreboard, there is nothing to play for. You couldn’t tell that by looking at the faces of the players though.

Next are the parents of 8-year old Mite players in a house league that doesn’t keep or post league standings. Over the years the league has found that posting the standings has led to coaches making bad decisions based on their team’s position in the standings rather than in what was in the best interest of the young players on their teams.

Yet there are some parents and coaches who feel if there are no league standings, then there is nothing to play for. Again, this comes from those not actually doing the "playing".

Actually I can understand the league standings viewpoint to an extent, because it does add to the experience. Playing in a league and keeping track of the standings is important. No different than the scoreboard in a game tracking the score. Competition is great. Winning is important.
Victories shouldn’t just be handed out like post-game snacks. They should be earned. Kids need to learn that. But that’s never the problem. The problem is with the adults who manipulate the game by short-shifting some players and over-playing others to get the win. There’s not much "to play for" for those kids who are riding the pine, is there?

Part of the experience
Playing in a league and wanting to finish at the top is important. Setting a goal and striving to achieve it is a great thing. As long as we don’t lose sight of the goal and doing what is best for all of the kids on the team trying to reach it.

I really have never understood the coaches or parents of players on a team that could easily and conveniently play in a league, but choose not to because they just want to "develop the players? Do they ever ask the kids? Do kids really sign up to play a game to "be developed"? Do 12-year olds really think like that?

Kids want to play. Playing the game is something to play for. Playing in a league is something to play for.

Tournaments are the ultimate in "something to play for" because they have all of the elements of a season crammed into three days. First there is the round-robin, where every game and every goal carries great weight in deciding which teams move on to the playoffs. Definitely something to play for. Then comes the "win or go home" quarter and semi-finals where there is no holding back, followed by the championship game which needs no further explanation.

League games, tournament games and league playoff games are staples of the youth hockey and youth sport experience. Tremendously important events. They are "something to play for". But really they are no different than the non-league or scrimmage games or practices. They are all part of the experience. All part of the play. All good for the players. As long as there aren’t too many of them.

More is always better, isn’t it?
But sometimes we adults take it a little too far. What was in the past is never enough. There has to be something more to play for doesn’t there? More games, more opponents, a higher level, more challenges, more conquests. We think we are doing the right thing. We think it has to be better for the players. More is always better, isn’t it?

Before we know it, the local leagues are no longer enough. We have to play teams from across the state and around the country. We have to see how we stack up. Give us a test. A new challenge. Something more to play for. The farther we travel, the more important the game is perceived to be.Eventually it becomes about our kids getting exposure to teams at higher levels, junior and college. We can’t not keep up with the pack. We need to do whatever everybody else is doing. Better yet, even more. It’s for the kids. We have to give them every opportunity to succeed. They won’t get noticed if we don’t go. They’ve got a lot to play for.

Some of our "elite" leagues now are coast to coast, with more games played and more travel than some NHL teams do in a season. We have multiple "showcases" designed to attract the scouts so the players get the exposure they deserve. There’s really something to play for now.

The days of missed school pile up, along with the costs to participate. But that doesn’t matter. It’s all worth it. There’s a lot more to play for now. Four or five highly competitive games get shoe-horned into a whirlwind forty-eight hour weekend to accommodate travel schedules with little consideration given to the well-being of the players.

Slow down
But wait, what’s wrong with our team? What’s wrong with our players? They look tired. Why do we have so many injuries? They don’t seem to be very excited about playing. How come they are not motivated? Don’t they know what they are playing for?

There is always something to play for when you are on the ice. If you don’t believe me, you have never played the game because the game itself is something to play for. If you really want more proof, check out the adult rec leaguers at any rink from 10 p.m. to midnight or later on any given night. They play because of the game. They don’t need something more.

At what point does our never-ending search for something to play for become too much? Do we ever slow down to look around and see where we are at? More importantly, what is happening to the kids, to the players playing?

How sadly ironic would it be that in our quest to find our kids "something to play for" that we rob them of that very thing?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ref Rage

This season, more than ever, it seems that the outpouring of outrage directed toward hockey referees has reached a new high. Or more aptly, an unprecedented low.

Maybe it is just my imagination. Maybe it is just a result of how the world has become that much smaller and the flow of information that much faster and far-reaching so we hear more about these kinds of things. Maybe. But maybe there really are more of these kinds of incidents occurring in all of youth sports, not just hockey.

Earlier this season the Toronto Star ran a series of articles about conflict in youth hockey, the rampant verbal and physical abuse of officials by players, coaches and parents. Many referees are in fear for their safety during and after games with no idea who or what might be waiting for them as they make their way from the dressing room to their car.

Where exactly did this concept of the referee playing the role of the villain come from? I am guessing it filters down from how officials are viewed at the professional levels of sports. I “get it” at that level. It makes sense to me. It is all part of the entertainment experience for the fans. The referees enter the ice for their warm-up skate to a chorus of boos accompanied by “Three Blind Mice” courtesy of the organist. Depending on the score of the game and the play of the home team that could be it or it could very much go south from there. Whether the referees had anything to do with it or not.

Somehow that attitude toward officials has descended into the depths of youth sports where the game is not exactly entertainment for the spectators. By that I mean they are not paying money to watch and be entertained. They are definitely paying money for their child to participate. But there very much is a difference. The players and coaches are not professionals. By that I mean they are not paid to play. Well at least most coaches aren’t, but some are. Either way, there is a huge difference between professional sports and youth recreational sports.

But apparently not in the way referees are viewed. That is the problem.

Youth hockey referees are paid. That is the argument most people haul out when voicing their displeasure. Absolutely. They should be. Who in their right mind would want to do that for nothing? Who in their right mind would want to do it for what youth hockey referees actually get paid? Don’t get me wrong, $20-40 an hour, depending on the level of play, is not bad money to officiate a hockey game. I can think of much worse ways to earn money. But factor in the potential verbal and risk of physical abuse and it really doesn’t seem like much.

Just a couple of issues
I only have a couple of issues with officials. One is with payment when one referee doesn’t show up for a game and the other one feels they are obligated to at least half, if not all, of the absent referee’s share. Seriously? Are you going to somehow grow a second set of legs, arms and eyes, be in two places at once and have the ability to blow a second whistle with another orifice?

Yes, I get that they might have to work harder. But that is not the fault of the teams participating. If I order breakfast at Denny’s and they forget to bring my pancakes along with my eggs, hash browns and sausage you can bet I am not paying for them. And they wouldn’t even think of charging me for them.

The other issue is presence, body language, whatever you want to call it. Act like you want to be there. Some referees look arrogant, like they are “too good” for the level of game they are officiating. Their effort is lackluster and enthusiasm non-existent. If you don’t want to be there, then don’t. Let someone else do the game. Your actions (or lack of them) are only serving to fuel the fires of angst toward you. Like coaches, players and spectators need a push to go in that direction.

Mistakes all around
Referees will make bad calls or what one side or the other will perceive as the wrong call. Absolutely. So will the players and coaches. It is a game of mistakes. Especially at the youth recreational level because everybody is learning the game as they go. As much as professional sports is an entertainment experience, youth sports is a learning experience. For everybody.
So because referees receive a paycheck they should be perfect? And in whose eyes must they be perfect? Because surely there are no more biased people in an ice arena than the players, coaches and parents. Think their perception of a referee’s decision might be a little warped by their allegiance? Just a little?

When I first started coaching at the youth level I wondered how some referees got hit by the puck during the action. How couldn’t they get out of the way? How could they not know where the puck was going to go based on the positioning and movement of the players on the ice? How did they miss that obvious call? How did they make that obvious non-call? What did they see that I didn’t see? What didn’t they see that I did see?

Easy. First of all I have played and watched hockey for over 40 years. What seems obvious to me might be new to them. Secondly, I am on the bench. My sightline is completely different than theirs. I don’t have to worry about being run into by a player or hit by the puck. I am not part of the action, constantly assessing and re-assessing where I am, where the puck is, where all of the players are and what they are doing. It’s pretty easy for me to make a decision. One that is more often than not biased by the team I am affiliated with.

Which makes me wonder what parents are thinking (or obviously not thinking) when they yell at officials from their safe perch in the stands, far away from the action. I feel very confident in suggesting that 100% of hockey parents don’t even know the rules or how to apply them. I know I don’t. I don’t even try. And I would bet that 100% of coaches don’t either. And for that matter probably 100% of referees. Although I am sure I will get an e-mail from one or twenty claiming that they do.

On the topic of not knowing, I really don’t know what the official pre-game protocol is for referees in youth hockey. But I do know that some are much better than others at “humanizing” themselves to coaches, introducing themselves at the bench before the game and having a friendly chat. I think it is no coincidence that there tend to be fewer conflicts in games refereed by those officials than by those who are less engaging.

As we head into the meat of the hockey season with the “more important” league and state tournament playoff games being played, it is a great time for everyone to take a step back, a deep breath and lay off of the referees. But at the same time it is a great time for the officials to step up, be active, be involved and be confident in making calls as they see them.