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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?

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