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Monday, July 26, 2010

The Winds of Change

Every off-season at their annual meetings USA Hockey and the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association make some changes that affect their hockey playing members and their families.
Every year these changes become a topic of great discussion and debate. Some people are all for them, some dead-set against them. What most people typically look at is how the change affects them. What’s in for me? What’s been taken away from me?

What they often fail to look at is the potential impact on the game itself. And really, that is the important thing. The game itself is much bigger and much more important than any one player, any one family, any one team or any one organization. That is what USA Hockey and MAHA need to keep in mind when making decisions and implementing change. Personal agendas do not apply. And oftentimes that is very difficult for people to understand when change occurs.

That being said, this summer there was nothing really that remarkable in terms of changes. Although some people would beg to differ on that because of their perception of how the changes affected their personal situation.

No 12U Nationals
One of the more hotly debated topics was the elimination of USA Hockey National Championships at the 12U age level for both boys and girls effective in the 2012-13 season. Oh my gosh! What an opportunity lost for these young players! Whatever will they play for now?

I am only slightly tongue in cheek with those comments. Some people actually ask those kinds of questions. And I can understand why. But I also understand why USA Hockey made the choice that they did in the best interest of the game and the players playing it.

First of all, I would hope the players would play the game because they enjoy playing it, not because of the quest to win a national championship. If that was the case, 99.9% of us would be failures every year.

Very few people actually get to go to the national championships. And for those that do, I can see how they feel it is "wonderful once-in-a-lifetime" experience.

I was fortunate enough to coach a team that participated as the host team in the national championship tournament this past year. It was fun, it was exciting and the players and their families had a great time. But it was not really that much different than any other tournament that they participated in. If we didn’t do it, it wouldn’t have had that much of an impact on us.

What most people don’t consider when it comes to national championships is that the teams from all over the country are formed in a number of different ways and can "run the gamut" in terms of their ability to be competitive or not.

From a strictly "best competition" standpoint, many teams actually get better competition in tournaments that they go to throughout the year. Their league or state playoffs might actually be more competitive than the national tournament because their teams are formed in the same manner.

Don’t get me wrong. I think a championship of some sort is good. But a national championship in a youth sport is really not that important. And I would argue that it has a more harmful affect on the game than it does positive, especially at the younger age groups.

Making decisions
Unfortunately a national championship opportunity can very heavily influence the decision-making of coaches and families when teams are formed.

Long-term athlete development and age-appropriate coaching methods get thrown out the window for what will win a championship now.

What really should be an opportunity to compete for a national championship earned by doing the right thing for the players all season long very easily gets replaced by being rewarded for doing the wrong things for those players.

Some people just can’t help themselves. Ultimately the "over-the-top" coaches actually get "rewarded" (at least in the short-term) for their actions because they do things to be successful and are actually viewed as successful even though what they are doing is not in the best interest of their players.

Most parents have a hard time judging who is a good coach or who is not a good coach, but jeez if they went to nationals they must be good, right? Not. They might be, but they could just as easily not be.

The truth is we don’t need nationals at 12U. It is way too young to be led down the wrong path. In fact I am not so sure we need them at all in any age group. Canada, the leading hockey playing country in the world, and one that we often look to for guidance, doesn’t have national championships. They seem to get along just fine without it. So all in all, a good move by USA Hockey. One that is better for the game and the players playing it.

The Locker Room
The second significant change from USA Hockey this year is the new Locker Room Supervision policy that addresses the concern with "locker room activities between minor players; minor players and adult players; adults being left alone with individual minor players in locker rooms; and with non-official or non-related adults having unsupervised access to minor participants at sanctioned team events."

This also could very well be called the "CYA Policy" (and that doesn’t stand for Chicago Young Americans). Or it could just as easily be called the "Uncommon Sense Policy" because I really am starting to believe that common sense is not common at all.

I "get" why USA Hockey is introducing the policy. It has to be something that they are telling people to adhere to. Some lawyers live for opportunities presented when policies aren’t spelled out. What is scary is that there actually are some people who have to be told. The wording of the policy is a little vague and maybe intentionally-so to be open to interpretation. Does an adult actually have to be in the locker room supervising? Or just outside the door? Maybe I am dense, or maybe I just don’t want to believe they are actually mandating that an adult needs to be in the room at all times.
Sorry, I am a little old-school on this one. I firmly believe that the locker room is a sacred place. A place for the team. A place for the individuals on a team to interact and grow together.

For kids, it should be a place where adult supervision is not necessary. Absolutely coaches should lay the ground rules of what is expected and what is unacceptable in the locker room. Absolutely coaches should be a presence, in and out of the locker room like a cop walking the beat. But they don’t need to be there all of the time. They can guard the door and pop in and out as necessary.
We have to give kids some space to grow and experience things for themselves. We can’t be constantly smothering and micro-managing and nit-picking. We have to let them figure some things out for themselves. What safer place is there to do that than in a locker room?

For younger kids, there might be a greater reason to have more presence to help them with equipment. But I also know that young kids can do incredible things (like dress and undress themselves in hockey equipment) if we let them. Probably not tighten their own skates, but they can even do that at 9 and 10-years old if we actually let them do it.

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