Wednesday, February 27, 2008

When good isn't good enough

About a month ago, I ran into the mother -- excuse me, a self-described "hockey mom" -- of a 13 year-old I coached last year in the House and Select programs of our local youth hockey organization. Her son went on to play Travel B at the Bantam-age level, while we elected to remain in the Bantam House and Select programs. That decision was my son's, who informed me he needed "a life" in addition to playing hockey. For the uninitiated, House is open to all players who can, more or less, skate; select is, well, a "select all-star" team of sorts that plays at the Travel B level -- the same level as the Travel B program only -- in addition to House. And Travel is when you decide to spend 80 or a hundred or 213 hours a week driving your kid up and

down the East Coast to play other teams that also spend 80 or a hundred or 213 hours a week driving up and down the East Coast when they're not playing your team.

So, besides the driving, what's the difference between House (and Select) and Travel? Cost (about $1000 a season more on top of the $1,720 you to play in House and Select, and that's not including the fuel, occasional flying, tournament and hotel costs; time commitment (travel teams below the Tier 1 level -- don't ask -- practice twice a week and play, at minimum, two games a weekend; and psychiatric bills for the normal players and parents who wonder why they decided to put so much emphasis on "competitive" youth sports rather than "recreational" youth sports. For more competitive kids with a little more skill than the "average" recreational player, travel can be fun, provided that you love the sport, don't mind building your life around it six months a year and enjoy listening to your parents and coaches -- but never your teammates -- rattle on endlessly about the strengths and weaknesses of your team, the "difficult" player who is making life miserable for everyone around them and whether it makes sense to adopt the 1-4 trap if your team is up by more than three goals to protect the lead.

I've watched a lot of youth hockey over the past 5 years. I've watched kids play hockey at 6 o'clock in the morning and 10 o'clock at night. I've watched them play in tournaments where they played two or three games in a day and still had the energy to trash the hotel swimming pool. I've watched kids make some great plays and even better friends. I've watched kids who could barely skate at 8 years old turn into the league scoring machine by the time they were 11. For the most part, my son's experience, as well as my own, in youth hockey has been overwhelmingly positive, and I wouldn't have traded any of the lost sleep or run-ins with psychotic parents and coaches for anything. My son's best friend is a former hockey teammate, who brings with him to the deal an older sister who is also a hockey player. Their parents are terrific and are now among our closest friends.

But here's the dirty little secret: none of these kids is really that good. The kids here couldn't finish a practice with their counterparts in equivalent programs in such hockey-rich states as Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts and, lately, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Just this past weekend, our local rink, the Rockville Ice Arena, hosted a tournament for U16 girls that brought four teams from Canada and three teams from Michigan, Massachusetts and Minnesota, plus the Washington Pride, the premier girls team in the region.

Guess what? The Pride didn't score until the final day of the tournament. Forget winning. They didn't score. Hockey here just can't compete with the hardest of the hard-core in our nation's Ice Belt.

And that's not even getting to Canada, which increasingly sends its better teen-age players to American colleges to get an education in addition to developing their skills. College hockey has taken a tremendous upswing in the past 10 years largely because of the number of Canadian players who are now playing in the States. That doesn't, however, diminish the growth of American hockey during the same period. Americans make up a larger percent of professional hockey players than ever before, an impressive feat when you consider how the influx of European players has changed the demographics of the professional sport. More Europeans, more Americans and fewer Canadians. Not too dissimilar from how the flow of Latino players into professional baseball has diminished the American hold on the game over the last 15 years or so.

This isn't a knock on the Pride girls. They play hard and give it everything they've got. But, as one of my baseball coaches used to say to me whenever I thought I was better than I was, there's good, and there's "good." Like most people, whether as a kid, a young adult or a man past his prime sliding down the parabolic curb into middle-age, I've experienced error correction after the occasional, "Hey, I'm pretty good at this" feeling I get every once in a while, whether teaching, drumming or holding forth on some important issue of the day. One advantage of getting older, as a friend of mine pointed out last night after our adult hockey game, is that you take greater satisfaction is seeing younger, more talented people develop as a result of something you might have taught them. The best part of my job is watching smart, very together young people maximize their talent. If somewhere down the line an accomplished former student writes me a letter "thanking" me for their help along the way, then my work is done. Over the years, I've learned my limits. I'll never win a Nobel Prize, become president of a university, nab the drum chair for a Steely Dan summer tour or get back together with Sheryl Crow (Besides, my wife is smarter and hotter than Sheryl). But that's fine. A "good" life doesn't always mean you have to prove to someone else that you're "good" or that you "won." In the end, who gives a damn who published what article in what journal, or who the leading scorer was during the 2008 winter season in the Ice Pack Hockey League? You either enjoy life or you don't.

Oh, yeah. Back to my friend the "hockey mom."

So we stop and say hello -- a "stop and chat," as Larry David would say -- and catch up on recent news. This hockey mom is bubbly and talkative, the kind of mom who still makes banners for playoff games and claps for everyone as they come on and off the ice. Her son is a nice kid, a decent enough player whose most important attribute is his size. At 13 going on 14, he's pushing 6' or 6' 1." He moved to Travel B this year after, according to his mom (and dad), "we decided it would help his chances to play college hockey."


I got the low-down on how the season was going, the tournaments, the team bonding, "the usual drama by the usual people" (indeed, the same morons who had starring roles in my post, "Crazy Sports Parents" last spring, have wreaked havoc on everyone around them this year). I listened and listened and listened, having long ago given up hope that asking a parent how he or she is doing would yield an answer other than how the kid's "season" is going or what this fall's controversy was in the P.T.A.

"Look," she said, "we have no illusions that he's going to the NHL. But we think he'll play at the college level, probably D3 . . . nothing major. Don't you think?"

By this time, I was joined by my friend who helped me coach her son last year. He had the same expression on his face as I did.

"Your son is not going to play college hockey," I said. "Not one of these kids in any of these programs is going to play college hockey, if by that you mean a sponsored team. Maybe he'll play club hockey with some friends. But that's it."

"Really?" She was shocked. "What do you think the problem is . . . lack of effort? Ability? Do you think he'll have time to develop? Don't you think travel is helping?"

"I don't think you really have an idea of how good you have to be to make it to the highest levels of a sport. The kids that get there have been training for that day since they were 7 or 8 years old. Most of them are in junior leagues and haven't lived at home since they were 14. The best American players are in Minnesota, Massachusetts and Michigan or in boarding school. They're not playing in rec programs in places like Montgomery County."

She was still stunned. She turned to my friend and co-coach, who looked at her and said, "That's right. Not a chance."

You would have thought that we just snatched the entire reason for her son to play competitive hockey right out from under her nose.

"Oh, we know it's fun, and that's what it's all about," she said. "But we really thought that he could crack a D3 team as long as he kept working. Nick thought he had a chance."

"No," I said. "He's not going to play college hockey. But it's okay to have fun and make friends and just enjoy the game. And Nick (her husband) can't skate, so I'm not sure he's the right person to go to for a scouting report."

"All right! Gotta go watch my son practice! We have a tough game this week and we need to be ready!"

That part I didn't get either. Why in the world do you want to watch a 14 year-old go through drills in a practice? What's interesting about that? No self-respecting teen-age boy wants his mother banging on the glass while telling him to "skate harder!" and reminding him to "listen to the coach." And who exactly is "we?" Parents don't play youth sports. Their kids do. Most of them love the games they play, but there are some every year -- and I've coached them -- who are out there because a parent(s) want(s) them involved in some sport. And it's not enough just to play because it's fun. They have to be "good" and the team has to "win." Every year I had at least one parent or family who simply did understand that we are volunteers giving our time to a community organization so that kids can develop an interest in a sport they like and have fun learning the game. Parents, not kids, complain that the team isn't winning enough, or that Team 4 is "stacked," no doubt because so-and-so had something to do with it, or that the "referees" are against "them" (again, the "them" implies that they are part of their child's team). The kids, I can tell you after time in the trenches doing this, just don't care.

Imagine if a child spent as much time criticizing his father's law firm softball team or his mother's doubles partner, and continually reminded his father that he needed to cancel his after-work engagement with his friends on Thursday so he could be ready for the big game against Big, Bigger and Biggest on Friday. Imagine if a kid stood in front of his mother while she worked out in the gym, telling her to keep her shoulders aligned during her curls or standing over her at the pool with a bullhorn telling her to extend her arms in the water to improve her stroke. How funny would that be? To the kid, hilarious. To the adult, not so much.

A consequence of a society that refuses to allow its children to have a childhood -- to play games because they're fun, or screw up in school and have time to recover, or not view every spelling test as an ultimatum on their pre-college preparation or their parents competence as . . . parents -- is a belief by adults that their children must be the "best" at everything and to misgauge competence as excellence. Playing to scratch at the local public golf club doesn't mean you're ready to take on Tiger Woods. Leading your church basketball league in rebounds doesn't mean that Shaq is worried about his job. Second place in the third-grade science fair doesn't mean that M.I.T. will offer your daughter a scholarship, and that your mission for the next nine years of her education is to make every teacher she has miserable by insisting that they treat the little genius differently than everybody else.

There is just a huge difference at being "good" at a sport, a subject matter, fixing cars, mowing lawns or ballroom dancing, and then competing and succeeding at the highest levels of those fields or activities. In my 46 years, I've come close a couple of times to thinking I was "good" at something, only to realize that I wasn't even within 48 football fields of the standard deviation of what was really "good," much less "the best," at whatever the hell it was I had deluded myself into thinking I could do. So there it is: sometimes being "good" isn't "good enough."

Come to think about it, though, sometimes, with a little perspective, not being "good" is "good enough."

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