American athletics has become so all consuming that many parents have lost sight of the reality of youth sports. What started a hundred years ago in the New York public school system has now morphed into big business, which is feeding unrealistic expectations for parents and kids alike.
Here are a couple of examples, just from today:
- A college freshman hockey player who spent two years in junior hockey after high school so he could have a chance to play college hockey at the Division 3 level, quit the team one week into the official season with coaches. He had spent 8 weeks training and skating 3 to 4 hours a day in so-called "Captain's" practices. Once the season officially started, the time commitment went up even more (and remember, this is only Division 3!). He learned quickly that, in order to stay in hockey, he had to change his major to one less demanding. He chose to quit hockey in favor of getting an engineering degree;
- Two 12-year-old hockey players in Fargo ND are now playing on a AAA team in Des Moines, Iowa. They will practice (where and with whom?) in Fargo and then travel to Des Moines each weekend, or to wherever the team is playing. These are not elite level players;
- The father of a 5-year-old Mite player reports to me that, when they went out to mite sessions this past weekend, many of the other kids have AAA team jerseys. The dads were bragging about how good the AAA teams are. At 5-years-old?
- A neighbor of mine took his 7-year-old son to an "elite camp" and quickly observed that his son was way behind. Now they are remodeling their basement to install plastic ice so the boy can start his training program at home.
I have similar conversations with people almost daily, and it really is symptomatic of much more deeply rooted issues in the adult community and media.
"Living the Dream"
"Living the Dream" is a frequent phrase used in the hockey community. I have heard parents of kids with decidedly average or below talent who say they would never consider throwing cold water on their child's pro aspirations; that they will do anything and spend anything to help little junior go pro.
An entire industry has sprung up to help fulfill every wish and desire of parents who think that their child is the next "Great Gretzky" or whomever their current favorite player might be today. They are completely oblivious to the cold hard facts simply do not support nor validate any of these behaviors.
Unfortunately, this is not a youth hockey-only phenomenon; it is the same across all youth, high school and college athletics in this country. According to the college statistics services undergraduate degrees in "Park, Leisure, Recreation, and Fitness Studies" are the fastest growing areas of study, with many related to sports marketing, management, training, and coaching.
I have nothing against these fields, but with a shortage of electrical/mechanical/engineers, doctors, and scientists, maybe we need to encourage our kids to prepare for the game of life instead of the game of their life.
We have gone seriously off the tracks in our country when we value an athlete more than a teacher or scientist or mathematician. If families spent as much time, effort and money educating their children as they do on sports we would not be wringing our hands about falling behind other countries in the critical skills and technology areas.
Playing sport is good for kids, but all things in moderation. So many of the issues we are discussing on this site and others are a direct result of the sports-crazed society we live in. Somehow we need to change the dialogue before things get even worse.
Hal Tearse is a longtime hockey coach and official from Minnesota, and the author of the new e-book, "Thoughts from the Bench."