Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Cost Of Dreams

I occasionally peruse Digg's site when I'm needing a little intellectual fodder to digest. While I admit that not everything on Digg helps my gray matter, there is an article every so often that they link to that sets off fireworks in brain. I found one such article today as they linked to an excellent piece in The New York Times that really should be read and understood by a lot of hockey-crazed parents in my neck of the woods. The author, Paul Sullivan, normally writes about the making the most of one's money in his articles, but he goes deep into the world of organized sports for kids by examining the costs that go into turning fun and team-building into a professional lifestyle. Where Mr. Sullivan really shines isn't on the money side of things, but rather in the emotional costs that it takes for parents and children to make it big.

The article, published online on January 16, 2015 and in print on January 17, 2015, is linked here so you can read it. Entitled The Rising Costs of Youth Sports, in Money and Emotion, the article features a number of prominent names in sports: former NBA stars John Amaechi and Bob Bigelow, former MLB pitcher Mike Trombley, former NFL kicker Travis Dorsch, and star quarterbacking coach Steve Clarkson. Mr. Sullivan speaks to all of these men about the pitfalls of financial despair that comes with the dream of your child being the "next one". And all of them have a sobering view of the world for parents.

Mr. Clarkson told Mr. Sullivan regarding a parent's dream of seeing his or her child becoming a star quarterback in the NFL,
"What I hope parents understand is that there are some three million high school players and by the time they scale that down to the quarterback position there are a couple of hundred thousand starters," he said. "Then you get to Division I and II, and there are 360 quarterbacks. When you get to the N.F.L. there are 64. When you think about the odds, that’s not very good odds."
That's the same thing that happens in Canada with hockey. I have heard parents in the crowd watching their ten year-olds play that "he's got a good chance at the NCAA or junior hockey". Unless that kid is some sort of savant, he still has six to seven years of school before the NCAA will send a scout to see him play. Junior hockey players can be recruited a little earlier, but there's at least five years of hockey before the CHL will have that child on its radar.

In other words, the odds are long for kids to make the NHL.

One of the reasons that some kids have their dreams die long before the NHL? The costs involved in playing. In his book Selling the Dream: How Hockey Parents and Their Kids Are Paying the Price for Our National Obsession, author Ken Campbell sat down with Vince and Chris Duchene to figure out how much it cost them to give Matt a shot at the NHL. Between equipment, camps, team fees, travel, and lost income following Matt all over the map, they figured they had invested more than $322,000 in his hockey career.

The sobering part? How many players don't make the NHL as a star rookie? How much money have their parents spent and sacrificed only to never hear their kid's name called from the stage at the NHL Entry Draft? How many parents of "the next one" spent a fortune only to see their kids making $500 a week in some minor league? I'm not saying that the sacrifice isn't worth it, mind you. After all, Andrew Loewen of the Columbus Cottonmouths seems to really enjoy his time in the SPHL, and that's what is important. However, I'm also pretty sure his parents weren't pushing him to put all his eggs in the hockey basket either. He went to Canisius College where he played hockey, but he told me that he was there for an education first in our interview last summer. He had his priorities straight, it seems.

The one aspect of the article, though, that stood out in a major way for me was when they spoke of the emotional costs placed upon kids and their parents. Coaches are normally volunteers who have had some experience with the game. Rarely do you see high school coaches becoming head coaches in any professional sport because... well, are there any good reasons?

In hockey especially, it seems that coaches have to cut their teeth at every level of hockey - first as an assistant before assuming the head coach's cap - before they can take the next step. But when it comes to minor hockey programs, it's usually a parent or a coach who has little to no training in anything sports, psychology, or sports psychology who is directing his players. Mr. Bigelow told Mr. Sullivan,
"The biggest challenge of youth sports in this country is so many of the adults who propagate the culture have no background in child development or physical education," he said. "Their background is they played high school sports somewhere and they watch ESPN. Those are the two worst qualifications, ever."
As John Amaechi told Mr. Sullivan,
"I've watched as a coach stood screaming inches from the face of a girl and the parents were in the stands and instead of being incensed they continued screaming at her when she came to them.

"All you need to do to see what sport gets wrong is flip that scenario indoors and make that coach a French teacher," he continued. "Your French teacher is inches away from your child's face and screaming because she can't conjugate a verb? Parents would stand by and allow that? No, they'd be incensed."
Everything that Mr. Bigelow and Mr. Amaechi stated can be found in hockey. Sure, the culture of the sport is changing, but culture change doesn't happen overnight. It's the image of a coach in a player's face while berating him or her for making a mistake that sticks out vividly in my memory. It happened a couple of times in my sports career, and it is entirely demoralizing as a kid.

Thankfully, my parents were extremely supportive so the ride home is where we'd talk over the mistakes I was making, but I distinctly remember my mom dressing down a coach for his treatment of me and my teammates. Needless to say, I watched a lot of that season from the bench as the coach took it out on me. However, there would be parents of some of my teammates, as Mr. Amaechi states, that would pick up the same demoralizing, deflating garbage once the game was over, and you could tell it would be a quiet ride home for that teammate as he absorbed the crap that spewed from his parents' faces.

Hockey, though, still has its problems despite some people speaking out about the insanity and working to change the culture. Today, the Vancouver Island Amateur Hockey Association was considering a ban for all fans from all games for this upcoming weekend due to a few parents who feel the need to verbally abuse officials. Doesn't that seem unfathomable? Imagine taking your son or daughter down to the rink and being told that you have to leave until the game is over. As the old adage goes, one bad apple ruins it for the rest, and I'd be quite annoyed if I were a parent with a child in the VIAHA.

The price of success shouldn't include stepping on others, abusing officials, and losing sight of the lessons learned playing team sports: fundamentals of the game, teamwork, and respect for teammates, opponents, coaches, fans, and officials. These are lessons that are vital to every sport if your child is going to succeed, and these lessons will lead to your child becoming a successful person. They won't guarantee an NCAA scholarship or an NHL contract, but character plays a large part in all of life's situations. Having excellent character, both for the parents and child, plays a major role in simply being successful in life.

Mr. Bigelow hits the nail on the head when he told Mr. Sullivan of parents in Massachusetts, "One of the hockey coaches up here told me there is no more cynical or delusional an adult than the parent of a 16-year-old kid who is pretty good but is not going to get a scholarship. The parents have spent all this money and they still have to pay for college."

Expecting a free ride because you're "pretty good" has never gotten anyone anything. There is always a price to pay for everything on this planet - talent will only get you so far in all situations. If a player who is exceptionally talented works hard as well, you generally hear about that player's stock "going up". That's also a reflection of the player's parents as work ethic is usually taught at home while the player's hockey talents are honed on the ice thanks to good coaching.

Exceptional players who have problem parents or an attitude problem themselves get weeded out of the process pretty quickly as reputations are unearthed by CIS, NCAA, and junior coaches. If we won't and can't stand for coaches who belittle their players, so do we think that coaches want that annoyance with a player? Coaches who are good coaches are teachers first, and no one wants a kid or a parent with an attitude disrupting things when they are trying to teach.

I want to commend Mr. Paul Sullivan on his fantastic look at the monetary and emotional tolls paid by parents, coaches, and kids in organized sports. I hope that you read through Mr. Sullivan's article and consider your actions and the actions of others when it comes to your kid's sporting endeavors. A good coach doesn't mind going 0-20 as long as his players are getting better an showing improvement game-in and game-out. A terrible coach is the feisty bench boss who goes 20-0, talks only about winning the next game, and screams and yells at everyone over mistakes made. He may teach his team some important fundamentals, but at what cost are the lessons being taught?

Even if you're kid is a whiz at Monopoly, it doesn't guarantee that he or she is getting a scholarship to study economics at university. Relax, teach important lessons, and have fun. That's the goal of any organized game, right?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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