From a young age, athletes are often brainwashed into believing that the sole purpose of playing the game is to win. Because of aggressive parents screaming vulgarities during sporting events, competitive club team coaches, or even the sports media, kids can forget that they play a sport because of the sheer simplicity of loving it. In an age where it’s common for coaches to get ejected, and for players to get suspended, the messages young athletes learn from their everyday game play quickly shift from encouraging to critical. Example A: When is the last time a coach told players to, “Just go out there and have fun!” instead of a harsher, “Win, and you won’t have to do as many sprints tomorrow”? The latter may be acceptable at a higher level, like high school, but it shouldn’t have a place for the youth hockey organizations where the majority of the players are still wearing their neighbors poorly fitting hand-me-down equipment, and too-big jerseys.
Granted, players may find motivation to up their game play when a Coach gets angry. But there is a time and a place for negativity, and a fine line between constructive criticism, and flat out spite from coaches, teammates, or even parents. While it is important for high school level competitive teams to be focused and productive, the younger players, aging anywhere from four to fourteen, should be able to enjoy their youth sports days without memories of shouting coaches and disappointed parents.
A few weeks ago, in a pre-season hockey game, my team played another that was down the majority of its players. While we had three solid lines, our opponent had a single sub. Midway through the second period, they requested that some of our players don a darker jersey, and play for them for the next twenty minutes. I was selected as one of the players to switch benches for the last period, and the resulting lesson was eye opening.
Suddenly, I was skating with players whom I had just been checking into the boards, and chirping at. I was stopping shots from my own teammates, and then helping to score on my goalie—all because I had switched my jersey color. I was skating harder, breathing heavier, and putting in an all around greater effort (which resulted in some comments from my coach after, but that’s an entirely different life lesson). I was now on the smaller team, and every other shift, I was on the ice.
The experience of playing with my opponents made the game increasingly more enjoyable, because all of a sudden, it was about having fun. I had changed teams, an event that never happens in sports, and so the legitimacy of the game was much lower than its normal intensity. I was playing hockey because I wanted to be playing hockey, not because I knew that I had to skate more before the dreaded week of tryouts. The game reminded me of pond hockey pickup, summer street hockey, and it called to mind all of the reasons why I stick with hockey despite it’s five AM practices, and two hour car rides to dumpy rinks in Saugus or Springfield or Shrewsbury. I enjoy the sport, the rush of my skates against the ice, and the feeling of sinking a puck (top shelf, left corner, off the crossbar) into the back of the net.
It was nice to have a reminder that there’s more to hockey than angry coaches, and sprints that make your legs fall off. It’s a game that I love, and a game that you truly have to love in order to participate in it. On that rainy Sunday evening when I switched my jersey color halfway through the second period, I learned that kids are brainwashed into believing things that simply aren’t true. Yes, the goal of the game may be to win, but the purpose of it is so much more.