October 15, 2012

The Hockey Mom: Private lessons are a powerful tool

By April Bowling

Summer ended this morning with a 6:30 a.m. practice at the coldest rink in the league. Welcome back to hockey! 

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.

In case you are wondering, I stuck to my guns and kept the gear tucked away until the end of August. At which time we got an email verifying what we had suspected since tryouts — Sam was one of the only kids on his team last season not to make Mite 1.

He’s not a kid to go ballistic. He never said it wasn’t fair. But when I delivered the news, he immediately responded with his eyes locked on the floor. “It’s because I’m not a good skater and I can’t stop.” He didn’t wait to be comforted or reassured. He just turned on his heels and marched upstairs.

For two seasons now, Sam has used savvy — born of the fear of humiliation and the desire to keep up with his teammates — to try to avoid revealing the fact that he can’t really stop. He’s made it through countless practices, drills, camps and clinics without solid command of one of the most basic skills of hockey. He gets found out and taken aside every once in a while by a coach. They demonstrate, encourage, and sometimes it even seems like he gets it. Then he rejoins the line and goes right back to his skate dragging, pirouetting, wavering stops. Sometimes he just falls and springs back up because it’s the fastest way to change direction.

He wasn’t fooling his coaches, and he rightfully was left back so he could spend more time working on his skills and less time trying to keep up and save face. But as much as he understood he was pretty bummed.

Crap. Great summer, but it looked like fall might pay the price. Fortunately, I had a backup plan. Sam’s team had held a clinic the previous year at a North Shore training facility. That’s where I had met Matt Deschamps, a former pro defenseman who taught there and had a knack for communicating with kids and a seemingly never-ending set of teaching tricks in his back pocket. Patience is not my virtue, but he seems to ooze the stuff, as do most good teachers.

I called up and asked to schedule two private lessons. After the sticker shock faded (more on that later), we pulled the gear out of storage, made sure everything fit (the skates barely did!) and headed for the rink. When we showed up, Matt asked what Sam wanted to work on and I told him our big focus was on stopping but to just take a look and address what he thought needed the most work over the course of the two sessions. That being said, I was pretty sure that it would take all 120 minutes to overcome two years of shaky stopping.

A few games, some silly ice dancing and a few serious drills later, Sam was stopping on a dime. After 30 minutes, he was able to sprint over and spray ice on his coach without knocking him down. I can’t skate worth a dang, so I’ve secretly always wondered how you do that myself. After watching the breakdown, I think both Sam and I finally figured out it’s not something you suddenly just do, it’s really something you can take apart and learn step-by-step.

At the conclusion of the second lesson, Sam was a markedly better skater. He’s a hardworking kid and it was nice to see his perseverance rewarded and his confidence improved. I had been worried that it wouldn’t be fun without a bunch of buddies, but in truth, I think the one-on-one format encouraged him to let his guard down and not worry about looking silly or messing up.

Camps and clinics are really important for skills development as they allow for more focus and individual attention than regular practices. But I realized that for some kids there are some big upsides to passing up the clinics and taking a private or semi-private approach instead.

The first of those advantages is allowing a coach to focus on the individual child’s learning style, strengths and weaknesses. The drill that connects perfectly for one kid makes zero kinesthetic impact on another. The explanation that makes perfect sense to one child might as well be Greek to another. By giving a coach the environment to focus solely on one or two children, you are giving them the opportunity to really get to know your child and make deep inroads and improvements.

It’s also freeing not having to worry about embarrassment trying a new skill or not having the opportunity to compare how fast you are learning that skill compared to your buddies. I know firsthand from coaching cyclists and swimmers of all ages that inhibition is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to proper skill acquisition — we like to do things the way we are used to so we don’t look like fools trying something new and doing it wrong.

Finally, an advantage near and dear to my heart — time. In two hours, at the end of summer, I believe that Sammy improved as much as he could have reasonably expected to from a weeklong camp. So we got a summer of sailing and more skating confidence. What parent can’t appreciate that?

Which brings me back to the big drawback of private lessons and the reason that most parents don’t do them — cost. I won’t lie … that part stinks! However, the economics made more sense than I originally thought. Most of the camps and clinics we were looking at in the beginning of the summer were in the neighborhood of $250-$400 depending on the structure, size and length of the program. The total for the two privates was about $200. For Sam, based on his personality and the reasons I cited above, I think he improved as much or more from those two lessons than he likely was to do at another camp. So we actually saved money. I also think that the hourlong lessons were a bit of overkill and that we could have gotten as much out of three half-hour lessons, and saved about $50 in the process.

My point is that while private lessons aren’t the answer for everyone, they are something that time-strapped parents should consider when trying to help build their hockey player’s skills. Whether you’re trying to keep your summer slate clean or facing down a full fall schedule with a struggling skater, it’s an underused but potentially powerful tool for parents and players alike.

So this morning, as summer ended and hockey season began, Sam was steady on his feet and ready to make the most of a new year of ice time. And as glad as I was to take the summer off from being a hockey mom, I found myself pretty psyched to be back on the bleachers.

Here’s to a great new year for all our hockey kids!

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal

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