June 17, 2012

The Hockey Mom: Tryouts turn team players into individuals

By April Bowling

There may be no “I” in “team,” but there sure is one in “evaluation.” This reality hit me while we were watching my son, Sam, at tryouts recently. 

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.

I use the term “tryout” loosely, because in our league, there is an order to Mites that goes something like Mite I (learn-to-skate), Mite I Travel (you learned to skate last year, but not all that well), Mite 2 (now you only fall down 20 percent of the times you try to stop), and Mite 1 (you are either a phenom or you are aging out to Squirts next year and there aren’t enough phenoms to fill the team).

Thanks to his parents’ cluelessness, Sam started his hockey career in December 2010, halfway through the season. See, we thought you played hockey in winter. So I started investigating options in November, and found out that the season already was two months deep. Oops.

Sam was game, though, and jumped in at age 5 to Mite I. He loved it. He also was a terrible skater. Not as awful as when he’d briefly tried the sport at age 4 and completely rejected it, but pretty close. Sam is a really big kid and does not have an outsized sense of balance to match. But he learns quickly, he’s smart and understands the game, and he is the ultimate team player so he passes at most of the right moments and enjoys the defensive end of hockey. So it worked out.

At the beginning of last season, he was briefly put in Mite 2. It was an honest mistake … his skating had improved a lot, and he looked a lot more like an 8-year-old than a 6-year-old. It took one game for all of us to agree that he (and the teams) would be way better off if he moved back to Mite I, so he went to the travel team. He handled it with aplomb and had a great season, really finding a niche with teammates he loved. Working closely with their coaches, they developed a team talent greater than the sum of their individual skills, with most players learning the value of position, timing and teamwork above and beyond the individual desire to score. As a result, they advanced to the championship game.

During that process, most of the kids on his team became integral not because of their skating and puck handling, but because they brought lesser-recognized talents that contributed to the team overall. A nose for the puck. The tenacity to dig it out of corners. A willingness to pass. Communication skills that helped development.

In other words, things that were not necessarily going to emerge during tryout drills, and it was clear how acutely some of the kids felt the difference in emphasis from team to individual at tryouts.

Sam held his own through all the drills, but at the end, he and another teammate got separated from the rest of their team and sent to scrimmage with some Mite I players. Ostensibly it was just to even the numbers, but to the two of them it was clear that they were going to be separated from their teammates forever. Talking to them after, neither one was worried that they were being demoted, only that they were being separated from their team. If they’d been sent up to Mite 1, they would have been upset. The point was in being with the team they’d developed, not in showcasing the skills they’d developed.

It was painful to see but also interesting to watch. I’m a triathlete. We don’t have teams unless it’s the Olympics. And even then it’s a team in name only. But Sam and his teammate wanted nothing more than to be with their comrades-in-arms, regardless of their standing.

Hockey is such a fluid, beautiful discipline. It has more strategy than basketball, without the constraining structure of football. Stars are less important than depth in hockey, so even many talented players remain attuned to the concept of hard work and teamwork. That combination has made me a huge fan of a game I didn’t grow up with, so it was strange to watch the ultimate team sport become so individual, if only for one day a year.

Sam left tryouts unhappy, despite giving his all. He’d been separated from his team and that felt wrong. His teammate had it just as bad … choking back tears in the changing room because there might not be the chance to stay with a talented older brother despite hard work and the reality that — at 5 years old — this child was an incredible skater and player for such a young age.

I initially was upset for both of them even though I was confident they’d both wind up on the right team for their level. The process just didn’t seem fair quite fair. But after just a few days, Sam already had come to terms with whatever tryouts brought. Talking to my husband about possibly being left back while most of his friends moved forward, he was decisive. “I can make new friends, Dad,” he said. “All that matters is that I’m on a team.”

Sam isn’t going to the NHL. He isn’t getting a scholarship to Boston College. He just loves to play. Maybe the best thing it teaches him is that life isn’t fair, but you go out and give it your all anyway. You learn that practice counts as much as games. And while you can’t always stick with your buddies, you can always stick to your guns and play as hard as you can.

As my friend said to me after watching Sam struggle with the experience, “You can’t always prepare the path for your child, but you can prepare your child for the path.”

Good advice for hockey; good advice for life.

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

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