The score was tied as the final seconds of regulation ticked off. My daughter Alex raced toward me, the puck glued to her stick. She flicked her wrist. The puck hurtled toward me so fast I could hear the buzz of its wake. I reached to my left to block it, and …
“Dinner,” my wife called out.
I grabbed the puck from the fireplace (I missed), high-fived the kids, and told them to wash up before their mom put me in the penalty box.
I’ve got four hockey players living at home, so family room pickup games are common. It’s not quite the same as getting out there on the ice, but it’s a ton of fun. Before we moved to Vancouver last year, none of my kids had ever picked up a hockey stick, let alone stepped into a rink, but now they’re all fanatics.
It all started when my oldest son, Jack, came home from school one day and asked if he could join a local team. Not to be outdone by her big brother, Catherine insisted on playing too. Soon, Charlie and Alex were both itching to get on the ice themselves. Over the past year, the four of them have completely immersed themselves in the game. I’m amazed at how quickly they’re picking it up.
This is no thanks to me. If there’s anywhere to go to learn hockey, it’s Canada. The first organized indoor hockey game was held in Montreal back in 1875, and ever since, Canada has pretty much dominated the sport. Players from around the world come here to watch the masters at work, learn from them, and take those skills back home.
Make no mistake: Good coaching is everything. I recently read about how Finland built their world-class hockey team from the ground up. For such a small country, they’ve been able to consistently grow their program and turn out incredible players over the years, especially superstar goalies. How? They invest in their young players—all of them. Coaches give players the attention and encouragement they need to foster their love of the game early on. The same is true with my kids’ hockey league.
Sadly, this is what’s missing from many youth sports in America today. Kids aren’t taught a love for the game. Many coaches focus only on technique and tactics—basically, how to win.
If you don’t believe me, find a top soccer club in your area and go watch some training. You’ll see kids as young as four and five being put through drills with military precision. It’s high pressure and highly competitive. Coaches tell them that if they don’t commit to year-round training—sorry, no basketball or lacrosse or field hockey for you—they’ll never be good enough.
Worse, youth sports organizations nationally rank teams as young as U10—these are nine-year-olds—which increases the pressure to win at all costs. Because coaches aren’t encouraged to (or rewarded for) developing players, they give up on kids who are physically maturing more slowly.
Listen, I love discipline. I love challenging kids and making them work hard. But I also understand that coaching—like leading and parenting—is more about lighting the fire within than it is about dropping bombs with reckless abandon.
Parents are complicit in our youth sports problem too. Experts tell me that the most precarious time for a kid’s sporting career are car rides home after practices and games—that’s when parents rip little Johnny to shreds for making a bad pass or not being aggressive enough.
So, while I’ll play with my kids in the family room, I don’t attend their practices. They need to focus on their coaches, on building relationships with teammates, and having fun—that’s how love for the game develops. With me in the stands, they might get distracted or feel pressured to be perfect.
Yes, my wife and I attend every game, but we do our best to cheer and not judge—or tell them what to do. After the game, on the car ride home, I’ll ask my kids how they thought they played. I’ll encourage them to think about what they learned. But I never criticize them.
In fact, I take the advice of a long-time coach I once met. He said the best thing you can say to a kid after any game is this: “I really enjoy watching you play.” Let the coaching to the coaches.
That’s when youth sports really starts to work its magic. As my kids have gotten more involved in hockey, they’ve not just become better players. They’ve become better people. Hockey has helped them develop four skills that I think are critical not just in sports, but in life and work as well.
Skill #1: Treat Adversity Like an Obstacle, Not a Roadblock
When it comes to thick skin, I’m not sure anyone beats hockey players. Not only do they play in the bitter cold—seriously, sit in the stands and watch your kids play for an hour and try not to shiver—but they take a pretty serious beating.
My kids get checked and knocked on their asses every day. As a parent, it’s not easy to watch. But when I see them get back up, brush it off, and go back to playing, I couldn’t be prouder. Hockey builds grit.
Skill #2: Celebrate Your Teammates’ Success as Your Own
To quote YouTube sensation Kid President: “Be somebody who makes everybody feel like a somebody.”
At their core, youth sports are about teamwork and camaraderie. In my kids’ league, they often play against friends, and one day they might even play against each other. And, while they always strive to win, they are also the first to congratulate their friends when they score a goal or make a great block.
They root for every team member, and at the end of every match they line up and congratulate the other team on a hard-fought game.
Skill #3: Be a Good Sport and Still Kick Ass
Hockey is a balancing act—literally. It can be hard to watch the dozens of slips, falls, and crashes every game. But the same thing happens after every fall: Kids help their teammates and opponents stand back up. It’s a credit to the coaches, who’ve taught these kids that sportsmanship is about beating the opponent—not hurting them.
I see this at Spartan races all the time. When you start racing, your one goal is to finish. By the end, your goal is foreveryone to finish. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen strangers helping a fellow racer out of the mud, over a wall, or across a difficult obstacle. Spartans cheer one another on because they want everyone to succeed.
Skill #4: Win or Lose, They Win
My kids have yet to score a goal. Their teams have yet to win a game. But they can’t wait to go to practice. And when there’s no team practice, a family room pickup game inevitably breaks out. Even when they lose 6-0, they walk off the ice beaming.
Part of this is the love of the sport that their coaches have cultivated. The other part is my kids’ natural optimism. They know that if they keep putting in the work, if they show up and play hard, they’ll get there.
Plus, they’ve only just started. As their coaches tell them, they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them to shoot, score, and win.