A lack of fun in youth sports is not just hard on kids, it also robs high school, college and professional sports of some of its best talent. Kent Holmes, as Executive Director of Hockey Operations for the Dallas Jr. Stars, sees the problems first hand and has a plan to address them. His approach not only can make youth hockey better but also has lessons for other sports as well.
Does Playing Sports Mean No Time to Play?
Organized sports give millions of kids who otherwise would lack access to safe facilities and good instruction the opportunity to play sports. With numbers exceeding 40 million kids1, organized sports have boomed with increased urbanization and growing concerns about safety.
The down side of organized sports is that they seldom provide the opportunity for kids to just play without the associated pressures of stats, coaches and parents. Playing ice hockey in the Southern United States provides a great challenge. A lack of seasonal ice leaves rinks as the only place to play. But, the growth of organized teams and of other activities leaves little free ice time for just having fun. This lack of fun playing time is being blamed by some for a loss of skills at the national level. In the NHL, almost 1/3 of the top slots are filled with European players who get a chance to build their creativity and skills playing and practicing in a less winning-focused environment. A 12 part series in the Toronto Globe explored this European trend and reached some alarming conclusions.
Instead of scoring goals, children are instructed to play defensively and to intimidate. At the age of 13, the dropout rate skyrockets. "They're robots," said Marty Williamson, who coaches a Tier 2 junior team in Milton, Ont. "The creativity isn't in the game and maybe the fun isn't there, either."
Dallas Jr. Stars Innovative Approach
There are typically three youth hockey seasons. A long Fall season runs September through March and two shorter Spring and Summer seasons run May through June and July through August respectively. In the past, the Dallas Jr. Stars have run abbreviated versions of the Fall season for their Spring and Summer programs. However this spring, the Dallas Jr. Stars are going to interject some "unorganization" into the process to create more fun for kids while at the same time creating more competitive players for the Dallas metroplex's growing demand for young hockey talent.This Spring season, the Dallas Jr. Stars will offer a "pond hockey" program instead of their typical coach led practices and games. Participants in the pond hockey program will get 15 sessions at scheduled times and places. Each session will have approximately 30 kids who will then organize into two teams just before game time. A reversible jersey makes it easy to assign teams at the last minute. Then for the next 60 minutes, the kids will just play with line changes facilitated by a regular buzzer and play supervised by two paid monitors who make sure play is safe and non-stop. There will be no assigned positions. Upbeat music will keep the energy level high. No body checking will be allowed at any age level.
"When was the last time a kid was able to just play hockey without an instructor or a coach?" asks Kent Holmes. "With a lack of backyard ponds, some kids can go years without that opportunity. The pond hockey format is designed to encourage kids to just play. It forces kids to use their own creativity and communication skills. If they don't get open, call for the puck or work with their teammates, then they won't get the puck. It is not unusual to see a very high scoring game with lots of shots by all players."
For parents who focus on winning today's game, the pond hockey format could be a tough sell. Kent's advice for all parents is to "be positive and encourage your child to get out of their comfort zone. If your kid plays offense, encourage defense. Encourage experimentation and, most of all, encourage fun. Help your child get excited all over again about playing. The more kids enjoy the sport and learn to use their creativity, the better they will be in a regular season format."
Though pond hockey does not answer all the challenges facing youth sports today, the fact that someone is trying to restructure a program to deal with the bigger challenges is a step in the right direction. In the long run, fun is not only a winning strategy for kids, it is also a winning strategy for leagues and sports at a national level.