Jeff Farris
Youth games are often dominated by the more aggressive players. This leaves some parents wondering why their child does not measure up. One simple answer is that they are just good parents who have raised a polite child.

Habits developed at home often carry on to the playing field. If kids are polite at home, they are likely to be polite on the playing field and avoid confrontations with teammates and opponents. Over time, kids will learn to differentiate their behavior while playing sports from their behavior while at the dinner table. This will lead to more aggressive play and improved performance.

Aggressive play is a behavior that comes from a competitive spirit fed by practice and a better understanding of the sport. Parents can encourage both competitiveness and good manners. It may take time for kids to fully understand the differences. Until then, parents should be patient and be proud of the fact that they are getting the big things right.

Jeff Farris
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.
Jeff Farris

In case parents get too focused on winning, a special report to the President from the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and Education helps put things in perspective:

"Our nation's young people are, in large measure, inactive, unfit, and increasingly overweight. In the long run, this physical inactivity threatens to reverse the decades-long progress we have made in reducing death from cardiovascular diseases and to devastate our national health care budget. In the short run, physical inactivity has contributed to an unprecedented epidemic of childhood obesity that is currently plaguing the United States. The percentage of young people who are overweight has doubled since 1980."

Youth sports have much to offer kids beyond the joys of winning a game. Though a child may lack certain skills in a particular sport, the fact that the child is playing and being physically active is something of which parents can always be proud.

Jeff Farris
Most opposing youth coaches have the same goals (with one exception) and problems. Unfortunately, they seldom have much time to help each other. Even if they did, many opposing coaches do not know each other well enough to admit a problem and solicit advice. So, the one group of people who can most help a coach are often the ones least frequently called.

One way for coaches to build these relationships is to introduce themselves to each other before a game and exchange business cards with contact information. This simple exchange of information lets coaches ask questions long after a game and learn how certain things demonstrated by a team were developed by the coach. It lets coaches communicate at their convenience away from the rush of after game distractions. While there may be certain coaches who view these tips as providing a proprietary advantage, the better ones will be glad to see some of their hard-learned techniques passed along.

In most leagues, introductions before a game are not a common practice. When first practiced, some coaches may find the opposing coach surprised. However, over time and as the benefits of improved communication become evident, it is a practice that can improve the game for everyone.

Jeff Farris
Hockey Canada and General Motors cooperated on the production of two documents to help parents and coaches get the most from youth sports. They are great reads and feature an intro from Bobby Orr...

"Hockey has always been about much more than simply winning or losing. As a young player, my parents never pressured me to play, but rather encouraged me to participate so that I might learn lessons about hard work, dedication and leadership. Of course, first and foremost, the game was always fun, and that is what all children should be able to experience from the moment they first lace up their skates to play a game of hockey."

Jeff Farris

"We have to go back to the basics with these guys."
Nate McMillan, Seattle Sonics Head Coach

"Herb (Brooks) called a timeout to settle us down and let us collect and get ourselves back to basics."
Mike Modano, speaking about Olympic Hockey Team USA

"Gentlemen, it's time to go back to basics. This is a football."
Vince Lombardi, former Green Bay Packers Head Coach 

All teams and players occasionally find themselves having problems. For many players and teams, it can be difficult to judge exactly where to start. However, over time, the best coaches and players have learned one important lesson - when problems arise go back and work on the fundamentals of the sport.The basics of each sport will vary and though it may be more exciting to learn new skills, working on and mastering existing skills are the keys to most player and team success. 

The emphasis on basics does not go away with age or skill level. Professional team drills are often the very same drills used by youth teams. Basic skills are the building blocks on which all other abilities are built. A breakdown in a basic skill means everything else suffers. When players want to be the best, they never stop practicing the basics.

Jeff Farris

Sports Esteem has put together three packages of certificates that can be used to recognize players and coaches.

 To download, click the appropriate package below:

Jeff Farris
When players know they are going to have to play their fair share of a game, there is little excuse for arriving at a game mentally or physically unprepared. A commitment by a coach to play players equally requires a commitment by players to try their hardest. When players do not fulfill their commitment, coaches are no longer obligated to fulfill their commitment. For players, an equal playing time system is sometimes better described as an equal opportunity system. Players can take advantage of these opportunities to help their team and their teammates by playing to the best of their abilities.
Jeff Farris
On most youth teams, there are players who are physically two or three years ahead of their teammates in size, speed or strength. These players often form a core of talent that coaches can use to their advantage to win games. Especially in youth travel and select teams, the temptation for many coaches is to use this talent more during a game to go for the win. While this method is appropriate at the highest level of athletic competition, it seldom has any place in youth sports. Here are ten reasons why equal playing time is a better strategy:
  1. Avoids contention between coaches and parents. Parents will not objectively judge their own child's abilities. No coach should expect objectivity from parents.
  2. Avoids contention among parents. The resentments that can build between coaches and parents can often build among parents for the same reasons. More than a few youth teams have had successful seasons poisoned by hard feelings arising out of a coach's game decisions.
  3. Avoids contention among players. If players feel that coaches have favorites, they may stop trying their hardest.
  4. Minimizes player fatigue. In tough physical games, coaches will lack skilled players if the top players are exhausted and lesser players have had limited game experience.
  5. Maximizes player development. Without access to playing time and special situations, players cannot learn.
  6. Simplifies coaching decisions. Coaches won't have to guess which players are most likely to play well in a given situation.
  7. Recognizes equal investments. Players and parents often make equal contributions away from the game in time and dollars and thus expect equal access to game situations.
  8. Improves team chemistry. When players feel everyone is treated fairly, they are more likely to focus on working together. When players feel they can succeed by making someone else look bad or themselves look better, they are learning the wrong lessons about team play.
  9. Wins mean more to everyone. When everyone contributes to a win, there are no lingering resentments that will interfere with the celebration.
  10. Better reflects coaching abilities. Winning games with kids who are physically more mature is more a success of drafting than coaching. Winning games by developing all the kids on a team is a better test of a coach's abilities.
In professional sports, players do not get equal playing time. So, when is it appropriate for youth sports to mimic this behavior? One test is when a team is not committed to individual players and rosters may be changed at anytime during a season. When teams exist for the team's sake and not the players', as is the case in professional and collegiate sports, then coaches are left with no other choice than to give more time to their best players. However, until that test is true, coaches should make sure their player times are equal.
Jeff Farris
At some point, youth sports become more about the team than about the players and spectators start including more than just team family members. As kids reach adulthood, an increased focus on team performance separates recreational players from the truly motivated ones. These players then feed the needs of competitive high school, college and professional programs. Until then, youth sports are more about developing motivation and talent than judging them. Parents facilitate their child's participation to help make their child better in life and to provide a chance at sports participation past puberty. 

The selection of a good coach is a key way parents can help their child maximize his or her development as a person and a player. Before a season begins, it may be difficult to judge the technical skills of a coach. However, one quick test parents may use to size up a coach is to learn the coach's philosophy on equal playing time. 

Equal playing time is hard for coaches to implement. It forces them to put more effort into practices and player preparation. It also tests their priorities. If a coach's priority is to win above developing players then parents should look elsewhere to give their child the best chances of playing later on. Equal playing time should be one of a coach's core beliefs and not easily discarded in the last minutes of a championship game. 

Teams who practice equal playing time typically have more fun during a season since there are less conflicts over playing time between coaches and parents and among parents themselves. With everyone often making equal time and financial contributions, unequal playing time can quickly build resentments since parents cannot be an objective judge of their own child's talent. 

When a child reaches the advanced levels of athletic play, parents will stop being able to demand equal playing time. However, isn't reaching these levels one of the goals and a key reason why parents should demand it while they can?