HockeyCat has some concerns about 10 and under Travel programs. Most of these programs apply the same principles to 10 and under boys and girls as they do for the 11 and older players, including off-ice training, extra skating and more and more structure. There is also a greater focus on winning.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to win, but that ignores some basic facts about the 10 and under players. They are usually not as emotionally mature as the older players. They are also not as physically mature as the older players. There just is not enough difference in talent to justify the existence of competitive teams bent on playing in and winning 4 Tournaments every month for 7 months out of a year.
NCAA College teams may play about 50 games in a season (including playoffs). European professional teams play about the same. Some of travel teams play that many or more with 10 or even 8 year olds. By the time a child is 11, he or she will very likely begin to hate hockey and all of the travel.
These programs also tend to emphasize a few players and limit the other players to fewer minutes per game. So that extra playing time against better competition doesn't really occur. Your little player may get more practice, but their may be other, less expensive ways to get that than 2 or 3 intense practices every week and sitting on the bench for 30 minutes out of a 36 minute game.
This is where things get difficult for parents. If your child is a 3rd line player on a "good" travel team, is that player any better off than taking a regular shift or even being the star of a House League team?
As a parent, you may see the benefit of extra structured practices, but does your child?
Some kids are very motivated from day one. They want to be a hockey (substitute any sport here) player. They will go out and shoot pucks for hours or do off-ice training on their own. This is very rare in a 10 and under player and will give them a definite advantage over other players their age.
Of course, by the time they are 12 and especially by 13 they are not alone. Players will be there for their own reasons, not because their parents put them there. By the time these kids are in Middle School, they provide their own drive to succeed.
It is quite likely that any advantage gained by extra practice as a Mite or Squirt will go by the boards. It may be that your little hockey player decides to hang up the skates and become a lacrosse player.
Before you get too upset, realize that they will apply that same drive and motivation to their new sport and will very likely become a star in it.
The bottom line is that while you can do everything from extra coaching to travel squads. It is your child's motivation that will drive them to succeed. If they don't want to do it, all of the training in the world will not help.
The Winning Team
This brings us back to the purpose of these Travel teams. There is just way too much focus on winning over the course of a season to be healthy for anybody.
HockeyCat sees the value of winning. If you aren't playing to win every shift and every battle, something else may be a better choice for you. This is true for House and Recreational players. However, these are personal goals for each player. Team success will come if every player does this.
The problem is not wanting to win, but measuring player development by wins. If the Detroit Red Wings had measured things that way with a young player named Steve Yzerman, would they have won all of those Stanley Cups with Stevie Y as their Captain?
What HockeyCat finds fascinating is that winning has become a measure of success for any youth program. Pro teams don't do this. Sure you will hear them pay lip service to it, but if they think they have the nucleus of a good team, like the Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche or the Tampa Bay Lightning. They will suffer a few losing seasons to allow their prospects to develop.
Why is that different in youth hockey? Why is it a matter of urgency that we put out winning programs every year?
The Right Way
At the 10 and under level, player development is paramount. If you look at teams that play all of their kids in all situations, you will see that these kids learn more and play better. As a 10 year old, you would much rather play and lose than not play and win. These kids will also be more likely to take on larger roles with their teams as they get older and more mature.
You will find these players love of the game continues into Peewee and Bantam. They may not be the next Sidney Crosby, but a solid program doesn't create talent. It allows it to flourish. At higher levels, having one good player isn't enough.
When coaches punish players for creativity, the result is a boring game and a player who reaches Bantam having failed to learn how to do anything special. Ironically, this lack of creativity will be noted and reduce their opportunities to play at higher levels. 3rd line centers are a dime a dozen at college programs. Should we really sit an 10 year old who tries something and fails, if they made an effort? Should we sit a pro?
As much as we would like to believe that we can teach kids to do the "right" things, success and talent cannot be bottled or coached.
A good 10 and under program will encourage creativity, correct mistakes in a positive manner and teach basic skills and concepts. It will also allow for your star defenseman to try an end to end rush now and then. Or a forward to hang on to the puck too long and lose it. When they are older, these selfish players will have taught them how to make an unselfish play under higher pressure.
As adults, we expect our bosses to allow us a certain amount of mistakes. Should we really expect our kids to be perfect every time they step on the ice?
Hockey is a game of mistakes.
The House Select Option
While some view this as a half-measure, it may be the best course for 10 and under players. It is good for more talented players to get a chance to play with and against others of a similar skill level.
This type of competition and camaraderie is fun for the player and the parent. For a good player on a developing team, it is an opportunity to make a pass and have it result in a goal. Or make a mistake and have support. It will also help them to face players of better skill, so they can learn what they need to work on.
These programs are structured so that players can continue to play with their regular teams and still participate in some extra training at least twice a month. To some this is not enough, but for the 10 and under crowd this is plenty.
Picking the Right Program
Many people will judge parents for choosing this or that program for their child. HockeyCat doesn't. Your child may be gifted, motivated and driven or need the extra difficulty of playing against tougher competition.
Different things are important at different levels. Many parents were not athletes as kids or have been out of it for a long time. With so many confusing choices, it is almost impossible not to be overwhelmed.
When choosing a program you need to ask yourself the following questions:
What are my goals for my child?
What are his goals?
Can I afford it?
Do I like the coaches?
Do I like the organization's philosophy?
Does the organization reflect my values?
HockeyCat's Paw Print
Travel Hockey does not have to be a bad thing. Travel Hockey at higher levels is a good thing as kids begin to differentiate themselves and decide they want to be a hockey player.
At the lower levels, a little extra training is not bad, but make sure that the programs at this level focus on developing all of the players and not just the stars.
Youth athletics is supposed to be about success as a team and growth of the individual. Unfortunately, the focus on winning at Mite and Squirt levels puts the focus on result of winning that season. Part of what is taught is how to win and lose gracefully.
Let's give our kids the same opportunity to develop that the Detroit Red Wings gave Steve Yzerman. The results will be measured in that child growing into a young man or woman who still loves the game of hockey and becomes a leader on and off the ice.