We need to remember why kids play sports.
Kids should never lose the love of the game. We don’t want to see kids hanging up their skates at a young age because they’ve lost the passion to play.
That’s the message that Paul Dennis is trying to get across.
Dennis is a long time sport psychologist consultant with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Hockey Canada and the Canadian Hockey League. He is currently a professor lecturing in sports psychology at York University, where he is also the high performance coach to the Lion’s varsity teams.
Athletes are motivated internally. The desire to see their success on the ice and play for the love of the sport keeps them going. Deemphasizing external motivation lowers burnout rates and keeps kids engaged.
“You’re not playing for the rewards, you’re not doing it for the trophies, you’re not doing it for the money. You’re doing it because you love the game,” said Dennis. “As long as we can emphasize that concept, then the kids are more likely to embrace it and continue to play.”
Putting external rewards on the sport can lead to lost motivation. Instead of playing hockey to be physically active, it’s now about the prize a player gets for scoring a goal. Not reaching set objectives can lead to disappointment instead of staying focused internally.
“It’s not healthy for young children to have an outcome focused entirely on winning. It creates a lot of stress and anxiety.”
Dennis says that young children aren’t prepared to handle the pressures of winning. They think about the consequences of a mistake instead of focusing on being the best they can be. Players will be more relaxed when not worrying about scoring goals which will lead to higher chance of success.
A player’s ability to manage stress levels is one of the changing factors in minor hockey. The aspect of sport psychology is becoming more involved in athletics but it does not mean that an athlete is mentally weak. It’s the same reason that nutritionists and sleep experts are hired by professional teams – they know the best practices to get the best performances.
“I think the expectations now are all about outcome. We all want to win. Winning is so important, quite often you don’t have to talk about it because you just feel good about winning. But now the outcomes go beyond winning. The outcomes are going – now what’s my next step up the ladder of progression? Am I getting there quickly enough?
“Young athletes are being consumed with expectations more so than they used to be. The irony is, the more you place on expectations, the more pressure, the more self-doubt, the lack of confidence, and you regress and don’t achieve the goals that you hoped to. The most unfortunate thing is that young boys and girls quit the game too early because of these expectations.”
It’s vital not to limit focus to the best players on the team that the rest are forgotten. What happens to them? There are far more losers than winners at the end of the year. Does that mean they haven’t had a successful season? Adapting to change in expectations is important. Unless the opportunity and framework is set up for children to succeed, they will fall by the way side.
“It’s not about progression. Teaching and development are the most important priorities.”
One of the most overused words in sports according to Dennis is ‘potential’. Coaches and parents have picked up on the buzzword, often using it to describe untapped talent or skill that has yet to reach the surface.
In his mind, it’s something that shouldn’t even be considered when speaking about an athlete.
“We have no clue what an individual’s potential is and yet decisions are often made on young athletes. ‘He or she has limited potential, therefore we’ll let them go and we’ll focus all of our attention on the most skillful at the time and give them all the extra coaching and all the extra seminars on physiology and nutrition and strength and conditioning and hopefully their potential will develop.’”
Finding the right fit for a player to succeed could require playing in a different ranking. Dennis admits to moving his own son from AAA to AA for a few years and says the change in his demeanour and play on the ice was ‘night and day’. His son ended up with an NCAA scholarship finishing his career as captain at University of Miami-Ohio. His ‘potential’ grew into himself in the proper environment.
“I don’t think that would have happened if we kept him in AAA.”
Parents can’t lose sight of why children play the game. They shouldn’t be afraid to expose their kid to disappointment and should avoid making excuses for why they aren’t being successful. Children need to become independent thinkers and build mental toughness on their own.
“It’s not a demotion. What happens is, as parents we forget why our children play the game. We need to listen to why they play the game. The number one reason, and the research supports this, is they have fun, learn new skills, and are amongst friends.”