Friday, August 7, 2009

The Coaching Conundrum, Part II

Boston, nice!

I have this theory that patience, like a fossil fuel, is a finite resource. You can usually find more, if you dig deep enough, but sometimes certain wells run dry. And I'm beginning to wonder if my "coaching" reserves are running dangerously low.

This past week, I spent more than 12 hours inside a hockey rink (a nice respite from the summer sun), coaching young goaltenders the tricks of the trade. I've been working with Bertagna Goaltending for the better part of eight years now, and have branched out to help with Brian Daccord's Stop It Goaltending, as well as a few private coaching gigs. I started coaching, in part, to repay a debt to a game I truly love. I stuck with it because I found I really enjoy working with kids, for the most part. It was a classic example of "give something back, get something back." Plus, I genuinely look forward to the camaraderie of the other coaches; the locker room banter before and after our camp sessions is a real, if somewhat ribald, treat (especially for someone like me who works from home).

Last week, however, was a turning point of sorts. For the first time, I felt the majority of the kids were just going through the motions. Now, I understand there can be dozens of reasons why a kid might seem disinterested, but I was struck the sheer number of youngsters who didn't want to be there. That idea is so foreign to me, I have trouble getting my head around it. When I discovered hockey, I fell head over heels for the sport. Street hockey, floor hockey, roller hockey, ice hockey ... it was all good, and I couldn't get enough of it. But growing up in New Jersey in the late 1960s and early '70s, there was precious little opportunity to play organized ice hockey. We grabbed any ice we could find, any time. That meant schlepping across town to an outdoor rink, bags of gear slung over our shoulders, praying that the water had frozen overnight. Trips to our grandparents in New Hampshire were always special, but even more so in winter, when the promise of natural ice was more predictable. Once we got into high school, Mom signed us up for a league, but there weren't any instructional camps (or none that I knew of, anyway).

So my brothers and I and our friends got by with whatever ice Mother Nature (and our prayers) provided, or we played on the streets or in our basement. The point is, I would have given anything to attend a camp, and to have real instruction. It just wasn't in the cards, and I don't think any of us suffered egregiously as a result. However, it is one of the reasons that I've made a commitment to coaching, despite my own shortcomings.

I'm not a natural teacher (I don't think), but I've got a lot of passion for the game, and I try my best to convey that. It's common for me to lose my voice by the end of the second session of a five-day camp. My only stipulation is that the kids bring a certain level of passion of their own to the rink. That emotional investment is key. I remember reading once that the reason hockey is such a special sport is because it's hard. It builds character. The sport means early wake-up calls, late nights, cold feet and cold hands and cold faces (particularly if you play outdoors). Plus, you've really got to work at it to be any good. The flip side is that the game doubly rewards the effort put into it. Simply, it's the best game on earth, combining skill and speed and finesse and raw power unlike any other.

So here's why I nearly lost it during camp last week. In our younger session, we had a bunch of kids who appeared convinced that just because their folks had plunked down some serious coin to outfit them, they should be able to play. They dogged it through warm-ups, and then they dogged it through the drills. All week long. I was absolutely stunned. We typically get one or two kids that might fit that description, but never as many as this past session. And my patience, I'm afraid, suffered some weird inverse phenomenon. The less the kids tried, the less patience I had. Finally, afraid that I might really offend somebody, I simply stopped trying to coach the malcontents, and focused instead on the kids who really wanted to be there. Those kids - the go-getters - always make the effort worthwhile. The others should do their parents, and their parents' bank accounts, a favor, and quit. They should just waddle back home to their overstuffed couches and their X-Boxes and PlayStations. Hockey has no patience for anyone who wants accolades handed to them just because they show up. And neither do I.