The New Normal in Youth Sports

What is the new normal of youth sports. Aa better word may be Common instead of normal.Below is a bit of a editorial, . At times it seems like Ozzy’s Crazy Train. Its a reflection on how we have moved into a part overbearing, part helicopter, part agent, part cheerleader or part technical analyst . It is not to be negative but more intuitive to help some push back and see what is of value for the experience. What input or energy is proactive to make the youth sport experience a positive piece of growing up. What is of worth for the child , parent, siblings and family as a whole? The greatest part of sport is the personalities, life experiences and most of all if you are fortunate, small ,select group of close relationships that are the greatest treasure. 

For sure there have been many more good things that have come out of Youth Sports for our family than negative but it’s been quite a experience. So many interesting people that at times seem so friendly but quick to change based on circumstance. It takes only trial to separate the true friends that will be there at all times. The true relationships and friends are the best treasures. You’ll meet many, many friendly people. A great thing about youth sports is the change , the competitiveness, sometimes jealousy, the joy, the disappointment all wrapped in a meal for the child and parents to grow. Those who get the big picture of ” it’s not about me” or ” it’s not just about my child” enjoy the experiences even more. And those who get the Empty Box Analogy of success get so much from the experience.
To start we have 5 boys. All healthy ,active ,into mountain biking, baseball , lacrosse, motocross, triathlons and lastly ice hockey ,which consumes quite a bit of resources . Resources meaning both time and money. Money and be earned back, time never.

The Empty Box
I have always used the empty box analogy to success. If you put in more than take out the box will be full. This analogy transcends training, competing, relationships and life. If you take out more than put in the box will remain empty. When you teach your child or coach a team, getting them to buy into that makes all the difference. So goes with your success and experience in youth sports. You have those families that put in more. You have those athletes that put in more. Most positive comments, hardest worker , likable to teammates are their traits. That child is a blessing to coach and awesome to be around. They make others better by their presence. They don’t have to be a star but most work their way to the top via buying into the Empty Box approach .

Just us and the ball.
I remember my neighbor Coach Bob Burke in the late 70s and 80s who got me interested in Ice hockey at a very late age. In his very deep booming Boston accent would call me Maarc! He would give me a ride to practice with 2 of his sons. He was old school,Tough, disciplined. Wasn’t a parent favorite by many but that’s a key. It’s not, 1st about the parent, though a good relationship with the parents separates the better coaches. There were great life lessons in those years I had Coach Bob.
When I was just starting a close friend who was very good and just happen his family owned one of the few rinks at the time in Pittsburgh. My mom ,who would sacrifice much to foster her sons dreams, drove me out to the rink during my 7th grade Summer at 8am. There Dave and I would skate all day grabbing an old donut or soft pretzel from snack bar then continue to play. On occasion other kids would join us but it was consistently just us 2. Mom or my grandpa would pick me up at 3pm. That’s where I learned and taught myself. I advanced well enough to play through High School, then a year of Juniors before finishing playing at Ohio University. What great people and memories the sport gave me. What great examples of how hard work transcends into results. 
The theme was,If you wanted to get better you would throw ball with a friend or against a wall, run or bike everywhere or shoot pucks against the garage. Yes on occasion parents would sacrifice time to instruct or practice but it was us kids honing and sharpening our skills as athletes. That was the Normal and great athletes rose from that.
The main advice was, do your best , listen to Coach, be a hard worker and have fun.
That was Normal. That was what most parents advised there children . Whether they even knew the difference between a cross check or a forecheck a massive common theme was work hard.
Working hard , having fun then going home and playing with friends or doing homework. That was our normal.

Putting more into the empty box than taking out. It was a Team mentality. If you take out more than you put in, the box will remain empty. But if you put more into the team, into you making others better by your hard work and example the box of success will fill. There was a respect of giving for the greater good of the team. There was a winner and a loser. If you wanted to win the Team had to work as a better unit, grow as a team. There was usually a top talent and bottom. Coach knew it, most of parents saw it and most accepted it. But the team was above all .

Change of Direction.
One uncommon missing theme of today’s youth sports is the true support for the Team. Putting in more than taking out isn’t as respected or practiced. There is a selfishness that permeates more in today’s sports. It it may be one of the few things that turn people away. The best youth sports programs creates good athletes and foster the lessons of successful people.
Ponder, Is your child making others better by their presence? Doesn’t take the star athlete to do it. There are those on the field , rink, track or pool who get it. They make others better because they give more to the team than take out. They cheer, help, encourage , support, or do what ever it takes for the advancement of the Team. Coaches love these athletes and it isn’t always the star. I encourage my children and athletes to be that light that makes a difference. Doesn’t have to be boisterous. There are quiet leaders and shine for the betterment of the Team which is also the betterment of themselves.

Fast forward through College graduation living in 5 different cities, a 10+ year career as a Professional Triathlete with Team USA , starting a online fitness Co and Flying 777 all over the world, brings me back to where I began, Youth Sports.
The innocents of youth sports I remembered was a motivator to get my kids involved. A memory of great times and relationships built. A memory of good coaches and bad coaches and my parents unwavering theme of you can only control yourself. Adversity is a blessing and those who have it thrust upon them are the better for it. Two roads diverge and I took the one less traveled. Thorns ,rain and rocks at times but choosing the path less traveled made all the difference. Thanks Robert Frost…
Wanting your child to experience sports and the vast life lessons that come along was a easy decision to get our boys involved .

Crazy Train of Skills
All our boys started to skate soon after walking and have always been at the top of skating at they age level. They are very good skaters, Each one has their special gifts but skating is a common theme that stands out. I have taught power skating way before the term, “power skating” was such a trendy and lucrative expanse of the market. 
Like personal training which has ballooned into a whole Billion dollar area of the fitness scene and has created so many options and temptations for parents. As with coaches, personal instruction or trainers, there are many options. But few that have the knowledge or more importantly , wisdom to separate with quantifiable results. It’s the great thing about capitalism in sports. If you do well soon there will be many options. There are some great steak houses but it varies from Ponderosa to Ruth Chris. 
Some parents feel the pressure to keep up with the family down the street . To play at the higher levels of today’s sports require a commitment. The difference is that the commitment takes resources. Today it’s the resource of time and money. In the past it was the time spent by yourself or with friends developing the skills. There was no money involved.
Today it’s a lot. Money can be earned back, time never

Paying for our kids to Play:
Today it’s hard to find a rink that doesn’t have numerous specific skill or skating instructors. 
In baseball there are hitting coaches, throwing coaches. Every sport has a specialty skills or training coach to get your child into. Paying to play is the theme. Instead of playing at home with friends or training yourself because the child loves it so, we take them to a session and pay for them to play. That’s the new normal. Some very good performance results are occurring.
At the same time forcing or scheduling play where the foundation may not be the enjoyment of the sport. It is a focus on developing ,a skill , so that they may enjoy a sport better. Hmmm..

All our boys were brought up in Western Pa. and at the time one of the fastest growing hockey regions in North America. Mostly because of the success and popularity of the Lemieux and Crosby Penguin success .
What a blessing to have such iconic superstars and successful franchise in the place your raising a family. The Penguins had the right people in the right places that would transcend and help motivate 1000s of children’s path into youth hockey.

Like many 1st time parents you find a organization to join where your child can participate. We joined the closest because of my good friend.( friend who we each were the other’s skills instructor growing up) It was so much fun developing kids and watching them grow into a specific sport. 
But after a successful career as a professional athlete it is easy to forget that innocence. As a Professional I lived by getting up 4:30am, in the pool by 5 , breakfast , then run or bike, sometimes both. Gym in the afternoon or evening . Repeat everyday. I got paid to win and whatever it took was the law.
It was easy to jump into what has become our new normal for youth sports. I took my career as a professional athlete and thrust that right upon our kids as children.

Taking any time that they weren’t throwing, running, biking, swimming and using to train in skating and hockey. That became our new normal. Did you ever read the book , The Snail with the itchy foot”? He can’t sit still. Never takes time to smell the roses . That was me and I bought a ticket for my kids on my non stop crazy train. As Ozzy says. “All aboard”
It was great bonding time. Each child I got to spend special moments of discussion while on trips or to practice. We would discuss different aspects of life, school, friends. From cartoons to sports psychology we covered many topics.
I did and still do believe in the Normal of training I grew up with. The best way to train a young athlete was through play. The pick up game, the shinny hockey, riding your bike to candy store or park. And when I speak to parents I encourage a theme with their children of ” let’s go do it ” not “you go do it”! If you want to get them moving ,take advantage of that time by being a part of it.

I still do and most experts in sports physiology , sports psychology agree that too much structure is not good. I incorporate numerous small games into training athletes. Though many trainers have very structured programs incorporating unstructured play in a structured program is an art. Unfortunately the increasing structured lifestyle our kids have is as much as some professional athletes.
Our youth sports society has gone from being less involved and encouraging self play to driving them to structured costly programming lesson and instruction. Now anytime spent together while driving and communicating is definitely a gift. It’s one of the bonuses of today’s New Normal.
But once you are hooked and then jump on the crazy train of today’s over scheduled youth sports it’s difficult for the parent addict to withdraw. They feel pressured by others that their child will get behind or not make the best team. The biggest mistake is not understanding it’s more important to make the right team. The time developing friendships on the pond, field, street, has been replaced by parents taking their kids to next set of instructions. 

Since retiring from racing my schedule is flying more and doing lessons and camps. My work had included me getting on a plane and flying to work where I would fly 13-15 hours somewhere across the World. Itchy foot so I had to workout 3-4 hours while there ,Fly back to Chicago , hopefully get on a plane to commute home. I was gone 9-10 days/ month . Many parents have a similar schedule of being gone but it’s every day till 5 or 6pm then get on the “new normal” youth sports train.
We spent 14 great years in western Pa before I had opportunity in 2014 to have much better schedule in a different base. Huge move to Florida. Our kids , as most kids would ,were not big fans of moving away from what they knew as home. Was tough to move away from a great hockey community but the family time in Florida has been fantastic. One of the resources you never get back . As in any new place new opportunities to meet new people and develop relationships were terrific.
It’s still the crazy train here since whether your in south Florida or Western Pa , Maine or California. The New Normal theme of ,if some is good more is better permeates youth sports a bit everywhere.

Adding more to the menu
One if the bigger names, and very fun guy in AAA hockey during my oldest peewee year ran camps and tournaments. He had a very astute idea to get hotels involved for tournaments . They now call it pay to play. What a genius of a move that grew into most every Tournament Directors bottom line. It’s knowing the market then capitalizing on it. We always have a choice to develop something different . Unfortunately no more $50 hotel deals….Today it’s a minimum $700/$1500 for a kid and parent to go to a out of town hockey tournament. 
When we were young it didn’t seem old to play the same team 5 or 6 times, go get ice cream then head home to withfamily. Occasionally you would drive a bit to play a team out of your area for 1 or 2 games.
Next day we were at Home playing with other friends, developing skills, both in our sport and relationally. We made each other better. We learned how to teach ourselves and our friends .
Lessons weren’t 1 hour they were all day.
Road trips are no longer just for the professional. They aren’t just for the elite level competition. They have tournaments for kids who are very novice in their sports. Now if each tournament was a family opportunity or partial vacation it could be a fantastic and positive part to the New Normal. Unfortunately the family usually splits since there are other kids or the cost is prohibited. The normal scenario is that most trips are only with part of the family. What effects and opportunities missed when the family isn’t together? That’s a resource never recovered . 

Many parents long for today’s youth athletes the experience I had growing up of playing sports with closest friends. We had so much fun and became very good athletes at the same time. It was excellence and innocence mixed together. The new normal may be better , only time may tell. But, missing today is the innocence of a child’s choice to make himself better through play with his friends or brothers. There has been a wonderful movement to have better educated coaches in each sport and that has been a positive. It is our responsibility ,as parents, to step back and decipher where do I put these options, these choices for my family. Being educated on different choices, family priorities, family goals, children’s goals. Time commitment never replaced.

Our oldest is awesome with his littlest brother. The time each has to play, teach and experience life together in youth is precious. He will be gone on his own soon then the next in line and so on. What lesson, what trip, what extra practice would you give back for them to spend another walk together or ride or game. The Crazy Trains are moving fast through youth sports. I may buy a few less Train tickets with the boys in the coming years. And hopefully ,through that, it may make all the difference.

What’s your new Normal?

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