July 17, 2012

The Hockey Mom: How to spend my son's summer vacation

By April Bowling

As I’m writing this, I still haven’t made up my mind on the offseason question that every hockey parent faces every year.  Should I send Sam to some hockey skills clinics over the summer as he has begged me to do, or should I keep his hockey gear locked away until the (already very long) season starts in September? 

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.

My gut tells me that he needs the time off.  Our whole family needs a break from the overscheduled circus that is our life during the school year; between my son and daughter, we juggle six sports, music lessons and community service commitments. That doesn’t even account for the commitments of two working parents who each serve on nonprofit boards and are active athletes themselves. 

At this very moment, I am shuddering thinking of our daily schedule. Honestly, in my current frame of mind, I can’t begin to stomach the thought of schlepping him an hour away to an “edges clinic” on beautiful summer days.

My profession tells me to keep him off the ice during the offseason as well. I’m always preaching to my clients — triathletes are notoriously Type-A, driven athletes — that it’s called an offseason for a reason.  Athletes become burned out, over-trained, injured and ironically less athletic when they over-specialize and structure their training year-round. 

I was at a USA Track and Field conference last year where one of the coaches described the problem with his incoming Division 1 athletes — they were specializing so early that they lacked the well-rounded athletic skills that had allowed him to convert them to different, more appropriate disciplines as their bodies finally matured and reached their prime. No longer could sprinters become hurdlers, or high-jumpers become pole-vaulters. The unintended consequence of dialing their training in from an early age was that they were less generally coordinated and adaptable as athletes even though they were elite physiologically.

This issue already is the subject of intense discussion in the hockey world as well.  In my hunt for answers, I found this quote in an Athletic Management Magazine piece: “Jack Parker, Head Men’s Ice Hockey Coach at Boston University, says he is starting to recruit more athletes from out-of-state instead of Massachusetts high school and club stars who play hockey almost year round. ‘By the time I see these kids, they are bored, burned out, and often injured,’ he says. ‘There are more players ready to play college hockey in California and Texas right now than in Massachusetts because they don’t play it year round. Specialization is killing hockey in our state.’”

OK, I get it.  Too much hockey makes Sam a dull boy. So you’d think it would be a no-brainer. Summer is for sailing camp, not for skating skills. However, none of this accounts for Sam’s vociferous opinion.

He is, in fact, unrelenting. He knows his skating is his “weakness” and summer is his chance to make up ground while his competition is at the beach. With big pitiful kitty eyes, he begs, “It’s just a class, Mom!  It’s no big deal!” He really thinks that if he can just get on the ice during the offseason, he’ll improve his team, get more playing time, and be more effective come the fall. It’s a logical conclusion.

But little does he know that many of his teammates likely will be on the ice this summer as well, so he’s unlikely to make up as much ground as he thinks. That fact is partly why I keep second-guessing my “no-hockey-in-summer policy,” because our laid-back approach may mean that he eventually gets left behind and abandons the sport altogether out of frustration.

By the way, I worry that this is how it starts. Intelligent, thoughtful, caring parents are goaded into making poor decisions for their child’s overall well-being because it seems like everyone else is doing it.  Whether its video games, sugary foods, too much TV, cell phones or a year-round hockey season, it’s hard to say no when the perception is that everyone else is saying yes.

Then again, I’m probably just over thinking this. As one of Sam’s coaches said about his own son, “I’m locking the bag away until September. If it was good enough for Gretzky, it’s good enough for my kid.”  However, when I spoke those words to Sam he rolled his eyes and answered, “Of course, Gretzky didn’t go to skills camp, Mom. He was Wayne Gretzky. He didn’t need to.” 

I do think there is an important difference between flogging one sport year-round, and working on specific skills in limited sessions during the offseason. I often have clients spend their offseason getting filmed and working on swimming mechanics in the pool, or performing functional stability training meant to increase their body’s ability to sustain in-season training without injury. Sam plays soccer, basketball, lacrosse, baseball and swims throughout the year in addition to playing hockey. He is hardly a one-trick pony, so if he wants to take what essentially are skating lessons twice a week, I don’t think it can do any harm.

Ultimately, however, I continue to stumble over the idea of committing to anything structured this summer. Our family life became an endurance event of its own over the past year, and we all need a serious breather, if not a complete rethinking of the number of commitments we each take on. The benefits might be less immediately tangible, but I think it’s just as important for a child to hang out for hours at the beach building castles and playing with hermit crabs as it is to learn cross-overs and stopping on a dime.

So on second (and third and fourth) thought, maybe I have made up my mind. We’re putting the hockey bag away, embracing summer vacation and all the beauty that brief season brings us here in New England. If August rolls around and Sam still wants to work on his skating before the season starts, I’ll let him do a couple of morning clinics. I’ll remind myself to be grateful for his passion and work ethic, while remembering that it’s my job as his mom to do the tough work of determining when enough is enough for a little boy who won’t be a little boy for very much longer. 

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

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