September 27, 2013

The Hockey Mom: Postcards from power skating camp

By April Bowling

Wasn’t I just expressing sadness in this column at the end of another hockey season? Now, here it is, July 29, and I’m back in a rink with Sam for power skating camp. I guess my tears were destined to be short-lived this year.

The fact that this is called “camp” is a misnomer … it’s two-hour skills sessions. Camp implies some childcare time, the opportunity to get something done while your child is there. This is an hour of travel each way for 120 minutes of sitting in the rink to be available to help with bathroom breaks. I had planned on working so I brought my laptop, but it’s impossible not to watch, so I resign myself to being unproductive. As Sam says when we’re walking in and I’m grumbling about client calls I can’t make (the rink has no Internet signal), “You can work anytime, Mom. You can’t watch me play just any old time.”

Good point.

We’re at the Lawrence (Mass.) Valley Forum, a typical industrial and gritty rink, with the acoustics of an airplane hangar but fully functional and playing host to today’s camp. It’s a funny conglomeration of 7- to 11-year-olds gearing up to hit the ice … a mish-mash of uniforms, sizes and skill levels. Watching them all clamber onto the ice, I wondered how it would all pan out.

First morning of camp, Sam already has made a big change to his hockey routine. Insistent on carrying his own bag into the Forum, he also got himself completely dressed, including taping, leaving only skate tightening to me. He’s 8 now, and entering third grade, so it’s about time I guess. But it’s funny how at the end of last season he would practically lay on the bench, jawing with his teammates, while I got him dressed. Now — probably to save face in front of kids he doesn’t know — he was studiously independent.

I’m also noticing something else as the kids take the ice. Sam has grown. He’s toward the younger side of the group, but he’s noticeably one of the tallest kids on the ice (although his frame has not filled out to match). He somehow seems more coordinated and more awkward at the same time. 

As they take the first few rounds, warming up, I see what hasn’t changed — that Sam is a fairly slow skater who is still hell-bent on beating everyone else on the ice regardless. He cuts corners during the warm-up, skips dynamic skills, ignores the coaches’ warmup directions to slow down and make precise movements, including the front/side/back leg lifts designed to get them loosened up and balancing correctly. Granted, these were comical to watch for all the kids, none of whom could come close to piecing together the movement without touching the ice to rebalance between lifts. Whoever didn’t fall on their own tripped over their downed compatriots.

I can’t help but wonder if we are going to have another frustrating camp experience where Sam’s preeminent desires to be the fastest, not make mistakes in front of others, and do only things he already knows he can do prevent him from gaining meaningful benefits from the camp’s coaches. My fears grow as I watch him start the first few drills watching the coaches and waiting until they look away before he goes.

But instead, much to my relief, the savvy head coach quickly recognizes Sam’s modus operandi and proceeds to ride herd on him the rest of the day, forcing Sam to slow down and repeat movements until he gets them. A benevolent dictator, Coach E. brooks no dissent, but is measured and funny. The kids laugh when he tells them that if their legs aren’t burning they aren’t bending their knees enough. But they stop laughing after holding a 90-degree angle squat on the toes of their skate blades for 30 seconds to prove his point.

After the first day, Sam’s legs are so sore he can barely walk up the stairs to his bedroom, but he’s thrilled with the progress he’s already made. By the third morning at camp, he’s doing leg lifts perfectly, crossing over confidently and has moved from the middle pack to the fast pack by learning how to start his sprints properly. (He’s also convinced that he needs to start doing 100 squats a day so his legs don’t get so tired. I’m fine with that as long as he doesn’t want me doing them with him.

There is clearly an age element to the effectiveness of camp. Maybe now, at 8, Sam is able to absorb the coaching advice where he couldn’t before, but it also seems that the coaches are inclined to work more intensively with the older kids. Whatever the reason, many of the younger and less-focused kids don’t seem to be making a whole ton of progress from a skill perspective, but they are getting crucial ice time. As Malcolm Gladwell would say, they are working on their 10,000 hours.

On the last day, we come early, and Sam watches a lone coach freeskate for 15 minutes, alone on the ice with his stick and a puck. Sam is wistfully envious. “I wanna just skate around like that, with no one else out on the ice.” 

I promise him lots of pond ice time this winter if the weather cooperates. “It’s OK, Mom,” he says. “At least I’m getting ice time during the summer.” When I remind him he has stickhandling “camp” next week, he smiles. “I have to concentrate on this camp first, Mom. Skating is my weakness … but not for long.”

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.