Archive for December 2010

An Old Hockey Coach Feels the Guilties

December 20, 2010

I guess the best way to introduce this topic is by telling a quick story from about 25-years ago…

Ya, it was about that long ago when two of my long-time hockey school students had their throats slashed by hockey skate blades.  (Can you believe that?  !!!)  Thank God neither accident occurred on my watch.  No, the younger of the two was doing belly flops during his youth team’s practice when he fell — neck first — onto the skate of a teammate.  The older boy had an opponent’s skate fly up and across his neck and chest in the middle of a high school hockey game.  Thank God again, because both boys’ lives were saved because a nurse was watching the youth hockey practice, and an EMT were right there at the game site.

Those two events were covered — big time — in Boston area newspapers and on TV stations, and they were surely the topic of conversation among parents, coaches and administrators at local rinks.  Ya, it scared all of us, and I think most of us felt rather helpless — thinking that something like that could happen to our own kids.

Now, not much different from today, I mixed a lot back in those days with hockey people from all over the world.  And I was already familiar with a guy up in Ontario, Canada who was producing collars that were supposed to help protect the throat area.  So, in a mad scramble, I arranged to have some of those (Kim Crouch Collars) hurriedly shipped down here to the Boston area, just in case other local hockey parents were as concerned as I was about their kids sustaining such an injury.

Okay, so if you haven’t guessed it by now, I kinda got the guilties about promoting those things.  I mean, I didn’t want to take advantage of folks’ fears — or seem like I was, so a went a little easy on getting the word out.  Said yet another way, I was awful at promoting the collars, which really did jeopardize numerous kids’ safety for a time (or until others got the word out better).

As an aside here…  You might find it interesting that I promote like crazy.  Hey, those who are really into hockey can either take or leave the advice I offer there.  I feel the same about the so-called hard-to-find hockey products I make available over at Hockey Tips and Tricks.  Really, I’m just letting hockey people know those things are there.  (Maybe part of the reason I don’t get the guilties about promoting those sites is because I actually give away a lot of free stuff if one visits.)

Anyway…  Fast-forward to the past few years, and several Boston TV news outlets have scared us sports parents all the more with the number of young athletes who have sustained serious spinal cord injuries.  It happened to two different high school hockey players last winter, and I guess a big-time college football player is also wheelchair bound from a hit he took in a game. Of course, most hockey folks are familiar with the Travis Roy story — about the budding Boston University star who had his life changed in an instant just because of a freak fall into the rink’s side boards.

In almost every instance, serious neck or spinal cord injuries result from a player colliding with an opponent or the boards with his or her head held down — hence the USA Hockey mantra, “Heads up, don’t duck!”

Oh, if only there was a simple device that prevented contact sport players — especially those in hockey and football — from being able to drop the head as they move into a hit.  Oh, if only…

Well, what I discovered is that there IS such a device.  In fact, it is simple, lightweight and easy to wear, and hardly noticeable on the player.

What happened is that a football guy from Ohio called one day to describe his device to me, and to ask me if I thought it sounded like something that would help protect hockey players.  (Are you kidding me?  !!!)

I jumped on that in an instant, as you might imagine.  But then…  But then…  There came those old guilties.  I felt awful promoting something based on a parent’s fears.

The old guilties hit me again about 6-months ago, this time because the latest hot topic in the news had to do with a number of teenagers committing suicide after experiencing “bullying”.  Man, talk about something sad.

Once again, though, I was far ahead of things, having promoted a number of self-help programs produced by a top sport psychologist, among them Dr Patrick Cohn’s program for better arming our kids against bullying.  Oh, and once again I also experienced the guilties.  Ya, I found it funny how easy it was for me to promote Dr Cohn’s other programs, like “The Composed Sports Kid”.  But when it came to helping those with concerns for bullying, well…

Anyway, you’ll notice that I didn’t link to any of the above products, on purpose.  Naw, the reason I’m writing you today is to ask your input (hey, besides typical moms and dads and coaches who might be reading this, there might even be a shrink who’d be willing to counsel an old hockey coach in such a matter).  I mean, just what do you think a guy like me ought to do — to get over the guilties, I mean?


Can A Game (No, Not Hockey!) Teach?

December 9, 2010

Okay, the fact that this is not going to be about hockey is probably confusing enough to you.  But then you have to be wondering next why the heck I’d start this post with a photo of my youngest, guitar playing, rockin’ brother.  Well, trust me, that this really does have plenty to do with the potential for a game to teach…

You ought to know that the five kids in my family are really spread in ages.  I’m the oldest, with sisters 3- and 9-years younger than I, and then two brothers who are 10- and 16-years my junior.  I say this so you can envision me playing in a high school varsity baseball game as my youngest brother John played with a pail and shovel in a sand pile located down the leftfield line.

Oh, about John’s “stage name”, Stevens…  Obviously, “Chighisola” isn’t going to work well on a playbill.  So, when my two younger brothers started playing and singing the local clubs, they borrowed my mom’s maiden name to dub themselves “The Stevens Brothers”.  Middle brother, Lou, didn’t want to do the traveling required of the more serious performers, so he stayed behind as John ultimately hit the road as a solo act.

Okay, returning to the time when I was a high school teen and John was only a toddler, he was forever driving me nuts to play ball with him.  And I’d do that, at least as much as a busy teen’s lifestyle would permit.

Back in those days, Chighisola Family Whiffle Ball games were as popular as the Kennedys’ tag football.  And I mean everyone would play…  Dad was an unbelievable athlete, my sister Donna had a mean lefthand stick, middle brother was another great athlete, while mom and sister Denise played until they found an excuse to do something else.  😉  Holidays presented the most fun, when a kzillion uncles and cousins also jumped into the game.

Homerun Derby was something else!  Hey, our backyard was about an acre of lawn, with the tree line forming some very convenient fences.

Oh, by the way…  Those games pretty much kept going up until a few years ago, when mom and dad moved from the old homestead and headed for sunny Florida.  In those latter years, dad was suffering the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, but he still watched with a huge, proud smile as the games went on.  Thankfully, grandkids and great grandkids came along to take-up the slack for some of us slowing veterans.

Oh, ya, did I say that Little John was a haunt when it came to his oldest brother playing ball with him?  Well, he was, especially when he knew I had a date in a few minutes, or I was in some other kind of rush to leave.  And mom was no help, with her, “Come on, Dennis, play with your brother for a few minutes.”  (Truth be known, I’d have done it anyway.)

Now, here’s how things ordinarily went…

I’d grab a glove and a few baseballs, John would grab a bat, and our trusty collie Heather would station herself where she knew John’s hits would fly.

No kidding on that:  Heather was one of a kind, and she acted as if she knew exactly what her role was — shagging a ball and leaving it behind me, quickly turning again to chase-down another ball.  Unbelieveable she was.

Of course, I’d built-in a few minutes to relax and play with John.  However, at some point I’d start looking at my watch, knowing I was running out of time.  And that’s when “The Game” started.

Ya, The Game…  When I sensed I was running out of time, I’d make a deal with John.  All along we’d been just warming-up, and I was letting baby brother get his licks.  From this point onward, however, I was going to start throwing harder — and the later it got, the harder I’d throw.  For, “The Game” dictated that one miss of the ball by John ended it all.  Ya, it was that simple:  if he missed one pitch, I could climb into my car and go chase some cheerleader (or whomever).  😀

Okay, so here’s the first interesting thing…  It got increasingly hard for me to get John out.  I mean, by the time he was about 6- or 7-years old, it would take me forever to get a pitch past him.

The funny part to all this is the fact that I didn’t think a lot about what was happening — at least not in the start.  However, as time went on, I came to realize how intently he focused once the chips were on the line.  I mean, even though we’d been out there for quite some time, even though he’d probably had a good 50 or 60 hacks at the ball by the time we got serious, he wasn’t about to let our backyard game end by missing a pitch.

Where this stuff started making more sense to me was when John got older and started climbing the baseball ladder.

This aside…  At 40-something today, I’m guessing John would admit that he was a really good baseball player, but not a great one.  He was a great athlete — he had pretty good genes, and he was extremely skilled.  But football ultimately became his first love, and that probably cost him a chance to play baseball beyond high school.

That established — that John was a really good player but not necessarily dominating, he had one trait that absolutely astonished me.  I mean, man, you couldn’t strike him out.  Oh, he might have had a mortal’s batting average, because you might just get him on a pop, a liner or a fly.  But, you weren’t going to get a third strike past him.  (God, I wish some stats existed for all the at bats he had through the years, because I’d be surprised if he K-ed into double digits.)

Okay, like me, you’ve probably by now made the connection…  Ya, those hundreds of occasions when a really young John played The Game, there must have been some rewiring going on inside him.  For sure, those contests were improving his concentration.  But, you don’t make contact with every thrown ball purely because you can focus.  Naw, he was also developing hand-eye coordination such that his bat was going to make at least partial contact with every single pitch I could throw.

Now, fast-forward to today…  I’m 105-years old, I have a scientific degree, and I’m known by many in the hockey arena as “The Nutty Professor”.  In other words, I know my stuff, I think a lot, and I especially like to ponder things like the effects of something like The Game.  (Actually, I couldn’t have possibly written this piece 30-years ago, even though I sensed back then a lot of the things I’ve mentioned to this point.)

Yet another aside…  For sure, I couldn’t have arrived years ago at the following thought.  However, consider how every single event (now known as The Game) ended.  It ended with a failure, or the missed pitched that finally set me free.  And that’s something that I’m going to have to call and ask John about, shortly after I submit this post.  I mean, he had to have thousands of successes over the years we played that game, but every single one of them did end in one failure.  So, what I’ll have to ask John will have to do with his recollections as he gathered the gear and waved good-bye to me.  Did he feel dejected, or did he feel good about the fact that he hung-in for so long?  Hmmmmmm…  You and I both want to know the answer to that one, huh?

Anyway, this brings me to the title question:  Can a game teach?  And, I’m going to tell you that I firmly believe so.  With all due regard for the previous aside, I’m going to have to say that a great deal of learning was taking place behind our garage, and the bulk of it was positive.

I am also going to suggest that I’ve (sometimes even unknowingly) created a lot of hockey drills that come close to the conditions that existed in The Game.  In other words, my players participate in a given drill, but they can ultimately be “eliminated” with some sort of “failure”.

If my Twitter and Facebook buddy, Mike M, is reading this, I wonder if it’s yet struck him that a drill I suggested long ago for his daughter’s soccer team at least slightly fits this mold.

Mike had written me back then that the group of really young girls were rather timid pursuing the ball, and just as timid when approaching their opponents’ goal.  (Socially, I think this makes sense, since there aren’t many outside-of-soccer experiences that teach them to be super-aggressive.)

So, I suggested something rather simple, like throwing a ball up for grabs between two girls, and then making a very big deal out of the one who accomplishes such-and-such with the ball (like dribbling it to a given location, passing it back to the coach, shooting on goal, etc.).

Making a big deal out of the victor was important, I told Mike.  After all, the girls needed the sensation of success — or at least the desire to succeed — as a means of positive feedback.  It’s not unlike that Pavlov’s dog thingy, really, in that one desirable action has to be equated with satisfying a basic need (in our case, positive recognition).  In a way, I was also suggesting that the prescribed brief one against one battles would give those girls countless reps that would take ages to achieve in a game or scrimmage.

Eventually, I suggested that Mike expand The Game to include a few more players, perhaps in 2 on 2 and 3 on 3 match-ups.

Finally, I know I have a lot of readers who are sports parents, with some of them coaching in one sport or another.  Others are likely in charge of small groups at work, and yet others may just be parents who aren’t at all interested in sports.  However, I am going to suggest that every single one of us can take advantage of the concept I’ve outlined here.  Yup, I think The Game works, and so will a ton of variations.  You can take that to the bank, from one rather old Nutty Professor.


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