Nothing says Canadian summer like shelling out three hundred bucks for hockey camp. It’s August, and I’m headed for a stinking, sweaty change room—to lace up ice skates. Again. When I think of my life these days, I see a size six hockey skate and a nine-year-old foot, propped between my knees, laces waiting.
My son Ollie does not show extraordinary promise as a hockey player. He has a late December birthday which means every second year, he is the youngest player on the ice. He has gone whole seasons without scoring a goal. Yet from September until April every year, hockey takes over our lives, because he has chosen it as his sport. A 2013 article in ESPN estimated the cost of one youth experience in hockey at $48,850 US. That’s a lot of money, and there’s an equally impressive commitment of time and energy, on the parts of both the child and the parents. But I tell myself that summer camp will give Ollie a skills boost. Anyone who has played sports knows that being good is more fun than not. I’m giving him the opportunity to be good.
But as I follow Ollie into the change room, I want to stop us both.
Hey Ollie, I nearly say, how about if we grab an ice-cream cone and go to the beach?
I doubt he would object. He loves hockey, yes, but like most nine-year-old boys, he also loves ice cream. It’s summer holidays. Hockey camp is hard work. I wonder if we’ve all become so invested in the idea of organizing our kids’ activities, of giving them every opportunity to be their best, that we’ve forgotten how to let kids be kids. What do we want for our children? Happy childhoods, right? Happy lives. Wouldn’t they be happier at the beach?
When we registered for summer camp, Ollie said he’d go, but he didn’t say it with any enthusiasm. So I did my usual check-in: “Are we done with hockey?” I’ve been asking this question regularly since he first stepped on the ice with a stick. “Because if you don’t want to play anymore, that’s OK. Just say. You could swim or ski instead.”
“Mom. You are the swimmer. I am the hockey player.”
I’m suspicious of his phrasing. It’s not just about playing hockey. It’s about being a hockey player. I’ve seen how this yoking of identity and sport can be destructive. “But you still like playing hockey, right? You think hockey is fun?”
“Of course I like playing hockey. It’s my favourite sport. I love it.”
If you love it—that’s been my mantra. I will pay the bills and sacrifice my weekends and brave the icy highways and chaperone the crazed nine-year olds. I will put up with the cowbells and the angry dads. I will do it all—as long as Ollie loves it.
The first time he only kind of likes it? Finished. Our family’s sport motto is “Have fun! Try hard!” What this motto doesn’t acknowledge, though, is that trying hard and having fun do not always go together. Sometimes, trying hard is just…hard. Spending August afternoons doing hockey drills—that falls firmly in the hard camp.
I remember how hard I worked at swimming and how the sport taught me about discipline and work ethic and commitment, and I wonder how much my job as a parent involves pushing that part of sport, the work part. As Ollie gets older, and the work part gets more intense, he is not going to love hockey all the time.
Other families have made their choice and easily head to the beach instead of the rink. There has been a clear move away from hockey in Canada. While the 570,000 players registered with Hockey Canada is an impressive number, it is down over 200,000 from its height in 2012. Unable to afford the exorbitant cost of our nation’s pastime and worried about the prevalence of head injuries, parents are pulling their children from hockey and redirecting them toward soccer and swimming and other safer, cheaper sports. In 2013, nearly twice as many Canadian children under the age of 14 played soccer than hockey.
Experts argue that those kids who do play hockey play too much. Hockey has become an upper class sport, with wealthy parents sending their kids to elite hockey schools at increasingly young ages. Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that being good at anything takes 10,000 hours struck a chord with this over-achieving parental group. Concussions are only one downside to this excess. The increased ice time takes a severe toll on the body, particularly on growing joints. Sport-medicine experts warn that hockey culture produces future candidates for arthritis and hip replacements.
There’s also fatigue. The best kids are getting sick of hockey well before they reach Gladwell’s magic 10,000 hours. Since 2009, players in the Pee Wee, Bantam, and Midget have declined 7.4 per cent. Many talented hockey players burn out by the time they reach thirteen.
In the New York Times article “There’s No Off in this Season,” Bruce Feiler argues that Friday Night Lights is now Every Night Lights, and something as simple as planning a family vacation has become impossible. The more we try to keep up with the Joneses in preparing our little athletes for future success, the less likely we are to leave ourselves time to enjoy the simple pleasures of family life. Even now, when my oldest son is only nine years old, I can already relate to both this anxiety and this failure to maintain a well-balanced family life. I take solace in the new research stressing that parents do not, in fact, “create” successful athletes. I wish this knowledge would sink in enough that I could skip summer camp without feeling a failure as a hockey mom.
Most of camp week looks boring. Young players stick handle around that pylon, over and over, and then shoot at that target, over and over, and then skate around that circle, over and over. Ollie does not perform the tasks with any enthusiasm. Even in the fun games, he seems intimidated by the older kids and does not play well, or happily. But then in the last few minutes of the final scrimmage, the coaches open the ice to a free-for-all. Both benches clear. All the kids mob the puck. Ollie comes to life. He charges in. He’s thinking less. He’s a tough and robust boy, and he responds well to the more physical play.
He loves it. In his face now, I see that love that I’ve been searching for all week. When he doesn’t have to overthink the restrictions of performing exacting drills or of playing his position properly, he goes hard for the puck. He doesn’t stress. He’s in the play.
In the locker room, Ollie vibrates with excitement. Sweat flies as he pulls off his helmet. “Did you see me get that guy?”
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I can’t help mirroring his smile, but he doesn’t give me a chance to respond.
“And then he got me and I went down but I got right back up and then there was me against two big guys…” The words come at me so fast that I’m in the scrimmage, spinning with all those little warriors. “…and then I got the puck off one of them and he hip checked me a bit but I didn’t even fall over and…”
Glee. This Ollie is pure happy energy.
By the time we get to the car, though, the fatigue sinks in and Ollie quiets to a silence, resting his head against the backseat window. I admire him in the rearview mirror, his too-long hair wet with sweat. God, I love this kid. “Good job today, Ollie.”
“I didn’t get any goals.” The heat of his body has steamed up the windows and he traces his name in the condensation.
“But you had fun.”
“Yeah.” It’s a weak yeah. I want to pull back the post-battle Ollie, victorious in the change room.
“You tried really hard. Sport is a lot of work now that you’re older, and I know it’s your summer holidays. I’m proud of you for trying so hard, Ollie.”
“Mom? You don’t have to get mad. This is just a yes or no question.”
“Actually, no. Never mind. It’s nothing.”
“It’s OK. Whatever it is. Tell me.”
“Mom, do I have to go to hockey camp again next summer?”
Oh. This parenting thing. Am I the only parent who feels like a fraud when granted such authority? I don’t know. Does he have to go to summer hockey camp? If he wants to advance in any sport, yes, he will have to work very hard, even in August, to get better. Have fun! Try hard! Hard will always be part of sport.
But what if he doesn’t care about advancing in sport? What if he only wants to play sport? Isn’t that OK too? When does how much effort he exerts become his decision?
Ollie waits. For now, I am the one who answers this question about how hard and how often my young athlete has to skate.
What I want is for him to want to go to summer hockey camp. I remember the pride I took in my work ethic during my swimming years, and I wish my boy felt the same way about work. I want my little hockey player to love the hockey camp that cost us both a week of August. I want that love to draw him toward the commitment and hard work that will lead to success.
That kind of love does not fall within my control.
As a mother, I’m here to walk with Ollie as he builds his own life. I’m not here to build that life for him. He’ll figure out his own relationship to hockey, to sport. The way he shapes that relationship will ultimately say a lot about his attitude to life’s biggest issues: work, love, commitment. I have very little control over any of that. I remember the research: Parents do not create athletes. Repeat it with me: Parents do not create athletes.
“No, Ollie,” I finally answer, relaxing into the fresh salty smell of little boy sweat. “You don’t have to go to hockey camp if you don’t want to.” I let that hang in the air for a while and am surprised how obvious it seems, how simple. “It’s totally up to you, Ollie.”
He continues staring out the window but gives one, hard quick nod. “Mom?” He stops drawing on the window and leans forward so I can’t see him in my mirror anymore, but then I feel him against me, his hand on my arm, his sweaty head on my shoulder. “Thanks. I love you.”
“I love you more.”
And for that moment, I stop worrying about my job as a sport parent and whether or not I’m doing it right. I keep my eyes on the road and squeeze his hand. He has strong, meaty paws like my brother and my dad, and his skin still feels hot to my touch. Instead of squirming away after a moment of affection, he lets me hold his hand. I will hang onto that beefy little hand for as long as he allows, and I will think only about this kind of love and commitment. The easy kind. The best kind.