When it comes to kids getting burned out on hockey, Dionne Koller has a different twist on an all-too-familiar story.
Her 14-year-old son recently skated away from the sport, declaring, “I’m not having fun anymore” and that hockey had become a “job.”
The problem, though, wasn’t coaches. It wasn’t other players. And it wasn’t his own parents.
Instead, it was the collective culture created by aggressive parents of other players that led him to decide a sport he had played since mites was no longer for him.
Koller, who didn’t want her son’s name used in case he decides someday to return to hockey, nevertheless lays out a cautionary tale as an example of another way in which overbearing adults can infringe on the happiness of kids playing a game.
Koller, a sports law professor in the Baltimore area who has a background in youth sports, said her son was a good player on competitive travel teams throughout various age levels.
“But a couple things happened,” Koller said. “Parent involvement as the boys got older was one, and then checking got introduced. Parents went from just watching the game and wanting a win to wanting to see hits.”
It wasn’t coming from every parent, but there were enough of what Koller terms “folded-arm dads” in the stands to change the dynamic of the team to the detriment of the environment and her son.
“The last two years of travel hockey, the parent pressure to be ‘intimidating’ or impose your physical will on the other team was massive,” she said. “You have 13-, 14-year-old boys not physically mature flying around the ice, and they’d be so focused on the check and big hit to impress their dads that we’d lose games.”
None of that message, Koller states clearly, was coming from the coaches.
“As someone who studies youth sports closely, I’ve never been more impressed with an organization than USA Hockey. I mean that,” she said. “They’ve been proactive on concussions, continued to study ways to make the game safer and take safety seriously. I’ve never had a problem with the coaches. They’re following the rules and trying to do their best.”
But when players were getting mixed messages, often times the loudest voices were coming from the stands instead of the bench. Some parents became unofficial – and unwelcomed – assistant coaches because they were always around, whispering or shouting their own advice.
“There was a disconnect,” Koller said. “The coaches’ influence over the team was so much less than the parents’ influence. Parents have fantasies that their kids are going to be in college, go farther. Every game became about whose son was going to display more physical play when the coaches were telling the parents to stay out of the game plan.”
Finally, in March, her son reached his breaking point.
“They do a postseason tournament, and literally he came off the ice and said, ’I’m done.’ He said he was not trying out for travel hockey next year,” Koller said.
Because of the coaches, Koller said, she had never felt better about her son being in hockey. But because of the other parents, her son “never felt worse,” she said.
“When you’re skating to please other dads, that’s what happens.”
What to Do Next
Koller says she tried to work with coaches before her son reached his breaking point, and she is sympathetic to the jobs they try to do.
“I always work within the system. I would communicate with the coaches who responded the best they could. The impression I got was it’s hard to juggle a team full of parents who think their son is the next Wayne Gretzky,” Koller said. “If parents don’t take responsibility for their own actions, there’s only so much that can be done.”
Koller hopes the experience doesn’t turn her son off to hockey forever, and there is at least some evidence that he could return to the ice someday – albeit not in travel hockey, at least for now.
“The advice we’ve gotten is to give him space. He was a serious player for so many years,” Koller said. “He’s a great student. As we’ve thought about things like colleges, he’s definitely interested in small schools that have ice rinks where he can skate and maybe play intramurals. He’s talked about where he could reconnect with what’s fun.”
That’s how it was for many of the early years of his playing career, after all.
“An interesting paradox is that we met so many terrific people through hockey over the years and what was interesting is that they’re all good people,” Koller said. “But when the puck drops, something changes.”