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12U: Let Them Fail

10/29/2013, 9:00am MDT
By Aaron Paitich

The word “failure” isn’t a word most parents want to associate with their child. But when it comes to growth and development, sometimes that’s exactly what kids need to experience.

“Everything that you read about psychology is how important failure is to growth and development and adaptability and future success,” says Jamie Rice, head men’s hockey coach at NCAA Division III Babson College. “Maybe sometimes we’re depriving them because of our own apprehension to let them fail.”

How does this apply to youth hockey? Let children play in an unstructured environment. Let them learn the game through their own mistakes. Most of all, let them have fun and enjoy the game without added pressure to win.

Rice gets it. He’s a proud parent of hockey-playing children and he knows the culture needs to change.

“Give the game back to the kids,” says Rice, who earned his master’s degree in education from Boston University. “Allow them to grow at their own rate, to develop at their own rate, to mature at their own rate, to succeed and fail at their own rate.”

Let them play

Part of giving the game back to the kids is letting them play in an unstructured environment.

“We long for the days of pond hockey,” says Rice. “As coaches, we go ahead and say that. But then what do we do? We bring kids to the rink and we drill them to death. We don’t let them express themselves. As soon as they make a mistake, we yell at them or we try and correct them. No one’s coaching on the pond. No one’s coaching during street hockey in the backyard.”

But unstructured hockey isn’t limited to the pond or neighborhood park. Indoor team practices can – and should – create an unstructured environment for kids. That can sometimes be difficult for parents to grasp when they observe practice.

“If you walk into a rink and you see two coaches standing to the side and the kids just playing, you’ll say, ‘What’s the coach doing?’” says Rice. “And if you walk into the rink and see the kids standing in seven lines and doing one specific drill like a robot, then a parent will say ‘Oh, OK, they’re working on something.’”

Playing small-area games and gaining quality repetitions through station-based practices will allow for maximum development at the 12U level. Don’t waste this precious window of opportunity – where skill development is most critical – focusing on larger team concepts.

More money doesn’t equal more goals

More money, more instruction and more camps are not necessarily going to make your child a better player in the long run.

“People assume now that if it costs more, it’s better,” says Rice. “I have to pay more for it to be better. That’s not true.”

Spending more money won’t guarantee your child a spot on the high school team or beyond. It can actually just put more pressure on the child and suck the fun out of the sport.

“Whatever we invest in it financially – emotionally and time wise – there are still no guarantees out there,” adds Rice. “There’s no guarantee your kid will play high school or college or professional hockey. Let’s just let them play and have fun and see what happens.”

Don’t be afraid

Rice became a better coach when he became a parent. He became an even better coach when his kids started playing sports, because he began seeing things in a different way. Winning cannot be the end all, be all – especially at the 12U age.

While it may sound daunting as a parent, don’t be afraid of letting your child make mistakes. Every player experiences tough losses and most players struggle developing certain skills at one time or another.

“All of us want our children to do well. All of us want our children to have a better life than we have,” says Rice. “But sometimes you maybe want it too much and that’s where you’re afraid to let go. Maybe we as coaches want them to succeed so much that we’re afraid to let them fail and make mistakes.”

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