When many fans think about the "perfect season" in professional sports, the first thing that comes to mind is the '72 Dolphins. That year Miami posted a 14-0 regular season mark before marching to the Super Bowl and defeating the Washington Redskins to close out their historic run. It was, and remains, the only unblemished season in modern day football history. With each of North America's other major professional sports, schedules range from 82-162 regular season games. With those busy schedules and the parity in each, it is pretty safe to assume we will never see any team come close to approaching a perfect season in the MLB, NBA, or NHL.
In youth sports, however, the "perfect season" in regards to a team's Win/Loss record takes on a whole different meaning. Youth coaches must understand that they are not being paid to run the table or run up the score (and in most cases, not being paid at all).
When USA Hockey implemented their American Development Model a few seasons back, their challenge in part was to convince players, parents, and coaches that winning at the youth level was not paramount. At the 8U level, the focus needed to shift to more practices, fewer games, half or cross ice games, more kids on the ice at once, and more touches of the puck each time they laced them up. We all know people don't like change, but this was far from a whimsical decision made by the masterminds in Colorado Springs. It came as result of years of research and analysis of what was working for other successful groups around the world with regards to player development. Slowly, players, coaches, and yes, even parents, have seen the benefits and begun buying in to the concept. Here is a look at a reccomended training chart for youth hockey coaches at all levels taken from the ADM site.
As players get older and continue to develop, the recommendations and goals change. The American Development Model encourages teams competing at the 10U level to maintain a 3:1 practice to game ratio, but not to exceed 25 games a year. This is also the level at which players and teams will be introduced to "formal full-ice games."
The problem (with society, not the model) is that often times, as players, parents, and coaches, we get ahead of ourselves. Instead of encouraging FUN first, skill development, and sportsmanship as we were at the 8U level, when we put these players on the full sheet and time and scores on the clock, all parties lose focus on the reasons they got started in the game and only focus on the outcome of the game.
This is sad, particularly at a 10U level where kids still have so much to learn and what should be a lifetime ahead of them in the game. All too often we see coaches screaming orders at 9 year olds from the bench and tears on the same young faces that used to be filled with smiles.
There is something about taking the game from half or cross ice to a full 200 foot sheet that turns so many youth hockey coaches from volunteer supervisors of fun and games in to "the next Scotty Bowman." The desire to win does not make you a bad coach or person. That competitive drive is in each of us who ever competed or played sports at a higher level. However, that doesn't make it right to show certain emotions or act out when you are responsible for the well being and on and off ice maturation of a group of Squirts. So the next time you find yourself getting worked up over a Squirt hockey game from behind the bench (or in the stands), consider the following things:
Why did you take the "job?"
Ask any Mite or Squirt coach why they got involved in coaching before the start of a season and the answers always seem to come back the same.
"To give back to the game."
"To spend more time with my son or daughter."
"To pass on my knowledge to the next generation of young players."
Nobody ever says prior to a season that they took on their coaching duties to "win a championship" or "go undefeated" at these levels. But as a season goes on, competitive juices begin flowing, and pressure from parents mounts, things can change. Take a step back and remind yourself why you are there and what is best for the kids you volunteered to spend time with and have a positive impact on.
What makes a squirt team successful?
The next couple of times you are at a local rink getting your child's skates sharpened, enjoying a public skate, or at a birthday party and a Mite or Squirt team is playing a game, take a few minutes to check it out and ask yourself what the teams that are ahead on the scoreboard all have in common. Is the 10U team up 6-1 in that position because their coach called timeout at a crucial time to draw up a face off play? Are they winning because the 1-2-2 forecheck coach implemented in practice is being run to perfection? Or the umbrella power play they have been working on is really starting to come together? No! They are likely winning because they have the best 9 or 10 year old on the ice. A player who was given the opportunity to enjoy unstructured time at a young age, engage in small area games where they had a puck on their stick constantly, and took part in public skates and pond hockey sessions when they had the chance as a youngster. At the 10U level, the team with the best player is going to win more often then not, so coach, don't take yourself too seriously and focus on developing those types of players, not on strategy and special teams.
Is it a "contract year?"
The National Hockey League is a business. Youth hockey is a recreational activity. If Mike Babcock leads the Detroit Red Wings to the Stanley Cup, he may very well get a contract extension. If you lead the Ithaca Youth Hockey Association Squirt 3 team to a sectional championship, you get to coach the Squirt 3 team again the following season, or perhaps the Pee Wee club if the kids enjoyed themselves and your child moves up! You don't get a pay raise, you still show up each morning for free! So don't worry about the wins and losses. Your goal again is development. Your job is to make sure that each child has an enjoyable experience and wants to come back to the rink the following day, week, and ultimately, season. And when they are ready to move up, it is your responsibility to make sure that during the last season, you provided them with the tools and encouragement that will make them competent enough players to play the game at that next level.
What is the "Perfect Season?"
So you want your players to be hungry and excited to play the game the following season and need to make sure they are prepared to do so at a level that will make them competitive. Will you be able to accomplish those goals if your squirt teams goes 24-0 and wins by an average margin of 6 goals? No. Your players may have confidence that is through the roof, but they haven't learned how to compete in close games or how to deal with adversity that will certainly come at some level during their careers. How about the other end, the "Bad News Bears" that can't win a game no matter who they play or seem to ever find the back of the net? Losing consistently is discouraging for an athlete of any age. And if you are playing far superior competition, your players aren't going to have the puck on their sticks often enough to develop the way they need to.
The bottom line is there needs to be a balance in youth sports. It is important for young athletes to learn how to win AND how to lose. It is crucial that they experience the thrill of scoring a goal to help their team to victory in a big game and that they face players and teams that are more physically gifted and talented then they are, which may mean losing a few games here and there, throughout the course of the season.
The 10U team that is going to produce the most players that will enjoy the game and be able to compete in the sport for the longest is not the club that goes 24-0 or the one that finishes 0-24. It is the team that experiences the highs and lows and learns lessons with each. While contract extensions won't be given out regardless, the coaches most worthy are those who finish 12-12....and throw a heck of an end the season pizza and ice cream party....