One of the real bright spots of our summer so far has been Ryan’s participation in our town street hockey league. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, we had “the talk” with his coach before the season about Ryan’s diagnosis and challenges. He offered to meet at a coffee shop before the first practice. We had a brief discussion about Ryan but I could tell right away the coach was at ease with him. He did not respond to Ryan’s excessive questions with annoyance nor did he look to me for help.
We ended up spending most of that meeting talking about the 1980s dynasty. It turns out the coach is a hockey geek just like me. He and I chatted about the IslandersNHL while Ryan quizzed the coach’s son about his favorite teams and players. Ryan was thrilled to learn the son knew a lot of statistics just like he did.
With any concerns about the coach set aside, we have been able to enjoy the season. Ryan’s team has won two of its first three games — equaling the number of winning games he played in the last three summers, combined.
While the wins are a pleasant surprise after the way past seasons have gone, the real upside has been the way the coach handles the team and the way Ryan responds to him. In the process, Ryan has learned some valuable lessons about sportsmanship, toughness, winning and losing with grace, and what it means to be a good teammate.
Both of the team’s wins have been by large margins, but not because the coach has poured it on. We had some experience with teams running up the score in this league in past years, so it’s nice to see a coach who understands that they aren’t handing out the Stanley Cup at the end of a rec league season, and treating the games as such. Once comfortably ahead, he instructs his team to work on passing and defense and to pressure the other team less aggressively. But he does so in a non-patronizing way. The team is not giving up, which could be taken as an insult to the losing team, but just adopting a less offensive posture. When kids inevitably still end up with scoring chances in these situations, he encourages them to shoot.
It’s a difficult thing to pull off with 10-11 year-olds, who haven’t really grasped why running up the score is a bad thing. Since Ryan treats every competition, whether it’s a hockey board game or backyard shooting contest, like an NHL playoff game, I wasn’t sure how he’d react to these instructions. Winning and losing is black and white and therefore easy for Ryan to understand (even though he draws a distinction between a close loss and a “butt-kick”). Changing your approach with a big lead is entering a gray area, but so far Ryan has responded appropriately.
Ryan tends to celebrate goals enthusiastically. So Veronica and I cringed a bit when he yelled loudly after a goal put his team up by eight or nine in the first game of the season. But the next thing I knew, the coach had pulled Ryan aside during a break, put his arm around him and quietly said something directly to him. The next goal Ryan’s team scored there was no yelling, just a brief high-five with the goal scorer. That message clearly got through.
The same scene repeated in the team’s most recent win. After their lead grew to four or five goals, the coach called timeout and gathered the team around him. Whatever he told them he said too quietly for us to hear from the stands. Before play resumed he pulled Ryan aside and again said something directly to him. From that point forward, the team adopted a defensive posture and celebrated appropriately.
After the game, Ryan had questions for us about the coach’s strategy. He wanted to know if the reason was for sportsmanship. We answered that it had, and reminded him that he knew what it felt like to be on the wrong side of a blowout loss. We also tried to explain the subtlety of not just giving up, which would have insulted their opponent, vs. playing more passively. That was a tougher lesson. I suspect that Ryan struggles to distinguish his coach’s strategy from the NHL. I have tried explaining to him that in professional sports, where the players and coaches get paid a lot of money to win, there is no running up the score. Sportsmanship is still important, of course, and thankfully the NHL still offers plenty of ready examples, from the post-series handshake line to the unwritten honor code that governs fighting.
Aside: I don’t enjoy explaining the place of fighting in the NHL to my kids, but if they’re going to see it, I want them to at least understand that there are rules and tremendous respect among fighters and that most of the time it is to stick up for a teammate. I wouldn’t mind if fighting went the way of the stand-up goalie, but as long as it exists my kids can at least understand why it happens.
Through four seasons of street hockey, one of ice hockey, and one of soccer, I can say that Ryan’s participation in team sports has been nothing but a positive. Yes, there are some cringe-worthy moments, but they are outweighed by the opportunity to teach valuable lessons and the social benefits. We have seen his coördination and social skills progress. We have seen him warmly embraced by teammates. We have found other parents encouraging his progress. We have seen him learn to react appropriately to injury — he was hit near the eye with a puck the other day, but didn’t cry and returned to the game after icing it for a few minutes — a far cry from the over-the-top meltdown that usually accompanies a stubbed toe at home.
I can only speak for my family’s experience, of course, and as the saying goes, your mileage may vary. That said, I encourage any other parents of kids on the spectrum to give it a try. I would also recommend speaking to the coach in advance just to set everyone at ease.