Ryan was ambivalent about going to his regular weekly hockey practice on Tuesday. To discover why required a bit of parental detective work.
Ryan was originally supposed to miss the practice for his school’s winter concert, which was part of his music grade. Except we got a dose of snow on Tuesday and the concert was postponed. By evening, the roads were fine and there was no reason Ryan couldn’t go to hockey.
Let me rephrase that. There was no reason that I could see for Ryan to miss hockey.
For him? Entirely different. He already had it in his mind that hockey was out Tuesday, so when the concert was postponed he assumed he had the evening at home. When I insisted otherwise, I met immediate resistance.
We’ve had our ups and downs with ice hockey this year, but things seem to be back on track. Last week, Ryan emerged from the locker room after practice and told me, “Dad, I think there are actually some kids on this team I could be friends with.”
I was thrilled to hear it. A few weeks earlier, he had said the exact opposite, and when we dug in, out came the details of being picked on.
Now a week after that pleasant revelation, he was trying to convince me that we shouldn’t go to hockey.
“Some of those kids aren’t very nice to me,” he said.
I did not want to dismiss his concerns, but just a week earlier he had come off the ice smiling and telling me how he liked several of his teammates. Both Veronica and I felt he was fishing for excuses not to go since he had made up his mind this was not a Hockey Practice Night and did not want to change gears.
Yes, we suspected we were being manipulated. And we were happy about it. After all, manipulation requires more advanced social thinking than his typical back-and-forth.
When I pressed, Ryan changed course, lending further strength to the idea that he was making excuses. The team, which plays in a middle school league against mostly far-more experienced teams, has been getting routed in games. Ryan protested. “What’s the point? We’re just going to get blown out in the games.”
I tried a different course, emphasizing that he was part of the team and was expected to be at practice. I explained how the teams they played against had tryouts and more experience. I told him there is only one way to get better, and that’s by practicing.
He went back to the situation in the dressing room, telling us that some of the kids use language that he doesn’t like. Now, my son loves cursing. He’ll use any excuse to sneak a curse word in if he thinks he can get away with it (only at home, however — he would NEVER curse at school).
We dug in a little more. Ryan is having a hard time understanding the barbs that get thrown around a locker room among seventh- and eighth-grade boys. His literal mind struggles to interpret how friends could say nasty things to one another and then laugh about it. He’s also very conditioned to have his guard up about bullying from all the emphasis on it in school, and he has been very interested in the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito situation, knowing that bullying can occur among teammates in a locker room.
This was a tough one. From his descriptions of what’s being said, it sounds like typical locker-room nonsense. Ryan insists it’s not being directed towards him. There is always a coach in the locker room, and I discussed my concerns with him when Ryan first raised the issue of being picked on.
We tried to explain how there’s a level of playful teasing that goes on between teammates that is OK, but that he can tell us if he ever feels uncomfortable. We advised him to mostly mind his business and focus on getting dressed and listening to the coach. From my observations of the team, there seem to be a few ringleaders with outsized personalities that enjoy ragging on each other — just as there have been on every team I’ve ever played on. Ryan is not the only kid that doesn’t take part.
Still, I want to stay guarded. I always check with Ryan after each practice and game if anything happened that he didn’t like.
With that, we were off to practice.
Ryan has long since mastered the art of putting on all his equipment himself, which is not easy given that his fine-motor skills are below age-level. The two toughest tasks, fastening three tight snaps on his helmet and tying his skates, were the last ones he figured out. The skates are particularly troublesome. Ryan, through practice and perseverance, learned to lace and tie them. But skates need to be tied very tight, and he often comes out of the dressing room wobbling on skates that are far too lose.
I don’t want to help him, because it’s ostracizing. For the first few weeks, we found a discrete place for me to quickly tighten them after he’d done his best, but before one practice some teammates saw us and one asked him “you don’t know how to tie your own skates?”
This upset Ryan, and so I used it as a teaching moment to encourage him to learn to do it himself. I bought him a skate hook to help.
I still try to inspect them quickly before he steps on the ice, just to make sure they’re tight enough that he can skate effectively. The last few practices and games, he has done them completely himself.
After we convinced him to go Tuesday, he got himself completely ready, including figuring out different patterns of the straps on some new shin and elbow guards. I eyed his skates. Not perfect, but looked tight enough.
I settled in to watch practice from the upstairs viewing area. About halfway through, during a water break, I noticed a coach helping one kid tighten his skates on the bench.
I quickly grew concerned. I assumed it was Ryan. I knew he’d be worried what the other kids would think.
Just as my heart began to sink, I scanned the ice and found Ryan standing with teammates in a corner. It wasn’t him after all. Phew.
After practice, I mentioned this to Ryan. “So don’t worry about anyone saying anything about tying skates,” I told him. “Because a lot of kids need help to do them right.”
He smiled. It had been a good practice and he was happy. Plus, he wanted to tell me something. One of the kids that had been mean to him got in trouble with the coach for not listening.
I told him I wasn’t surprised.
“A kid who goofs off in the locker room is not taking hockey seriously the way you do,” I said, before reminding him that as long as he paid attention and gave his best effort, coaches would always enjoy having him on their team.
I’m not sure what hockey holds for the rest of this year and beyond. If we have to negotiate our way through this season and re-evaluate, we will.
There are still valuable lessons being learned in the interim.