“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”
It’s a quote famously attributed to legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. Thankfully, Mr. Lombardi wasn’t speaking of youth sports. He was a professional coach, paid to deliver results with players whose job it was to play football.
He was not speaking of, say, bantam house league ice hockey. That’s a good thing, because Ryan is learning a bunch of valuable lessons playing on a team that is overmatched in nearly all of its games. Where we live, there simply aren’t many house leagues for kids Ryan’s age and skill level. His team plays in a middle-school league against teams that have tryouts and a lot of kids who play travel hockey on other teams at the same time.
The games have not been close. Ryan’s teams is often down five or more goals by the end of the first period, and most opponents spend the third period working on passing and trying hard not to run up the score. I have no complaints about the way the games were handled. There’s been no evidence of bad sportsmanship and nothing that I would consider a dangerous situation (it’s a non-checking league).
I also don’t have any issues with the program. There simply aren’t enough kids in this age group playing house league to field a competitive division. By this age, most kids have moved on to travel teams, are playing for their schools, or have given up the sport.
Ryan is not most kids, however. He got a comparatively late start in hockey. He didn’t skate until age eight and didn’t join a team until age 11. He’s also dealt with a whole host of other challenges, of course. Our options for him came down to house league or special hockey — an incredible program, but one we didn’t think was right for our son.
He’s improved immensely since his first season on an organized team, and he continues to get better weekly. But for Ryan the losses have been challenging. The team he was on last year was quite good, losing the house league championship game in a shootout. He was a valuable contributor, scoring five goals. He was named the most-improved player in the entire peewee division, one of the truly banner days of his young life.
With the results of the games this year, it’s harder or Ryan to see his progress and judge his contribution. Add in some social struggles he’s met, and let’s just say he’s not nearly as enthusiastic about ice hockey as he was last year.
He had a game yesterday, and it followed the now familiar pattern. The team was down 3-0 after three minutes, on the way to a one-sided loss. From the bleachers, I watched Ryan closely for signs of frustration boiling over. I didn’t see any. Sure, I could tell he wasn’t happy, but he continued to skate hard, keep his head up and accept encouragement from the coach after each shift.
I thought back to his first-ever organized hockey contest, a summer street-hockey game some five years ago. I wasn’t able to attend, and Veronica was sending me texts with updates. Ryan’s team fell quickly behind. As the score got more out of hand, he couldn’t process it. He began to cry and yell on the bench. He blamed teammates, saying the team would do better if he played more. Veronica had to leave the bleachers to intervene and get him calmed down.
We’ve come miles and miles from that day. I know the losing eats at Ryan. My biggest fear is that it threatens to sap his enjoyment of the sport, and I would hate to see that happen because Ryan has taken so much good from his participation in hockey.
I met him coming off the ice and he whispered to me (whispered, not shouted — that’s progress right there), “See I told you we were going to get blown out.”
I pulled him close so he could hear what I had to say.
“I know it’s hard and you’re frustrated,” I told him. “But I’m proud of you. You skated hard and hung in there.”
With that I sent him into the dressing room for the coaches post game talk and set about plotting the pep talk I’d give on the ride home.
He wanted to listed to music on his headphones but I asked if we could talk for a few minutes first.
I told him again how proud I was that he didn’t let his frustration show and continued to try hard despite the lopsided score. I asked if he knew how many goals against he was on the ice for.
“One?” he answered, correctly.
I told him he just needs to focus on being the best player he can and improving as much as he can.
And then I finally hit on something that resonated.
“I’ll tell you something else,” I said. “There’s a reason you’re now one of the best players on your street hockey team. There’s a reason you beat me when we play in the backyard. There’s a reason you’re one of the best ice skaters in your school.
“It’s because you play ice hockey,” I continued.
“Really?” he responded, and I knew I had his attention.
He smiled for the first time since the game ended.
I told him when he’s my age, he won’t remember the record his bantam team had (before realizing that yes, Ryan will of course remember the record). I told him, truthfully, that I have as much fun playing hockey now as I’ve ever had, and it’s because I learned to love playing the game at his age.
I don’t know what the future in ice hockey holds for Ryan. I do know that it’s worth fighting to keep him involved in the sport, because the positives far outweigh any negatives.
I also know how much I hope that when he’s my age, he’ll still be out there playing — for the love of the sport. If learning to be a good loser now helps him get there, then I can say Vince Lombardi was wrong.