My son was six years old when I was approached by a scout from the AAA elite spring hockey from the community 40 miles down the road.  For 3 times the money we had just paid for the traditional 6-month minor hockey season, they could extend the season by 2 months and make by boy a star.  And there would be a track suit.

We passed on this immediately.  However, there was another six-year-old boy approached that day who, at that point, was essentially the same calibre hockey player as my son, and he and his family jumped on board with Spring hockey.  That second boy has, ever since, played hockey anywhere from 9 to 11 months out of the year.  He is now a very good hockey player, lighting up the AA league last season and getting some provincial and regional team play as well.

More recently, my good friend – both of us having very talented young 12-year-old baseball players as sons – asked me if I would consider sending my son away to XYZ Baseball Academy 200 miles away, perhaps for the high school years 15-17. The coach at this academy is highly renowned as a great baseball man and a good human being.  My cousin is at this academy now and he and his parents love it.

My question will be if he can get substantially better coaching and competition there, than he can playing in our community, and living in our house.  A core group of us have created something of a sophisticated baseball program out of almost nothing just as recently as 2014.  Prior to that, baseball in our town was something of a hobby at best - was one game and one practice per week in a regional house-league from early May to mid June.  When school was done, so was ball and it was time to go camping. Before rain outs, you’d be lucky to get 12 games and 8 practices in an entire season.  And the games were usually called on a time limit after 4 innings on a weeknight.

In baseball, we created a team and entered into the A division and promptly won Tier 1 A provincials.  The next year, we went AA and won the Tier 2 (of 5) provincial championship.  Took a year off from the gold medals in 2016 when we moved up an age group and just won the Tier 1 AA provincial championship earlier this month.  Next year, the core of this team moves up an age group, so AA will be more than enough competition, but we’ve all but decided we will be a AAA program come 2019. 

Beyond that though, the allure to get a job to pay for a vehicle, gas and insurance will, history always shows, take about 1/3 to half of those kids out of the game. My kid will be 15 and a half for the 2020 baseball season - not yet old enough to drive himself to ball practice until a month after that 2020 season ends.

My son wants to play NCAA University Baseball – and beyond if he can – in his future.  He has, adorably, decided he wants to be a North Carolina Tar Heel (we live in Western Canada – no idea how he arrived at that choice).  I’m delighted by his dream and he has a very good chance of making it a reality – a div 1 scholarship somewhere that is.  So how do we give him the best chance?

When I was a kid back in the 1980s, it was a lot more straight forward.  You played “rep team” ball and rep team hockey in your home town, that is, if you were fortunate to live in a community that had a critical mass of at least 4,000 to 8,000 people.  You never travelled more than an hour for your league games.  If you were really good, your coach might have to make a few phone calls into his network, but “they” would find you, and when you were 16 (ie. Old enough to drive your own car) they asked you to come try out for AAA hockey or provincial elite team baseball.  Let me repeat that: if you were really good, they would find you.

It’s not just our son.  We have two very talented and athletic daughters.  The 15-year-old plays softball, volleyball and basketball.  All locally, so far, but she’s lobbying us quite regularly of late to play club volleyball 40 to 60 miles away this coming winter/spring.  The 10-year-old girl plays hockey and softball and there’s no insanity at that age yet.  I played some fairly good high school volleyball and my dad was, for 30 years, a hall of fame high school volleyball coach.  We could and we might create a club program locally. A stab was made at one last year by another coach and it went ok for a first year.

Let’s talk about sports academies.  Cost runs between $16,000 to $30,000 per year.  You send your kid away, as though to boarding school, at 15 years of age.  First of all, I don’t like that right there.  I like my kids – I don’t want to not see them 5 days a week at this age.  They’ll fly the nest soon enough at 18.  I don’t see the hurry to outsource.

If we chose to send our son to a dedicated baseball academy for example, he’s pretty much specialized. No more hockey, not much volleyball or basketball. Although it’s probably baseball, I’m still not sure his path to the NCAA isn’t in hockey. After telling the “talent scout” from AAA elite spring hockey no thank you, my boy fell behind.  Dramatically so actually, from the ages of 7 to 10. Almost every other kid in his peer group did at least 2 month extended hockey season in Spring – some did an extra 4 months onto the 6-month minor hockey season.

In the last two seasons, my boy has – in my probably biased opinion - caught up to all of those spring hockey kids except for one.  I’m holding steadfast to the late bloomer hunch.  One of the very best 13-year-old hockey players in our community right now played rec hockey (one practice, one game per week with literally no travel at all) until he was 9.  Tried out for the A team at 10 and was cut, was the best player on the A team when he was 11, second best player on the AA team at 12.  Sure, it helps that this boy is 5’ 10’ and 150 pounds at 13.  He’s doing all the spring and summer hockey now, but he and his family didn’t invest those 6 to 11 years in that grind.  Did they do it right, better or smarter than those that jumped in at 6 or 7 years old?

Another phenomenon I’ve noticed from the spring hockey crowd:  they’re starting to leave the game altogether, or at least “taking a year off” at 12, 13, 14 years old.  They want to ski and snow board.  Compete in school sports like volleyball, badminton and basketball.  They’re frigging sick of that 7-hour round-trip to Medicine Hat for a single league game in the middle of January.  And guess which non-spring hockey kid is not sure he wants to play this year?  Right, ours.  Once a few burnt out dominoes fell, there’s been something of a contagion in our town.

Have you found any contradictions in my reasoning above? Probably. These are not easy decisions for the parents to wrestle to the ground. Maybe that’s because the sheer number of options in this long past emerging and well established for-profit sports academy, spring hockey, club sport industry.

What about this for our kids?  They play hockey in hockey season, and baseball in baseball season.  Maybe they have to talk their hockey coaching into sharing them for part of the season with the football or volleyball coach, and in spring/summer, they’re playing a bit of soccer, track and field, or lacrosse alongside baseball.  But guess what – it’s all local; at least until your child is a few years into their teens.

What are those stats - that maybe 1.5 or 2% of all kids playing competitive sports will get a meaningful collegiate scholarship opportunity, and .01% of those kids will get to play professionally?  Doesn’t it make sense to absolutely hang on to those dreams, but do it locally, have a breadth of athletic experiences, minimize time on the highway and, most importantly, be a kid? 

Your kid probably ain’t gonna make it sports and the odds are grossly stacked against ours too. But he won’t hear that from me as I want more than anything for him to take his best stab at his dream. But hopefully they’ll have had a blast along the way and will still love sports and then coach sports when they’re a 46-year-old has been like me.

Blog author Jordan Cleland is currently a youth sports coach, management consultant, and father of talented 10, 13 and 15-year-old athletes; formerly a collegiate vice president overseeing an Athletic program, U.S. full scholarship baseball player and national u18 team player.  His collegiate career was 3 seasons long and fairly unremarkable.  He attained his bachelor’s degree and was never drafted professionally.  

Sports, Choice and the Modern Parent
by Jordan Cleland 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017