This week, I was a guest on the NPR show Radio Times - a good discussion with lots of listener calls. At one point, I retold a favorite story from Until It Hurts - about Michael Stuart and the high-achieving hockey players in his family.
Stuart is an orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minesota. He's also chief medical officer of USA Hockey - and in that capacity is deeply involved in the concussion debate in youth hockey. (I've posted video of Dr. Stuart speaking about that).
Michael Stuart is also a hockey dad. He has four children, now grown. Three boys have played professionally, two in the National Hockey League. His daughter was captain of the Boston College women's hockey team. So you can imagine how many chilly rinks Stuart has sat in the past 30 years.
The story about the Stuart family included in the book is disarmingly simple. Yet it makes a crucial point. Before the start of every hockey season, Stuart told me he would pull his kids aside one by one and ask if they wanted to play that season. As he explained, it was important that they knew the decision was theirs. In no way were they playing to please him.
"I didn’t ask the question, because I didn’t know the answer. I asked so my children would know there was no expectation. It was their choice. The point was made to them. “Gee, I don’t really have to play. Dad is even asking me if I want to.” The bottom line for children, or anyone, playing sports is you have to enjoy it. It’s hard to reach your potential if you’re miserable.”
The story prompted a great phone call from a mom who'd recently asked her kids whether they wanted to sign up again for soccer. Answer: Do we have to? That simplified her decision. This year, no soccer.
After the show, I received this message from Chris in Philadelphia on the same point:
I coach a U-12 girls travel soccer team. I coach soccer because I love the game and I love to teach. Soccer is my thing. Both of my children, currently 12 and nearly 15, played soccer but they no longer play.
After three years, my 12-year-old daughter and I agreed that she was not enjoying the experience of playing soccer and so she withdrew. While she played, she enjoyed spending time with me and her peers and enjoyed many moments of her experience.
My son played for five or six seasons but off the field, broke his toe twice, both times running through the house, in the middle of his soccer seasons. After missing a second season due to a broken toe, this fall, his first on the High School Freshman team, he withdrew from soccer and has decided he will not return.
Soccer is my thing, it does not mean my kids need to play. After all, my daughter is taking up writing and my son skateboards at least twice a week. They both have chosen well on their own.