12U: Perfection’s Curse

By Michael Rand – Special to USA Hockey

perfecctions curseWhat can be done about youth players who are consumed by perfection at a young age?

When Bob Deraney heard the question, the longtime Providence College women’s hockey head coach was taken aback.

“Can you believe what you just said?” Deraney asked. “That 12-year-olds are worried about being perfect?”

As unbelievable as it might sound, it’s a real problem. As pressure mounts on players to distinguish themselves at younger ages, the simple joy of playing can be squeezed out of the hockey experience, leaving a higher-stress approach in its place, even at levels like 12U.

“We’ve stolen unstructured play from the youth of America,” Deraney said. “The backyard is your laboratory and the arena is your stage. But kids don’t do that anymore.”

How Did This Happen?

Deraney, who has daughters involved in competitive sports as well as a young nephew who is a talented hockey player, said he noticed a shift about 20 years ago. Scholarships and pro contracts became big-ticket items. Suddenly, a game that thrived on backyard rinks was looked upon not as a joy but as a set of skills to master.

“It changed when lots of money was being made,” Deraney says. “Then kids didn’t play for fun anymore, they played because they thought it would get them somewhere. And parents treat their kids as investments, which is an unbelievably sad statement.”

That lead parents and coaches – often one and the same – to get caught up in an ultra-competitive cycle.

“Players are always being evaluated,” Deraney said. “They’re cutting kids, trading kids. Where is the fun of just playing?”

Consequences of Trying to Be Perfect

It might seem counterintuitive, but the more kids strive for perfection and attempt to avoid mistakes, the more it can dent their confidence, Deraney said. As a result, the burnout rate climbs.

He’s seen it with his own college players – young women who raised in the same culture youth hockey players now find themselves.

“They’re expected to be perfect in every realm of their life – sports, school, everything. And the bar is unrealistic,” he says. “They lack confidence because they’re not measuring up. But if you’re doing your very best, isn’t that good enough?”

How Do We Change?

If trying to be perfect is the problem, the solution is flipping the script, Deraney said. We should be teaching kids that it’s okay to fail sometimes because it’s, ultimately, the path to success.

He uses an example from a different sport – basketball – to emphasize his point, recalling an old commercial featuring Michael Jordan in which one of the game’s greatest all-time players talks about how all of his missed shots and losses only made him stronger.

“If you’re afraid to take a risk, you’re afraid to dream,” Deraney said. “So I’ve always believed that I’m not looking at a player to be perfect. I’m looking at them to do their very best every day. And if they do that, they’re probably going to be very, very successful. That’s really what we focus on. It’s all about preparation, and you can’t be afraid to fail.”

That means we shouldn’t dwell on mistakes. We should, however, teach young players the value of making a mistake in a practice or game.

“If a kid makes a mistake, no problem. Do (the drill) again,” Deraney says. “I don’t think there’s room in sports for negativity. There’s no value in it. There is so much more value in ‘that’s okay, do it again.’”

Role of USA Hockey

USA Hockey has stressed many of the things Deraney speaks of in its American Development Model.

“That’s why I think the ADM is very special and important,” he says. “It’s allowing a kid to get on the ice and just play. It’s allowing for some unstructured play. Is it organized? Sure. But within that, they’re moving toward unstructured play.”

And when kids just play, they stop worrying about being perfect and start thriving.

“At younger ages, nobody is living or dying here,” Deraney says. “It’s a game. The more confidence they have, the more positive plays they’re going to make.”

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