• "Choice requires awareness."
  • "On the opposite side of adversity is benefit.
    Like a mathematical equation,
    the greater the adversity
    the greater the potential benefit."
  • "Discipline reveals, hindsight is 50/50."
  • "It’s not about good or bad.
    It's not about right or wrong.
    it's about power."
  • "Power is the ability to do."

My Kid Wants to Quit

Posted on Feb 14, 2024 in Coaching, Sharpen Your Mental Edge

Preface

Philosopher Homer Simpson accurately noted that men do have feelings – providing “tired” and “hungry” as incontestable examples. As a parent, I have a job to do, but I also have feelings. Knowing this, I delayed publishing this blog for a couple of weeks until I could get third-person feedback to keep my Worst Enemy out of the kitchen. Thank you to my Swim Buddies -you know who you are!

Disheartened athlete prepared to walk away from it all.

Disheartened athlete prepared to walk away from it all.

Emotional crisis or opportunity

After having played a dozen games in the season, ranked 1st place in points (a combination of goals and assists) my 12-year-old son announced his intention to quit playing hockey and pin it on his coach. The number two player was situated only one-point behind and the two of them appeared unapproachable with merely four games remaining before post-season. Despite his competitive drive, Michael Cummings was ready to walk away from it all.

As a Noble Warrior Father, what does a victory look like? What is my strategic approach? What tactics are available for me on this familiar battlefield?

On one hand, I want to support his freedom of choice. Allow him to be responsible for his choices and to pay the consequences so that he learns from his own trials.

On the other hand, from my own experience, life doesn’t always give us what we want. Nor do actions of others in authority positions consistently appear to be fair and comprehensive. Knowing “the scale of lessons” my kid will either learn the lesson now from this “divine instructor” (as Wayne Dyer might call him), or he will face a harsher teacher in the future.

Context

Coming into the season, Michael was clearly an “A” level player, but the coaching staff relegated him to “BB” level during tryouts. Perhaps he required more maturity, executive function development, or something less visible than hockey skills and mindset. As a family, we embraced this demotion as an opportunity. The previous eight months had been emotionally difficult in his personal life. I was open to a season where Michael could have development opportunities he may never again get to see. Perhaps a season with liberty to stick handle and see the pressure and the help, was the best thing for him.

As he surely did for others on the team, Coach noted the potential in our son and expressed his desire to develop him. Michael was awarded ‘Hardest Worker’ following a strong showing in a preseason tournament. This was the last time he was recognized by Coach before the team for his efforts and contributions on the ice. Coach’s praises were reserved for private acknowledgment – and there were plenty! I applauded Coach’s approach of holding the bar higher for Michael. We all wanted him to grow.

Over the season, teammates witnessed Coach demanding more from Michael, without hearing from Coach that he was also doing things right. This omission, despite averaging more than 3-points per game and tied for the most assists in the league. The team was only hearing one side of the coin from Coach.

During a tournament game early in the season, Coach thought Michael could’ve made a pass to center ice and to emphasize his teaching, sat him for 5-minutes on the bench. Obediently, he spent his 5-minutes in detention. Once in the car, Michael clarified that he had not been shooting to score. It was an attempted play practiced with his teammate: POP – Pass Off Pads (bank the puck off the goalie to center ice, but Michael missed his target.) He went on to aggregate the most points of any player from the 27-teams in the weekend tournament! This remarkable accomplishment went without recognition. The bold statement his teammates heard was simply “Michael doesn’t pass enough.”

His linemates began emulating what they saw from their coach. Reactively, they demanded that Michael pass to them. He responded directly, telling them he wants to pass to them and needs them to skate in front of him and open.  When the referee acknowledges that a player set up another player in the process of scoring, an assist is recorded. Ice hockey is beautiful in that, an assist is worth as many points as a goal. Michael’s number of assists was the top in the league – and yet, observing the pressure their leader applied to their peer and their own desire to score – they felt entitled to demand more passes from him. This is a normal reaction, and it divides teammates.

Powder keg

He was approaching his emotional breaking point when he traveled to Europe to spend the holidays with family. Committed to continue his training while away, he was accepted to practice on the top 13-year-old team in that country. Knowing himself to be the outsider, his dominant offensive focus was to pass to his teammates for them to score.

Returning to the United States, he rejoined his team, flying directly to Boston, joining his team to play in a tournament. His BB team was inexplicably placed in competition against top tier AAA teams. While not the only player on the team to do so, Michael took the yoke upon his own shoulders to see his team through offensively and defensively.

Their night game was rescheduled for 2-hours later due to an error on the part of the tournament coordinator. While his teammates body-clocks were still 3-hours earlier, his own was 6 hours later – the equivalent of 2 or 3 am during the game.

A despondent youth hockey player sits in the locker room.

A despondent youth hockey player sits in the locker room.

Leaving the ice after another humiliating 15-0 “mercy killing” early concluded game in the tournament, Michael was in tears. Uncharacteristically, he came out of the locker room as one of the first to leave. Still crying, and ignoring all parents, he carried his bag out into the 18-degrees parking lot without knowing where the car was waiting for him.

Respecting his mood, he finally told us that he had had enough and quit the team.

“I am not quitting hockey, just this coach.”  These painful words were delivered with more tears. “He yelled at me three times! For not passing – when there was no one to pass to; for not working hard enough; for not knowing what to do on defense – but he refused to tell me when I asked him what to do!”

Hearing him out and ready to honor his wishes, I told him about something I’d learned from reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. I employed this tactic in 2002 when the VP of Black Water offered me a lucrative job at a time when I certainly could have used the money.

Sleep on it, I advised.

Putting aside his desire to text-announce his resignation to his team, Michael trusted my invitation.

The following morning, he was still just as determined to no longer play for this coach. Miraculously, the words of a peer 12-year-old hockey player from another team reached him. He chose to continue the tournament and the season.

During practice his raw nerves were further rocked by Coach yelling at him less than one week later. This time, Michael took the initiative, without telling me, to sleep on it. The following day he was back on the ice for a game when the father of a teammate approached me.

“Coach sure does yell at Michael a lot.”

I was caught unawares. My attention had only been watching on-ice mindset and performance. The bench-interactions with Coach had happened without my knowledge.

Sure enough, coming out of the locker room, he announced again his decision to quit. I made sure he knew I heard him loud and clear. Then I put him on notice that he would have that discussion directly with Coach. Faced with this, he became quiet for the reminder of the day.

Time to talk

The next morning, over breakfast, Michael addressed me as a determined lawyer might. Arguing against having to meet with Coach about his choice to quit, he asked “Dad? In the Navy SEALs, when a man quit, did he have to talk to his coach or boss first?” When I shook my head negatively, Michael waived his hands as if he had made his case.

“Michael, when men quit in BUD/S, it is expected. That school is a pruning process as much as it evolves men. Council is available for those who request it, and the instructors honor the fortitude of character it takes to ask for help. They treat that trainee with respect for making such a bold move, but it’s no guarantee that they will endure the challenges yet to come.

In the SEAL Teams it’s very rare for a man to quit. When they do so, it’s usually done implosive or explosively. I’ve seen both. In very rare cases, they realize, as one of my platoon mates did, that they bought the wrong plan.”

“What happened Dad?”

“A new teammate who was older than most of us realized that his four daughters and wife were not seeing enough of him while we were In Port. Very respectfully, he requested help. He was transferred to another command where he could spend more time with his family. That man went on to develop the miniature submarine program for the Navy’s deep see rescue efforts.”

Still, my kid was prepared to walk away from this Coach and subsequently his teammates.

Learn from others’ experiences

As you the reader may know, I see patterns and I study a variety of “winners” in multiple disciplines. The previous night I watched a Red Bull docuseries on the great rally driver, Carlos Sainz Sr. He, like me and many of my peers, had plenty of justifiable reasons to quit on his dream. Instead, he chose the road less traveled (pun intended). To endure, to grow, to feel the pain and to allow that specific ego-weakness to be cleansed from him. This chisels the character of a person and Carlos is testimony to that power. At 62 years of age, Sainz just won the 2024 Dakar! I took a page from his book and gave it to my son.

“Michael,” I began, “I’ve been watching Coach and listening to him for the entire season. From preseason he made it clear that he was interested in developing you into an AA player – knowing he would no longer be your coach at that level.” My son nodded his head in remembering.

“When I listen to Coach, I believe this is precisely how he communicates that he cares.” I paused before continuing. “Holding you to a standard higher than what is comfortable for you, and always demanding more from you is his way of showing respect for your true abilities.”

Formula-1 pilot Carlos Sainz Junior shared that, as a youth winning kart races, his father never celebrated the way his sisters and mother would. Rather, his father acknowledged both the win as a positive, and that there is more work to be done. The Junior Sainz reflected that this made his father appear cold, emotionless, and over demanding. Only he knew the truth about his father. This approach was the most respectful way to address the development of his skills and manifest his true potential.

Visibly feeling cared for by Coach for the first time in months, Michael’s face softened. “I never looked at it like this. Yeah. Hmm.” Looking up, he asked “Dad, would you write about this and share it?”

Nodding I continued. “You still need to have your conversation with Coach.”  He looked up, questioningly.

“But I’m not going to quit. Why do I need to still talk to him?”

“Because for weeks you have divided yourself from Coach. Even if only on your side of the relationship, it’s your responsibility to reunite with him. It may be as simple as telling him that you had taken his coaching in a negative light. That you had separated from him and the relationship. This isn’t about Coach, it’s about you.”

Players are imperfect. Coaches are imperfect. Referees are imperfect. Organizations are imperfect. Parents are imperfect.

But if we choose to take The Road Less Traveled, we can still achieve excellence!

Postscript

Michael scheduled a pre-practice discussion with Coach. The full discussion lasted 72 seconds. Strutting like a boss, my kid nodded to me proudly as he walked off to the locker room. Coach turned to address me.

“If only… if only I could be that mature today, let alone when I was 12 years old!” His eyes smiled into mine long and hard. “Wow.” He shook his head, expressing the solid impression.

As we go into the final game of the season, Michael is tied for first place in league points. We’ll continue cheering his effort because his mindset is the only thing he truly has control over – and that’s where he can chisel his own character.