Photo Credit: Chris McCooey at http://www.chrismccooey.photography/
Thank you to Jozy, the Porcini family and Chris McCooey for your permission to use this image with my story. Jozy Porcini is a hockey player who dreams of playing on the Olympic team someday. Here’s one family that will be cheering for you, Jozy!
A special thanks to the Rye Rangers, especially the twenty dedicated coaches in the 8U/Mite Minor/ADM programs who have shaped our children’s lives over the past three years.
My husband and I did not intend to become hockey parents. Neither one of us played growing up, but we both learned to skate when we were young. We thought that our children should learn this skill, as well, especially now that we had moved from New York City to a nearby town that many people had described to us not only as a sporty town but a hockey town. Stereotypes aside, it seemed our kids would probably get invited to some skating parties over the years.
Our oldest child, Robert, was six when we moved. Already a Rangers fan like his dad, he asked to play hockey the minute we showed him the nearby ice rink. We joined the town program, the Rye Rangers, and spent an afternoon at the local hockey store getting initiated on how to “gear up.” He and our daughter, Eliza, also took group skating lessons once a week.
Robert loved hockey but hated falling, so he quickly learned to stay up on his skates. Eliza started her lessons with a decent effort, and then after a month or two became more and more hesitant, waddling off the ice in tears long before the lesson was over. She is not a hesitant child, so I figured we would take a break and try it again the following winter. One morning, watching her brother at hockey, Eliza said, “I can skate if I play hockey.” I asked what she meant, and she explained that if she had all those pads on, she wouldn’t be afraid anymore.
Done. We signed her up for Rye Rangers for the following year. Robert had girls on his team, and while they were mostly girls who grew up in hockey families and had been on skates since they could walk, we could tell the program was very inclusive and supportive. It would work out or not, but we were happy to give it a try.
In her second season, Eliza is not only a competent skater but a confident child on the ice. There are only a handful of girls, as there were in Robert’s group, and they are treated exactly the same as the boys. There are no double standards, no greater tolerance for tears, no lower expectations in drills or concerns about the roughness of play. The coaching team treats each child as an individual, and the whole program is designed for children to develop at their own pace while also being part of a team. The children have internalized this philosophy and even the slowest and least experienced skaters come off the ice with proud smiles.
These children are young. There is no real reason to separate genders at such a young age in sports like baseball, basketball, soccer and hockey, where the rules are the same for boys and girls, and yet most sports programs do. This program has given both of my children a chance to spend time with classmates of the opposite gender outside of school and see that stereotypes about what boys and girls can do are just that – stereotypes. They build friendships and they work together, without the artificial barriers that seem to be constructs in their world at every turn.
I have heard the argument for gender-segregated sports as it relates to confidence, mostly in favor of girls having their own team. Advocates say it gives girls a chance to shine, have their voices heard and build confidence, even the ones who are more shy and hesitant. I have heard parents say, “My daughter would never have played soccer again if it was still co-ed.” I understand the argument, but think it points to greater problems in the philosophies of youth sports programs. How are coaches, even at young ages, tailoring their coaching to girls differently than they would to boys? What about the hesitant boy who needs a bit more nurturing to build confidence, or the girl who wants to compete on the boys team and isn’t intimidated? What about the fact that physically, their pre-pubescent bodies and abilities are no different based on gender? This position, as well-intended as it may be, makes a lot of assumptions about gender differences and about our own children. My daughter could not even let go of the wall without falling when she started playing hockey, and now she is one of six girls in a hockey program of over forty children, and she feels great about herself.
I have no expectations for where my children’s hockey careers will go, but I am grateful that they have had this surprisingly unique experience of inclusion. In soccer, children in our town spend one year on mixed-gender teams in Kindergarten, only to divide up arbitrarily in first grade. Apparently six is the age at which girls and boys differ in their soccer abilities. The girls who start out in Rangers often stick with it for a number of years and then may opt to play on a girls team instead of or in addition to Rye Rangers, just as some of the boys choose other programs for other reasons. The girls are never excluded from the team or discouraged, and everyone gets playing time, not in the everyone-gets-a-trophy sort of way, but in the spirit of working hard and being part of a team.
One of my favorite moments as a hockey parent was last winter when Robert saw the photograph above, which a friend had posted on Facebook. After reading it, he said, “Mom, why ARE the girls so fast?” In his age group, the team that he finds most intimidating is one with some very fast, strong players who are girls. I didn’t even have to answer. I think the image above says it all.