One of the things about sports that interest me the most is how players develop. There is, of course, a wide variety of ways development occurs, and players take different paths at different ages. There isn’t, and never has been, a blanket approach to the way kids improve in athletics.
I spend a lot of time thinking about development and trying to make it happen with the players I coach. But I am far from an expert in the field. I am, however, fully versed and have expert-level knowledge in one area of player development. And that is how kids developed back in the Good Old Days.
I have no idea if the way old folks like me grew up playing sports is better or worse than it is now, but one thing I know for sure – it was a whole lot of fun.
So, since I am feeling a bit nostalgic today anyway, here’s the player development blueprint for me, my brother, our friends, neighbors and anyone else who wandered into our part of town.
I grew up in a college town in Central, N.Y., on Lake Ontario. It’s been said with only a slight bit of exaggeration that we had two seasons – Winter and the Fourth of July. Therefore, much of our development occurred indoors. My two favorite sports were soccer and hockey, and I was able to play quite a bit during both seasons.
It was nothing like the way kids do it today. We didn’t have personal trainers helping us perfect skills. We just played. We used improper technique that we eventually corrected when we discovered a better way. We didn’t have coaches, just older kids who told us what position to play. We didn’t have video clips to dissect and copy, just older kids who were better than us. And other than replacing broken hockey sticks, flat soccer balls, and buying lord-knows how many tennis balls, it cost virtually nothing.
I practiced stickhandling with a tennis ball in my cellar against my dog, who was a remarkably tenacious opponent. I spent snow days and weekends in the street in front of my house playing street-hockey games that could be stopped mid-breakaway with one word – “Car.” Then we would have to stop and move the goals until whoever was thoughtless enough to drive down the street passed.
In the warm weather, we played marathon hockey games behind the Dixon’s house on a huge parking lot with real hockey goals donated by the college. The games usually went well into dark, or until Ronnie Clark beat up his brother Roger.
I have watched the development of soccer training aids over the years, and I still haven’t seen anything that compares to what we used. It didn’t have a marketable name, so we called it what it was – The Wall.
The Wall was a permanent structure on the college property where the soccer team trained. It was a little bit larger than the size of a goal and made of lumber. You could shoot at it (on wet days, it would leave a mark, so you could check your accuracy), chip over it, bend the ball around it. It was perfect. The Wall also served as a place to play while waiting for more kids to show up.
The Wall was next to Romney Field House the home of the Oswego State Great Lakers hockey team. Romney was a one-minute drive from my front door, but much easier if you cut through Mr. Van Buren’s yard. We never missed a college hockey game at Romney, better known as The Fieldhouse, and we played our high school home games there. And, unbelievably, in the back of Romney was a piece of artificial turf for pickup soccer games.
During college breaks, we could have the hockey rink to ourselves, depending on what kind of mood Fred Thompson was in. Fred, who had to walk past our house to get to Romney, was in charge of the Fieldhouse, and we never knew if he would tell us to get the hell out of the building or go home and get our skates. If he let us on, we would play for hours — without helmets, which was the coolest part.
Looking back, there may have been some parents who helped us, but it was always behind the scenes. I don’t recall any adult supervision. There was no structure, and it cost nothing. Again, I’m not saying the way we did it in the Good Old Days, was better. Mostly because I don’t think it was, because players today are better.
But the fact that I will never forget all of that and more, says a lot.