Ever since I was young, I have had a huge passion for sports and competition. I played many different sports growing up, and I now compete at a national level in both hockey and tennis. There is something that I love about working hard, competing and getting better. Throughout my life, I have spent countless hours by myself hitting against a backboard and skating on an outdoor rink simply because I loved it. My passion for sports was fostered by several positive people and coaches who taught me what sports are really about.
My parents, Karen and Tom, encouraged me to play several different sports as a young child that included tennis, soccer, swimming and hockey as well as many hours just playing backyard baseball and football. To them, winning wasn't nearly as important as trying your best, having fun and displaying good sportsmanship. Playing sports with these goals and values, rather than the pressure to win, grew my love for sports and I began to spend lots of time playing them.
Tim Butorac is a tennis coach and owner of our local tennis club. His son Eric is a professional tennis player so he knows what it takes to become a world-class tennis player. Tim is incredible at building a love for the game of tennis while making you a better player one day at a time. When I showed potential after a few years of playing tennis, many tennis pros would have encouraged me to specialize if I wanted to "keep up" and I've seen this happen a lot. But Tim didn't get overexcited about my tennis and he knew I loved playing hockey and he encouraged me to continue my growth as an athlete.
USA Hockey's American Development Model also strongly encourages multisport participation. But unfortunately, many hockey coaches and programs still demand unreasonable off-season commitment, sometimes going so far as telling players they can't play other sports. Fortunately, Coach PJ Norby agrees with USA Hockey and he gave me the opportunity to play with one of the best AAA teams in the nation despite knowing that I would have a lot of tennis conflicts. Coach Norby didn't view my dedication to tennis as a lack of dedication to hockey and he did everything he could to make it work for me which was not easy. But thanks to him, I've had some tremendous hockey experiences playing with and against some of the best hockey competition in the US and Canada.
It's not just coaches that I've learned from. My best friend, doubles partner and tennis rival Ingrid Neel and her mom, Hildy, have always had fresh perspectives on sports and competition. For example, Hildy doesn't believe in "the big match." She says all matches are just practice matches -- even though sometimes they seem really big at the time. What she means is that it's more important to improve than to win. As an example -- from a young age when Ingrid and I played in doubles tournaments, we always served and volleyed. We lost a lot of matches that we could have won if we had stayed back and played safer. But now, we are a great doubles team because we've learned to play at the net better than most players. In hockey, this same idea means a coach encourages players to be creative and improve, rather than just dump-and-chase the puck in order to win a game. I can tell you from experience that in both cases, losing now means you will be a lot better when you are older.
While many coaches have played a huge role in my development, none have taught me as much as my dad. My dad has coached me in hockey and tennis for my whole life. As a serious athlete, it is crucial to have a parent or coach that cares about you and understands where you want to go with your sports. My dreams in sports are mine, not his, and he has always understood this. I think it is very important that coaches and parents understand what a young athlete really wants at a given stage and not push him or her too fast or too far so that the love is lost.
My experiences in sports have helped me understand that youth coaches should emphasize that sports are a place to have fun, learn good sportsmanship and give 100%. If success in youth sports can be defined more by passion and effort and sportsmanship than by travel, scoreboards, and trophies, all kids can enjoy sports and competition regardless of their ability. In addition, encouraging multiple sports throughout childhood helps them to enjoy competition, be healthier mentally and physically and develop all-around athletic skills.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in conjunction with the latter's "Project Play." Project Play aims to re-imagine youth sports in the U.S., and on November 20 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, will convene more than 30 thought leaders to help develop a plan to grow the quality and quantity of youth coaches nationally. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about Project Play, click here or follow @AspenInstSports.