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Sheldon Kennedy urges us to tame the hockey anger

Former NHL star Sheldon Kennedy, seen in Calgary Tuesday, April 4, 2006.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

The truism that organized sports are good for children has been dealt a much-needed blow by the former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy. The online course he helped devise for parents and coaches - called Respect in Sport - makes the point that too much of an emphasis on winning can harm children's development, not help it.

Winning is not, as the late football coach Vince Lombardi had it, the only thing. Not in youth sports, anyway. Children and teenagers play sports for fun, exercise, camaraderie and to win - the pursuit of victory is last among the reasons they play.

Words to put in every clubhouse: "The kids in sport are a lot more important than the score," psychologist Cal Botterill says on a video included in the course. "If we get in too big a hurry and overreact to winning and losing, we can easily jeopardize their growth and development." The consequences include "guilt, fear, anger, embarrassment, loss of motivation and personal scarring that can last a lifetime."

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In Mr. Kennedy's course, five adult errors are highlighted: using guilt on a child; behaving with misplaced enthusiasm; living through one's child; stressing "making the bigs"; and losing perspective. This goes beyond the outright nastiness committed by the few to include some subtler acts of which many may be guilty from time to time.

Mr. Kennedy knows of sport's mixed blessings. As an elite teenage hockey player, he was sexually abused by his coach, Graham James. People told him that sport is 75 per cent mental, he said, but few showed concern for his mental well-being.

Whether his course will succeed with those who need it most is open to question. But its use by Hockey Calgary, which has made it mandatory for parents, and by Basketball Manitoba and other groups, is a strong statement by those agencies of what they value.

Organized sport at its best is, as Mr. Botterill put it, "a great vehicle to promote striving, which can bring out the best in us." But it is sometimes, maybe often, far from its best, in part because of the foolish notions that adults bring to the game.

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