We're number one!
If you’re a parent of a kid who plays in some kind of club sports, at some point you’ll find yourself perusing the website of whatever governing organization runs your kid’s league. Quite often, it’s a big operation that oversees divisions and flights either statewide, or regional, even more. That’s where you can see your teams schedule, the standings, and whatever else you might want to find out about the landscape of, in my case at least, youth soccer. You’ll also find out that there are a whole lot of clubs that refer to themselves as elite or academy or some other descriptor that indicates this club is better than the rest, and thus worth spending a whole lot of money for your kid to join. Now, if you look a bit closer at the website, and maybe click on your kid’s team, you might find something else. A ranking. A numerical ranking of where your kid’s team ranks in their age division in the state, or region, or even in the entire country. That’s what I found last year when I was looking through one of my kid’s U11 club, when he was in 5th grade. I wasn’t sure what the ranking was based on, and it felt like we were ranked ahead of teams who had beaten us pretty bad – and vice versa – but for what it was worth, I, and I assume the kids as well, could know where exactly they ranked as a youth soccer club in New Jersey and the US, even if it meant pretty much nothing.
That bizarre ability will no longer be available to hockey families in the US and Canada, specifically those whose kids are under 11. MYHockey, the website that does weekly numerical rankings of US and Canadian teams, will stop doing this for its youngest divisions. That means that some 3000 teams – and all their parents – will no longer be able to know if their 9-year-old in Quebec City is indeed on a top ten program, even though it’s literally impossible to know if they are in fact better than a team from Denver and because that ranking could change overnight if one of the players has a growth spurt or decides to take piano lessons on Wednesday nights. The argument given by MYHockey, not that we need one, is that rankings at such a young age have added to an unhealthy approach to the game by adults, who can find a way to ruin pretty much anything kids like. They will continue to rank older teams, and tournament organizers will still have access to data from young teams in scheduling events. But for now, we’ll simply have to guess which 10 year olds are the mythic North American champions.
There is an inherent and almost gravitational interest in rankings when it comes to sports. Some of it is functional. For example, we want teams of similar abilities to play each other. Some is aspirational. For example, in college, there’s no greater feeling than when your team beats the number one team in the country. Then again, if they really were number one, why did they lose? The third part is perhaps the bigger issue, especially when it comes to youth sports. Not surprisingly, somewhat arbitrary rankings quickly become a way to escalate a completely unnecessary arms race and both discourage lower ranked players from continuing and building a completely false sense of superiority in those that make the grade. For the most obvious analogy, I present the US News college rankings.
So, I think we all know that ranking 9-year-olds is wrong. And highly unpredictive. But, and this is the nuance of the issue, what is the place of rankings and youth sports. Not for nothing, but part of the developmental process of sport is competition. Which means that as much as we’d all fancy sport as simply an extension of expressive movement, it’s far more than that. And I say that as someone who competed through high school, college, and beyond. At some point, there’s value to people knowing where they stand. Is that in 9th grade? 11th grade? College? I’m not sure of the answer, but to assume we will have sport without rankings is like assuming we’ll have family Thanksgiving without arguments. The question isn’t whether rankings are inherently bad. Like anything, it’s how they’re used.
For hockey parents of young kids, you’ll have time to think that over. At least until they’re 11.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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