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When love isn't enough

By Dan Bauer, 10/05/12, 1:56AM CDT


Loving the game isn't the same as living it

Several years ago I received a letter from a distraught parent of a senior who had been cut from his high school team. It was a difficult subject they thought merited some attention. They were right.

Each season brings with it many challenges for coaches, not the least of which is cutting players. It is often an emotionally charged decision based extensively on subjective information. Quite different from the objective methods we use in grading at school. When we attempt to quantify work ethic, heart, discipline and “hockey sense” we open up the door of debate.

For high school seniors that final season is special. It is the culmination of their life’s work, albeit short at this time, in athletics. In many cases it will be their last true organized athletic experience. Bar leagues just aren’t quite the same.

The experience, leadership and the “quantum leap” in skills seniors often take after their junior year make them a valuable commodity to every team. I have always believed that you can replace talent, but there is no substitute for experience.

Unfortunately for some seniors, their final season is stripped away like a Zamboni cleaning off used ice. They are pushed aside in favor of underclassmen deemed to have more promise. Some good kids, who really do love the game, but don’t fit our specific definition, are run out of programs and left with no place to go. An anonymous high profile prep coach put it to me this way, “we try to keep the kids who have D1/D3 aspirations and get rid of those who don’t”. Ouch!

As coaches we have a vision and we expect our players to live up to it. Those who don’t fit the mold are deemed expendable and our rationalization is veiled in the pretense that they don’t love the game enough.

The truth is we don’t just want them to love the game today; we demand that they live it.

Looking for proof? Check out the summer calendar of any two or three sport athlete, they have fewer days off than Cal Ripken did. Our demands upon their time are job-like. The extinction of the three-sport athlete is further proof that our expectations and time commitment are funneling good athletes into specialization.

Perspective on any issue is magnified when it happens in your own backyard.

My daughter Becca was a volleyball player since she was old enough to join a team. She filled countless hours of her free time just bouncing her volleyball around the yard, often conducting impromptu practice sessions for her younger sisters. She has easily spent more time playing volleyball in the street than on a court. She wasn’t able, through no fault of her own, to participate in year-round club volleyball.

I know deep down she loves to play the game. She just wasn’t willing to live it.

Her senior year, she elected, against my advice, to cut herself by not trying out. For many other seniors this fate is even more difficult when someone else makes that choice for them and they are cut or subtly asked to not try out. It is an emotionally taxing judgment coaches are sometimes required to make. Most of these decisions are sound and some seniors, like my daughter, take themselves out of the equation. Unfortunately, other decisions are made because winning or development of a younger player is deemed more important than the value of a senior season.

Greek playwright Sophocles is credited with the proverb “the end justifies the means”. It is the belief that a good outcome excuses any wrongs committed in attaining it. Winning is miscast as the end that we should seek in athletics. It means the journey we speak so highly about is too often a minor character in this real life drama. When winning becomes the ultimate goal and coaches make the decision to do whatever it takes to win, casualties begin to mount and the educational value of athletics is compromised.

There are few things in life more painful than someone you trusted giving up on you.

Instead of fond memories of a final season to culminate their athletic experience, some seniors are devastated and left with the bitter notion that they didn’t do enough.

Trying to see inside someone’s heart is as elusive as the perfect player we strive to create. My attempt to measure my daughters love for the game is no more precise than a coach or a teammate. It is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle, both dangerous and impossible.

The lesson taught when that final season is pulled out from under them will be one athletics teaches so efficiently—life isn’t always fair. It is a valuable lesson to learn. However, I can’t help but believe that they could have learned more by playing that final season.

Over the past few seasons I have watched three non-traditional players graduate from our hockey program. Each began their hockey careers as freshmen with no previous experience on the ice. While none were able to completely make up for lost time in their skill development, they made major contributions to our team that can’t be measured on a stat sheet. They clearly demonstrated their love for the game and taught all of us that there is much more to this experience than putting a puck in the net or getting a college scholarship.

Watching each of those three lace up their skates on senior night was an emotional experience and one I wouldn’t trade—not even for an extra win or two. I consider myself fortunate to have never been in the position to have to cut a senior in favor of a youngster with more potential. I’m not sure I would have the heart to do it.

Loving the game isn’t the same as living it. Living it should be reserved for those athletes that will earn a paycheck.

For the rest, loving it should be good enough.

Dan Bauer is the head hockey coach at Wausau East High School. You can contact him at and read more of his work at