Being raised in a small, rural town has its pros and cons. If you’ve grown up in one, you are no doubt aware of this. Sure they offer a certain degree of safety thanks to the security that comes from knowing your neighbours and the obvious benefits of having an endless playground in your backyard, but alongside those perks comes the seclusion, the “small town mentality,” and the reality of less opportunity.
So you are a gifted athlete living in a rural community. When an opportunity does materialize, there is a huge cost factor to following that dream. Small town means less people which equates to larger costs to use facilities and ice time to practice hockey skills, open lanes for competitive swimming, and mat time for gymnasts.
In this town we have a gold mine that employs most people. The benefit of working for this large corporation is having access to the limited resources available (the arena, swimming pool, bowling alley, curling rink) without major cost, often for free. This job perk does not help the families who are not employed by the mine and their costs to access facilities and have the appropriate equipment is heightened—especially for families with more than one child.
Every child has heard their parents tell them, “You can be whatever you want to be” or “you can achieve anything.” While most parents want to believe that their child can achieve anything (whatever their dream, be it educational, meaningful relationships, or a chosen career). Can the same be said to children that dream of becoming athletes? Can young athletes grow and become great in a small town?
This is a question that has been asked and answered too many times within our community. We have all seen countless junior athletes pack up and move to urban communities to access more “demanding” fields of play, higher levels of competition and coaching. Parents here realizing that for their son or daughter to become the best that they can be athletically, Red Lake is not the place.
Every few years we see promising athletes leaving Red Lake in search of better opportunities in a wide range of disciplines including gymnastics, figure skating, pilotage, skiing, and most commonly, hockey. Does the exportation of our promising athletes have to be a reality? What is it that makes larger cities so appealing to athletes?
Having to face the difficulties of being an athlete in a small town for most of my life, I have seen first-hand what is lacking in this community: coaching, funding, and lack of enthusiasm/passion/spirit.
Quality coaching is a luxury many take for granted. It can mean the difference between a NorWOSSA championship and a national championship or a regional and a provincial medal. But how do small towns attract quality coaches or—possibly more important—train quality coaches? Funding. Funding programs in a small, rural community is a difficult task for most organizations and clubs. Smaller population size means fewer resources to pull from and fewer dollars to be shared around.
Tying everything together is a lack of commitment. This so-called spirit for sport, or lack thereof, is fundamental to why athletes cannot succeed in a small town. We have kids believing that because they play minor hockey in Red Lake/Rams, they won’t be scouted to play in the NHL one day. Athletes stunted by location, that are not striving for their athletic dreams simply because they are “from Red Lake.”
We need more young athletes determined to not let coming from a small town limit their drive and expectations. In order for this to happen, our athletes will require more community support—adults stepping up and becoming TRUE coaches, and businesses stepping up and providing funding for clubs other than the staple hockey programs.
There is no reason why athletes should feel restricted and burdened by living in a small town like Red Lake and relocating to see their dreams through to fruition shouldn’t be a necessity. I am not saying that every person participating in activities (hockey, figure skating, gymnastics, skiing, etc.) will have the desire to make this engagement a long term commitment and want to succeed globally, but I do believe that we need to make opportunities available to our youth. Without providing such opportunities, our youth will not see or reach their potential.
So let’s improve our thinking. Initially this has to start with the athletes themselves. Stand up and let others know what you are thinking, what you need, and what barriers are in your way.