Levels Demystified

by barbaragarn

I’ve realized that everyone isn’t aware of the way we set levels at JMS. Weeks ago, one of the captains e-mailed me his perspective on the level situation and that made me realize I need to tell folks how it’s done.

It’s true I don’t like to talk about the level change process, but only because talking about it makes a lot of people who are just fine where they are, think it’s time to move up, and explaining over and over admittedly gets old.

So, bearing in mind that this blog will invite a tsunami of requests, I will explain the level assessment process here. Captains, thank you for all you do–like me, you will be engulfed in the coming wave and I thank you ahead of time for your wonderful help.

When JMS started, there was only one level–probably very close to today’s Level 1. Eventually, those folks got better and the beginners needed a safe place to play their game. So I created a second level–and this meant I had to start watching parity. Because I knew everyone and went to every session (and the league’s daily chores were smaller and fewer), I handled all the level change requests personally.

When someone new joined JMS Hockey, their account was on hold until I could contact the new skater and ask about her or his experience–discussing level placement. You’d be surprised how many people initially described themselves as BEGINNER only to later say, “Well, I played up to Bantams as a kid, but I’m 45 now so I’m a beginner again, right?” Keeping those guys out of Level 1 and reassuring them that they would be JUST FINE at a higher level took a lot of time. And it still does.

As the league grew, I started asking the captains when skaters questioned me about moving up. The e-mails back and forth could cause problems when someone wanted access to a new level RIGHT NOW. Captains also sent me an e-mail after each session and let me know if someone needed a level adjustment.

These days, Andy has written software to make the process more efficient. New players complete the online assessment, which looks at experience and skills. We spent a lot of time on it and are very proud when people tell us it’s right on. And of course, we’re always learning and tweaking it to be better, more accurate.

Sometimes people are “Minnesota Modest” in their answers to the online assessment, and their initial level placement is too low. We have to explain that JMS Hockey is not like other leagues–that we’re geared to adult novice rec players, and even though the skater may have placed high on the survey, even the “high” levels aren’t very “high” compared to most pick-up hockey in Minnesota. We do a lot of reassuring to people before their first skate. On the other end of the spectrum, some folks think they’re Hot Stuff, but don’t have the actual skills to back up their perception. (Sadly, we all know people like this.) But for most folks, the survey works great.

But the survey is only the first assessment tool. The hard-working, helpful, passionate and meticulous captains are the other part; it is one of their responsibilities to watch the parity at the session. If someone’s survey answers don’t jive with their on-ice skills, the captains usually notice very quickly and we make an adjustment after that first session. Another benefit to managed parity is that outliers are all the more obvious in a homogeneous environment.

After a session, the captain logs into the JMS website, where they can let me know any level adjustments. Sometimes captains ask that I have another captain give a second opinion about a level move. People have good nights and bad nights, and we want to get the right picture. I know I should stop being surprised at how well the system works… but it always makes me smile when two captains have exactly the same assessment–very reaffirming of our decision.

And so that’s the organized level process. If we haven’t already moved you to a new level, it’s because the level you’re at right now is a good fit.

Sometimes–particularly when a friend or a teammate moves up–people will fill out a Change Level Request Form (Yes, it’s on the upper right of the main page when you’re logged in; PLEASE reread the part in bold above before you go fill it out). I review the person’s record to see if the captains have said anything… almost always I find that the person asking to move up is just fine at their current level. Like I wrote above, there are systems in place to track when it’s time to move. If you haven’t heard from us about a move, it’s because it’s not time for one. And so MOST people who ask to move up are told, “Not yet.”

But I tell them things they can do: work hard and, in the words of one captain, “ROCK the level you’re at, get noticed for your skills and we’ll move you up.” If a skater hasn’t been noticed yet, it’s because he or she isn’t standing out–he or she is a “good fit” for that level. A “good fit” at Level 2 does not mean it’s time to play Level 3–it means a good fit at Level 2. Sometimes, a skater hasn’t played much, so I’ll tell that person to ask before a skate if the captain can watch and let me know if a move is in order. But captains can only do a level assessment on so many skaters while also meeting their other responsibilities for the session. The captains are very busy just working to keep up. Please think about it first, read the bold sentence above, and do not swamp them with requests.

Sometimes we need additional feedback from another captain. Sometimes I’ll ask a captain who has played against a skater in a recent league game. Sometimes I ask a captain to look at someone on the ice before her or his session. We work hard to get enough good info to make sure the changes we do are needed and useful. Most level changes are not the result of any one game, an quite a few are the result of consensus and not any one captain’s decision.

Because saying a skater is “good” can mean different things. There’s “Jane is looking good–see how much she has improved!” And also, “John is a good fit for this level” and also “She’s good enough to try the next level up” and finally, “Man, he’s way too good–he needs to play up from now on.”

We don’t move people up to LEARN next-level skills, we move them up because they are PROFICIENT in the next level’s skills. It’s an amalgam–guys have told me that, “Bob plays Level 3 and my shot is harder than Bob’s, so therefore I should play Level 3.” But… Is Bob faster? Does Bob still have enough energy at the end of a Level 2 game to skate end to end? Does Bob fall over when he tries a slapper? Does Bob know–and play–positions? If Bob has speed, does he also have control? All this and more goes into determining the best level placement.

When we do move skaters up a level, I almost always give them a few weeks of transition time. I urge them to use the faster level to work on speed and fitting in at the new pace. The lower level is to take advantage of the extra time with stickhandling and shooting — because the players up in the higher level are speedy and good, and it’s hard for the transition skater to get puck time up there.

As I wrote, moving up or down is almost always a consensus based on multiple factors. It’s not done as punishment or reward, it’s done to maintain parity. While I want people to be able to skate with their pals, JMS Hockey is about parity. It’s what I advertise and it’s what people expect. If the direct skater feedback isn’t enough, the leagues growth tells us that we’re making the right choices.

I have had people push back on level changes, but I don’t understand it. I don’t understand how it can be fun to skate up too high, always be out of the play, working hard to join the long-gone rush, or always the last one to tag up onsides. How is it fun to be seen as “the slow guy” and get pity passes to skate up the ice while everyone stands back to let you have your one moment with the puck. I suppose there’s some cachet in bragging that “I skate Level X” (or “having your Level X key fob,” as one person said), but bragging evaporates pretty quickly once the skates hit the ice and it’s actions, not words, that matters.

I also don’t understand how it can be fun to be obviously the best person on the ice, racking up goals at will. I have seen it all by now and know some guys actually are deluded enough to think it’s great to be the ex-high-school star slaughtering beginner skaters. How is that fun? I just don’t get it–and I run JMS Hockey as a parity league so beginners don’t have to deal with that nonsense.

Level changes aren’t bad, or good, they’re just part of the parity process at JMS. A new challenge or time to focus on refining skills. They are never done capriciously and usually come from a consensus decision based on multiple factors… and always with the bottom line JMS goal in mind: do the best thing for the most people.