Coaches often dread that hockey parent-coach talk. But it’s a really important one to have.
By Rick Traugott
I certainly have an open-door policy when it comes to talking to my players. I invite them to come to me any time with issues, concerns, questions, or just comments. I also ask them a lot of questions. Sometimes it’s just “How’s it going today?” or “How is school going?” Sometimes it is a more pointed question where I am genuinely looking for an answer, like “How do you like playing with Sarah?” or “What do you think of our power play breakout?”
Whether the chat is conversational in nature or more of an information-seeking one, it’s important to connect with your players one-on-one regularly. I know one college coach who has his players check in to his office on the way out of the rink after practice. Mostly it’s just for a quick “see you tomorrow,” but it’s a one-on-one connect every day.
I try to have the same open-door policy with parents when I am coaching younger players. I believe it’s crucial to overall team health that parents are on the same page as the coaching staff—and that demands communication. I always encourage players to share our systems with their parents, talk about things they learned at practice, and chat about team goals and where the team is going. Often a player’s excitement will override a parent’s skepticism.
As coaches, I know we often dread that one-on-one meeting with parents who you know have a concern about their player and the team. Often it can be contentious, but it’s a really important conversation to have.
I want to share a story of one of those conversations. I was coaching a high school boys’ team once. We had both a varsity team and a junior varsity team that had an under-16 age designation. A defenseman in an upper grade that was trying out for the varsity team was still under 16, and at the end of tryouts he was slotted to be my sixth defenseman. But I knew it would be far better developmentally for him to be the number-one defenseman on the junior varsity team. He would be power play, penalty kill, and a “go-to” player on the blueline. So, because coaches always know better, I cut him from the varsity team and sent him to junior varsity.
A couple of days later I received a phone call from that player’s father, for a hockey parent-coach talk. We talked honestly about the situation and I explained why I thought it would be better for the player to be with the junior varsity team. Then the parent said something that changed the way I approach these situations. He said his son was very disappointed to be cut because all of his hockey friends made the varsity team. He went on:
“I totally understand why you cut my son, and in some ways I agree he would develop better on the junior team. But it would have been great if you had asked him which he preferred—number six with you or number one on the junior team.”
He was totally right. There was absolutely no reason for me as a coach not to have checked in with a 15-year-old athlete just to see what his feelings on the matter were. So the next day, with an apology, I said I should have asked him before I made the cut. He said he would much rather be number six with me than number one with the juniors.
Problem solved. I was happy to have a strong number six, he was happy to be playing on the same team as his friends.
That was a great lesson for me, as asking a player some simple questions can often lead to player buy-in—as well as parental acceptance.
Sometimes an irate parent can give you some insight into their athlete’s mindset as well. I had an all-girls midget team a number of years ago, and we had lost a tough Saturday afternoon game against a big rival by one goal. It was one of those goalie-out, mad-scrambles-in-front, couldn’t-tie-it-up, endings to the game.
When I got to the office on Monday morning there was a very long e-mail waiting for me from a parent who hadn’t been at the game that weekend. He was quite upset about ice-time distribution on the team and was quoting studies, association philosophies, Hockey Canada guidelines and anything else online regarding the merits of equal ice distribution.
This was a parent I knew fairly well and who I knew was a pretty competitive guy. In his e-mail he never really mentioned his daughter but clearly, since he didn’t see the game, his impressions were based solely on a phone call home from her—and she wouldn’t have been upset about her teammate’s ice time!
I picked up the phone right away and called the parent for another hockey parent-coach talk. I said, “Tom, Paula is my second-line center. She plays every power play; she is the first over the boards on the penalty kill. There may be no one on the team that gets more ice time than her. But I just didn’t feel that in Saturday’s game she was going to be the one to put the puck in the net with the goalie pulled, so I had six other players on the ice to finish the game.”
This gave us both great insight into his daughter, in that she was really just disappointed that she wasn’t on the ice at the end of the game. The conversation allowed Tom an opportunity to support me as a coach with Paula, and it gave me an opportunity to maybe have a good one-on-one conversation with her later on about expectations.
At the end of the day, coaches should try not to avoid what can be dreaded conversations with parents. In most instances, issues can easily be dealt with and often team chemistry improved by having those tough one-on-one talks with both players and their parents.
Rick Traugott has served with Hockey Canada as a camp coach, with both the National Women’s U18 and U22/Development teams. His teams have won numerous championships and medals in international competitions. For more information visit his website, www.ricktraugott.com. Reproduced with permission of Rick Traugott.