February 6, 2013

The Hockey Mom: Great coaches have the power to inspire

By April Bowling

I recently got an email from one of Sam’s coaches, reminding the team of the timing and location of an upcoming game. Nothing out of the ordinary. Except for the time stamp, that is. He had sent the email well after midnight on a Thursday.

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.

More often than not, Sam’s coaches come hustling into practice hauling their hockey bags in suits and ties, or muttering about traffic getting out of their work trucks, herding their own kids along. Ah, the life of a volunteer parent-coach.

I have lived that life myself, at the pool, on the track, the basketball court, the soccer field, and the baseball diamond. The reality of most community youth sports programs is that without parent volunteers coaching, the leagues won’t run. So there is no amount of praise too much to sing for these coaches … right?

Right. Except you won’t be singing my praise anytime soon because I don’t coach my kids anymore, because besides adding practices, games and training to your already packed work and home life schedule, coaching youth sports is fraught with peril, especially when your own kid is involved.

How do you judge tryouts fairly? How do you assign playing time? How do you apply discipline? How do you handle a practice where your child is having a hard time and needs support but you are obligated to keep coaching the other kids out there?

I found early on that I could coach my son, Sam, but not my daughter, Morgan. Particularly in swimming, it hurt her feelings to be treated as just another kid on the team, and she disliked me out of my role as her personal cheerleader. So I went back to that role, and her athletic career has soared.

Sam, on the other hand, loved me to coach his teams, so I did — T-ball, swimming, basketball and soccer. That is, he loved it until he got old enough to play on teams where the standards were higher than telling Susie to, “Wait until after the game to pick the daisies,” and asking Jonny, “Please don’t trip your teammates during your temper tantrum when someone else gets the ball.” It was then that Sam discovered my penchant for promoting discipline by example. Namely, his example!

But the reality is that since we need coaches, parents are going to have to serve in that role.  I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly in youth coaches over the years. The best can ignite a passion for sport in children. The worst can ingrain hatred for any type of competition at all. My own children have been pretty lucky, but we’ve had a couple tough experiences and both times it impacted our kids’ desire to keep playing a particular sport they’d enjoyed in the past.  

Last year, Sam tried a new sport and wanted to quit after the first practice. When I asked him why, it was because a coach made him do laps alone when he couldn’t master a particular skill. It wasn’t the laps that bothered Sam — the kid could run all day. It was being called out for failure in front of his teammates. The embarrassment of it flustered him and discouraged him from trying to learn at all. I was really ticked off. Sam is pretty athletic, so I could only imagine what kids on that team went through who were not as coordinated. 

This hockey season, Sam has really flourished, and it’s been largely due to the coaching he’s received. Before the season ever started, he made enormous improvement from private lessons where the coach encouraged him to fail. That’s right … to fail. Specifically, he made it OK for Sam to fall, to look silly, and mess up by playing goofy games and taking the pressure off. It was only after that that Sam relaxed enough to really try the skills that he had been afraid he couldn’t master in the past. That was pretty much the opposite experience to running laps when he couldn’t pick something up quickly enough.

Once the season started, we quickly realized that Sam was really lucky to have awesome leadership. His team struggled early, but they have come together, now understand the game much better, and are performing well. Most importantly, they love going to practice and games.

Other than having the energy and commitment to send emails in the middle of the night, some things I’ve noticed these really great coaches all have in common:

Training. They take advantage of every opportunity to gain education, try new techniques and learn from other coaches and professional resources.

Attitude. They all look at the sport from the kids’ perspective, making the goal about their fun and development, not about the coaches’ win-loss record.

Perspective. The best coaches are always thinking long-term. It’s not about what will win the next game; it’s about what will help each child become a better player and teammate down the road.

Patience. These guys have the patience and ability to simultaneously deal positively with their own child’s challenges, while at the same time apply equitable, attentive coaching to everyone else on the team. If you didn’t already know, you could watch a 60-minute practice and have no idea which child belonged to which coach.

Know kids. Great coaches get that every kid is different. They hold them all to the same standards, while acknowledging that it might take different approaches to get them there. 

Example. The best coaches lead by example. They love the game, and they love coaching kids. They have fun when it’s time to have fun, and they are all business when it’s time to get serious. They discipline kids fairly and without anger, and they simply require kids to know and respect their role on the ice as part of being a good teammate. And at the end of the day, with all the work and time they put in, they show that effort is ALWAYS the key to success.

One of my favorite quotes is from Quinton Cook: “What we are speaks so loudly that our children may not hear what we say.” I believe that Sam’s best coaches, the ones who have helped him make the most strides on the ice, are also — and not coincidentally — the same ones he admires the most and models both on and off the ice.

Coaching youth is a big responsibility, and it should be treated as such. If it is, the rewards are endless for the kids and the coaches. As a parent who didn’t master it, I’m exceptionally grateful to my children’s coaches who have.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

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